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A look inside Belize’s first child-friendly family court

© UNICEF Belize/2016/Tomassini
Punta Gorda’s child-friendly family court in Toledo District, Belize. The court is the first of its kind in the whole country.

By Martina Tomassini

In Belize, Punta Gorda’s child-friendly family court is setting the bar for the rest of the country by showing how to make a court fit for children.

PUNTA GORDA, Belize, 2 March 2017 – It is a hot December morning in Punta Gorda, Belize. The sky is cloudless and the sun is dazzling. By 9:30 a.m. the immaculate white court building is buzzing with activity. As a line forms outside, Ms. Tricia Collins, the court’s Intake and Welfare Officer, waits patiently to greet each new person.

Opened in January 2016, Punta Gorda’s family court in Toledo District is the country’s first child-friendly family court. The court is part of the Judiciary’s comprehensive reform to promote children’s rights in the judicial system, which UNICEF Belize has supported since 2014.

Ms. Collins wears several hats at the court: the intake hat, the welfare hat and the mediation hat. At first sight they seem to have different colours and shapes, but they often overlap.

As Intake Officer, she is responsible for vetting cases by interviewing individuals who seek assistance from the court. Common cases include custody, protection orders for domestic violence cases and cases for juvenile offenders.

When her Welfare Officer hat is on, Ms. Collins makes recommendations to the magistrate before a judgment is passed.

“I interview parents and children to get both of their views on what is happening. I go into homes and check if the place is safe for a child. Using my social worker skills, I put it all together and make recommendations,” she says.

© UNICEF Belize/2016/Tomassini
Ms. Tricia Collins, Intake and Welfare Officer at the family court, shows an activity book for children to play with in the court’s playroom.

A safe place for children

On the upper floor of the courthouse, just next to the courtroom, there is a safe space where children can relax, play and just be children. The playroom is enveloped in bright blue walls, where colourfully painted fish and coral recreate a miniature barrier reef. There is a play mat in the corner and a small round table with little chairs where younger children can sit and play. The shelves are filled with toys for different age groups: teddy bears, plastic cars and dolls, books, board games…

“Children’s attention span is short,” Ms. Collins says, “conducting an interview in a neutral environment may feel like an interrogation for children, who sometimes might be reluctant to speak. Instead, you can have a meaningful interaction using games and paint.”

Ms. Collins recalls a case of a mother who allegedly was physically abusive with her children, a 14-year-old and an 8-year-old. “I interviewed the boys in this playroom. We played a puzzle game together… They were more relaxed [compared to an interview room]… I was able to get more out of them.”

Today, Mr. Francisco Cayetano* is sitting in the playroom with his seven-year-old son. He has come to the court to settle on a custody agreement with the boy’s mother. Having never married, the couple separated informally earlier in the year and came to the family court in March 2016 to settle on who should take care of their child.

“We heard about the family court in the news and decided to come here. We met with [Ms. Collins] who was very professional in highlighting our points of conflict and made us feel comfortable,” says Mr. Cayetano. “Now I take care of the child during the week and his mother looks after him on weekends. I am happy with the result of us coming here.”

Mr. Cayetano’s story is a concrete example of Ms. Collins’ third hat: couples’ mediation. “Sometimes it’s not necessary to go the legal route,” Ms. Collins says – and that’s where mediation comes in.

© UNICEF Belize/2016/Tomassini
Mr. Cayetano* with his son at the family court. He and the child's mother separated last year, and came to the court to settle on a custody agreement.

Protecting children's rights

Since January 2016, Punta Gorda’s child-friendly family court has dealt with 791 family cases, including custody, domestic violence and juvenile justice. In 100 per cent of cases that involved a young person who came in conflict with the law, the child received support from a specialized social worker, which helped ensure the child’s rights were protected.

“Without the family court you would have to go to the magistrate court, where there is no mediation, no interviewing children and no dedicated social worker to do this kind of work,” says Ms. Collings. “Family matters may be competing with criminal ones. For this reason, they may not have priority and it may take a very long time for them to be addressed and resolved… but we know it’s important for family cases to be addressed promptly: it’s children’s lives we are dealing with.”

The family court’s courtroom sits next to the playroom. During hearings, children can sit a small observation room with a two-way mirror that looks out onto the courtroom. A social worker from Human Development Services (a department within Belize’s Ministry of Human Development Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation) accompanies the child during the courtroom proceedings.

Ms. Lavern Castillo, a social worker at the court, has witnessed many cases from the courtroom and the observation room. “I worked on a case with a 13-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her father in the presence of her mother. She was removed from her home and placed under her aunt’s care in Belize City. The girl has been receiving counselling ever since to help her cope with the abuse,” Ms. Castillo says.

During the hearing the girl was in the observation room, where she could see the people in the courtroom, but they couldn’t see her. “I explained to her what was going to happen, so that she would be prepared,” says Ms. Castillo.

After the hearing, the court’s magistrate, Ms. Shanti Morrison Novelo, called the girl into the room. “She was comfortable and open to talk, without a sense of fear or intimidation,” Ms. Novelo recalls.

Ms. Novelo sees this as an example of why there is a substantial need for the services offered by the family court, and why, just over a year after its opening, the court stands out as one of Belize’s success stories.

“In Belize’s culture many people believe that a child should be seen but not heard. Traditionally, children are not encouraged to speak up, especially when they are the victim of a situation. This is where the family court comes in: the court grants children their constitutional right to be heard.”


*name changed to protect identity



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