Child-friendly Spaces for children in contact with the law in Georgia
"This environment is less stressful, coloured in neutral tones, and arranged so as not to distract the child’s attention.”
Rustavi, a city in southern Georgia, has been playing an important role in helping to improve the way children interact with Georgia’s judicial system. Two years ago, the Rustavi Police Department, Regional Prosecutor’s Office, Legal Aid Bureau and City Court were selected as the first places in Georgia to pilot the child-friendly environment concept. The aim of this concept is to create a judicial system more aligned with children’s specific needs, that facilitates child participation, ensures privacy and prevents revictimization.
Safe spaces specifically for children have been created within these premises in Rustavi. Additionally, professionals dealing with children within the juvenile justice system have also been trained on children’s issues and child-friendly interview techniques. New procedures have also been developed to ensure that the best interests of the child are protected. This work is part of wider reforms to Georgia’s juvenile justice system implemented by the Government of Georgia with the support of UNICEF and the European Union.
In Rustavi, rooms have been created within the four legal institutions. They are bright, clean and painted in neutral colours. Small touches are included to make them feel welcoming for children, such as colouring pencils and pads on tables, and soft toys scattered on shelves around the room. Each room includes recording equipment, which means interviews can be captured. This minimises the amount of times a child is interviewed and limits the amount of people they have contact with, improving their overall experience.
Specialized groups of professionals work on cases involving juveniles. The rooms provide a safe space where these professionals can assist children throughout the legal process. All this ensures that children are treated in the same way at each of the four institutions.
Ensuring that children have a positive experience throughout an investigation is vital to ensuring the child’s interests are met, but it also helps professionals get the information they need.
“The police station is the first point of contact for children [in the legal process], and that is why, it is important they have a positive experience,” says Mikheil Barnov, Head of the Investigative Department at the Rustavi Police Department. “It really defines the whole case, how they respond and what they share with the investigation,” Mr Barnov adds.
Prior to implementation of the child-friendly environment concept, there was little difference between how and where children and adults were interviewed. “Before we needed one hour to make a child feel safe,” says Mr Barnov. “Now we can make the child comfortable in a shorter period of time allowing them to be free to express their position.”
Natia Merebashvili, Head of the Department of Prosecutorial Activities Supervision and Strategic Development from the Office of the Prosecutor General also sees how the introduction of a child-friendly environment in the Prosecutor’s Office has had a positive influence. “This room, I think, significantly changes the situation. Here in an informal environment, the child communicates with a professional who is specialized and trained in communication skills. This environment is less stressful, coloured in neutral tones, and arranged so as not to distract the child’s attention.”
The room they have created benefits from a separate entrance providing privacy for children and means that they do not meet or communicate with other people who come in through the building’s main entrance. “Most of the time, [children] expect they will be entering a really strict environment, but they are usually surprised and relieved that it is so relaxed and calming,” explains Ms Merebashvili.
At the Rustavi City Court, Mamia Pkhakadze, Chairperson to the Rustavi City Court has noticed that the creation of a more child-friendly environment has made a difference in the way children are interacting.
“Children are more likely to be open and speak freely in this environment.”
The room they have created allows a judge to communicate, through the use of technology, directly with a child during court proceedings. It provides a safe and comfortable environment without the child having to enter the courtroom. Two cameras placed in the corner of the room can film the child when they are giving evidence. A tv on the wall allows the child to see the judge directly, without seeing either the defence or prosecution.
“Previously children would appear to give their evidence inside the court room surrounded by the defendant, prosecutors, defence solicitors and other attendees,” explains Mr Pkhakadze. “There was no difference between the environment provided for adults or children.” The introduction of the juvenile justice code now means that the main focus for judges is on the welfare of the child.
"It is important that this model is replicated throughout the whole of Georgia"
The creation of this new space also allows specially trained professionals, such as psychologists, greater opportunities to build rapport with a child before they are interviewed. Likewise, it provides a private setting where children can have confidential meetings with their legal representatives.
Overall, the creation of this model environment has benefited both children and the professionals working within Georgia’s judicial system in Rustavi. “We are proud of the support we have given legal institutions in Rustavi in helping them to implement a child-friendly environment,” says Dr. Ghassan Khalil, the UNICEF Representative in Georgia. “However, it is important that this model is replicated throughout the whole of Georgia to ensure the fully-fledged participation of children and the realization of their rights,” Mr Khalil adds.