'A friendly, safe environment': How special rooms help children and other vulnerable victims
12,000 children have used the special rooms in 62 courthouses across the country
Lale couldn’t sleep all night. The 15-year-old girl from a small town near Izmir, Turkey, had been sexually abused by a boy she knew, and her parents had called the police. But now the court date had come, and she was scared. Would she have to relate details of an intimate encounter in front of strangers? She arrived at the courthouse trembling.
A special room for children
In Turkey, the protection of children and other vulnerable victims of crime is a legal requirement. However, until recently there was no mechanism within the judicial system to make protection a reality for those who most need it. That all changed when UNICEF, with financial support from the European Union and its Justice for Children Project, began helping the Turkish Ministry of Justice address the problem. By 2014 the Adli Görüşme Odası (AGO), or Judicial Interview Room, was born.
The Judicial Interview Room is a designated space within a courthouse that enables children and others who are vulnerable to feel safe and thus more willing to provide the information the courts need to conduct fair trials. The Room also helps prevent secondary victimization (threats, abuse, stigmatization), safeguards the right of children and other users to be heard, and ensures that their best interests are protected as they move through a complex and sometimes intimidating process. It serves not only children who have been abused or otherwise victimized but all children who are in contact with the law, including offenders and witnesses, as well as adult victims of sexual violence, domestic violence or other situations that put them at risk.
UNICEF is a primary driver behind the Judicial Interview Rooms, working with the Department of Victim Rights in the Ministry of Justice to develop technical guidelines and legislative initiatives as well as to create training programs.
In all, more than 1,000 court experts, judges, prosecutors, clerks and translators have been trained on the background and structure of the Judicial Interview Rooms as well as in interview techniques.
Lale arrived at the courthouse nervous, but her attitude soon changed. “I didn’t think I could express myself the way I wanted to,” she says, “but then they took me downstairs to a special room. I was shivering at first, but Deniz [a psychologist assigned to her] spoke to me like a friend and said I could trust her.”
They talked for half an hour, chatting about Lale’s daily life, her interests and what made her happy. Then Deniz talked with her about what questions might come from the judge and lawyers, and when Lale was calm, the court proceedings began. Deniz heard the questions from the courtroom through an earpiece and relayed them to Lale, sometimes rephrasing them to make them more sensitive or less leading. Lale was able to give her testimony as she wanted to.
The first Judicial Interview Room was established in 2014 in the capital of Ankara. Today, there are some 65 Rooms in 54 provinces and 62 courthouses, with more than 12,000 children having been interviewed in the Rooms since the first one appeared.
“The use of the AGOs is steadily increasing,” says Goktan Kocyildirim, Justice for Children and Child Rights Monitoring Specialist in the Child Protection Section of the UNICEF Turkey Country Office, “At first the judges didn’t believe it was a good idea, but now they are seeing the benefit.”
Zeynep was 13 when she, like Lale, was sexually abused. She was terrified at the thought of facing a courtroom of strangers, along with the boy who had assaulted her. When she arrived at the courthouse she was immediately taken to the Judicial Interview Room.
“I was crying,” she says, “but [the female interviewer] gave me water, and I began to feel more comfortable. There are things that are difficult to explain. You don’t feel confident talking about certain things in front of strangers, especially boys. When you are in a courtroom, all eyes are on you. Everything you say is being recorded. There is typing. You get nervous. But in the Room there is a friendly, warm environment. It’s like telling a story to a friend. And there is no typing.”
“I like using the Room,” says Reyhan Cinik, a social worker in the Izmir courthouse and one of the “experts” who works with children. “It helps to isolate the children from the tension in the hearing room.” When a child is brought to the Room, she says, “I start with a preliminary conversation to build trust. I point out the cameras and the see-through mirror, telling the child that others will be watching and listening, but that the child will not see them and doesn’t need to think about them.”
Murat is a 15-year-old boy dressed in black jeans and a black hoodie, with drawstrings that sway gently as he talks. Respectful and soft-spoken, he looks around the Room intently, moving only his eyes and mouth. He has been here before, after his cousin was killed by a speeding driver as the two of them were crossing a street. He was asked to come to court as a witness.
“I was nervous at first,” Murat says. But after talking with the expert assigned to him, he relaxed. “[The Room] felt safe and helped me clearly express myself,” he said. “In the courtroom I would see [the driver of the car], and I would see the crowd, and it would be distracting, and I might use different words. I might lose concentration, forget details. But in the Room there was a person helping me. I knew the judges, attorneys and others could see me, but I could not see them. I relaxed. I could concentrate better.”
Resistance and gratitude
Isil Altun, a pedagogist who works with the courthouse, knows that not everyone in the legal system liked the Rooms at the beginning. “There was initially some resistance by judges,” she says. “They thought it would undermine their authority.” But she and others pushed back, telling the judges that using the system would make a fair trial more likely. Many judges have come around, she says, because everyone benefits, especially children.
“Many children ask us if they can give us a hug after a session,” she says, “and all of them thank us. It’s a very good thing, this Room.”
Note: Names changed to protect children.