Creating safe corners for child victims of abuse
Armenia establishes first Barnahus centres in Yerevan and Kapan.
In 2022, 545 criminal proceedings were examined by the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Armenia (hereinafter as ‘the Committee’) related to crimes committed against children.
When children come into contact with the justice system, they experience significant stress, particularly in cases of abuse and especially in case of sexual abuse. This stress can have a profound and lasting negative impact on their lives.
On one hand, if a child's interaction with the justice system is handled carelessly, this can further victimize children, negatively affecting their mental health and hindering their ability to overcome trauma. On the other hand, it can also undermine the pursuit of justice. When a child is forced to repeatedly relive the painful details of her or his experience, it can lead to a distorted perception of reality and communication. In fact, the credibility of the child's testimony can be significantly compromised as a result of multiple interrogations.
To minimize children’s repetitive direct contact with the justice system in cases of violence against them, UNICEF has worked with the Armenian Government to establish safe corners in Yerevan and Kapan, based on the internationally recognized Barnahus model.
The primary objective of the Barnahus model is to ensure the protection of the child. Equally important is the seamless continuation of the justice process, which aims to identify and hold accountable those responsible for crimes against children.
Victoria Ohanyan, UNICEF Access to Justice Officer, provides insights into the model and how it will be implemented in Armenia.
What is Barnahus?
Barnahus, which translates as a ‘child's house,’ is a dedicated facility where children who have experienced sexual and/or severe physical violence receive comprehensive services. It serves as a one-stop location where a child undergoes various stages of the justice process, aiming to minimize her/his contact with the justice system. Within Barnahus, children receive the necessary support and are referred to relevant services, all under one roof.
Over the decades, Barnahus has proven to be the most effective model for ensuring appropriate interaction between children and the justice system. Originating in Iceland, this model has expanded across Europe and is currently operational in over 22 European countries. A specialized European network and specific standards have been established, which any country adopting this model should strive to meet.
Thanks to Barnahus, within a day or two, a child victim of abuse can undergo the examination process in a single location and turn the page on this chapter of her life.
In this model, the victim first undergoes preparation for investigative procedures. The second stage involves the actual interrogation, where the investigator, psychologist, social worker, legal representative of the child, defense attorney of the accused, and other relevant individuals participate. Barnahus ensures that only the interrogator and the child victim are present in the interrogation room, while others can observe the proceedings from a separate room through a live video feed and, if necessary, ask questions indirectly, prioritizing the child’s well-being. The principle is to minimize direct human contact with the child to prevent secondary victimization. The interview is recorded for evidentiary purposes, reducing the need for repeated interviews. Additionally, medical and forensic examinations of the child are conducted within the same facility.
Barnahus serves as a crisis intervention and justice process facilitator, but it is not responsible for the child's further rehabilitation. Its role is to rather connect the child with appropriate rehabilitation services.
Barnahus operates within a community-oriented framework and emphasizes the importance of being situated in a community environment. However, each country determines how and where this model should be implemented. For instance, in Croatia, the model is integrated into the healthcare system, while in other countries, it may be integrated into social protection or justice systems.
How does the model work in Armenia?
Armenia has chosen a unique approach that has already been tested and proven effective. With the financial support of the European Union, Barnahus was established based on existing crisis centres. We have introduced a completely new format of collaboration, and the current implementation of this model in Armenia does not require significant additional funding. While there may be some incidental expenses (such as travel costs and the introduction of specialized positions), the model is integrated into existing institutions, representing a novel form of intersectoral cooperation.
Barnahus operates on the principle of cross-sectoral cooperation in Armenia. The Ministry of Justice, as the policy maker responsible for criminal justice reforms, collaborates with the implementing party, the Investigative Committee, and under the supervisory role of the Prosecutor's Office. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, responsible for child protection, social services, and overseeing crisis centres, provides the necessary space and personnel. The Ministry of Health contributes to the process through forensic examinations. Furthermore, experienced non-governmental organizations play a crucial role in providing social services that can be effectively delegated. For example, the safe corner in Yerevan is situated at the premises of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) Child Protection Centre.
In cases when children experience abuse outside of the family, the family remains capable of caring for the child. In such cases, the child becomes a temporary guest at Barnahus, visiting for questioning or other investigative activities before being referred to other necessary services. However, in situations when children are victims of abuse within the family context, children may no longer be able to remain with the family and, instead, will require an alternative crisis care. In these circumstances, crisis centres are well-suited to combine crisis care with Barnahus coordination functions. This explains the rationale behind establishing safe corners within crisis care centres in Armenia.
What has been the process to introduce Barnahus in Armenia?
The implementation of Barnahus in Armenia has been a gradual one. Initially, we embarked on the lengthy journey of adopting child-friendly and child-centred provisions within the Code of Criminal Procedure, with UNICEF playing a significant role in this endeavor.
Simultaneously, we have been providing ongoing support to Armenia's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in relation to the draft law on child rights and child protection, as well as the entire legislative package. This comprehensive package strengthens children’s protection from violence and clarifies the roles of social workers, officials at various levels, and organizations involved in the process. This provides a solid foundation for the introduction of Barnahus. Although these two reforms have progressed independently, UNICEF has supported both initiatives, recognizing the potential to bring them together and establish the necessary groundwork for implementing the internationally accepted Barnahus approach in our country.
Prior to the launch of this model, we assisted the Ministry of Justice in establishing an institute of specially trained psychologists who are involved in child interrogation and investigative activities. This institution was introduced through the Criminal Procedure Code, and we provided support in developing the necessary regulations and training modules. In collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), UNICEF facilitated the government's training and certification of 53 psychologists who are already engaged in the justice process.
In May and June, together with partners, UNICEF marked the opening of two safe corners in Yerevan and Kapan, that are equipped with all necessary resources. We have also conducted training sessions for almost 100 professionals, including investigators, prosecutors, certified psychologists, social workers, and representatives from other relevant institutions. The experience has shown that training with a multidisciplinary team yields the most effective results. Participants are able to observe and understand the practical workings of the Barnahus model directly in the training environment.
In collaboration with Armenia's Academy of Justice, UNICEF also updated the online educational course for prosecutors and judges on the protection of child rights in the criminal justice process, aligning it with the new Criminal Procedure Code.
Expanding the Barnahus model to other provinces is crucial. Its further expansion will represent a natural progression of the reform. It is imperative to ensure child-friendly justice for all children in Armenia, regardless of their place of residence.
UNICEF will continue to support the government in scaling up this model effectively. This includes the development of alternative, smaller-scale models that can be implemented in all regions. Mobile models may be particularly beneficial for remote communities where it may be more challenging to bring the child to the professionals.
Furthermore, it is essential to establish clear legal frameworks for these cooperation procedures. While we currently have a legal foundation and are working on sub-legislative cooperation procedures, it is important to anticipate and address any potential legal challenges that may arise during the operation of the corners.
A critical next step will also be to ensure the continuous training of all involved professionals. Healthcare professionals, especially forensic experts, must receive training to adopt the appropriate approach when dealing with child victims of abuse. This will help prevent secondary victimization and ensure that they provide the necessary care and support.
The Barnahus model transforms justice systems into ones that are child-friendly and child-centred. It will empower a greater number of victims to come forward and share their experiences, placing their trust in the safety and security of the system. People are more likely to seek justice when they feel protected and have confidence that crimes will be detected and perpetrators will be held accountable in accordance with the criminal code.
Abuse and violence can have a long-lasting negative impact on children’s lives. UNICEF is committed to supporting the Government of Armenia in enhancing public services for all children, particularly those who are vulnerable.