Child refuges for victims of sexual abuse are to be set up in the UK to cope with the public health crisis from the scale of offences against young people.
Inspired by the Barnahus in Iceland, the child houses will provide young people with a supportive, child-friendly environment in which to talk about their experiences.
Forensic examinations, criminal justice interviews and therapy will be provided under one roof in an attempt to increase the number of prosecutions of perpetrators, end the gladiatorial challenges of victims by defence lawyers, improve the quality of evidence and reduce the stress on children.
The Hollywood actor David Schwimmer, who has spent many years supporting a similar service known as Stuart House in Los Angeles, has lent his support to the creation of the child houses in the UK.
He said: “The general public and government has to accept that child sexual abuse is a national children’s health crisis. In most communities, sexually abused children are taken to numerous agencies in separate locations and at each place the child is interviewed by another adult in cold institutional settings like police stations, often by people who are not trained in best practice. They are shovelled from office to office, when this happens a young victim can shut down, they feel interrogated and disbelieved.”
Speaking at the NSPCC annual conference, Schwimmer said in Stuart House, where he is a director, children were able to receive all the expert care they needed.
“When a child is sexually abused the child’s body is a crime scene. When the children are ready they are examined in a way that feels routine, at the same time the nurses use state of the art equipment to scan their bodies for evidence,” he said.
“Physical trauma is photographed and documented, becoming evidence to help prosecutors. Then the child has a forensic interview with police and prosecutors watching the interview from behind a one-way mirror.”
Interviews are video-recorded and become evidence-in-chief in court, removing the need for young children to appear in person and be subjected to often gruelling cross-examination.
Two child houses will be opened next year in London. There are plans to open three more in the capital. The mayor of London’s office for policing and crime and NHS England have secured £5m worth of government funding for the refuges. The NSPCC and NHS England hope to create more child houses across the country to cope with the growing scale of child sexual abuse, which the charity says is a public health emergency.
In 2014-15 child sexual offences in England and Wales were at their highest for a decade, with more than 47,000 offences against children recorded. The increases are continuing, and in 2015 police investigated 70,000 reports of child abuse.
In Iceland, child refuges have been established in every police district. The model has been copied in Sweden, where there are 30 childrens’ houses, and in Denmark. The aim in the UK is to provide better support for children, but also to create better evidence and increase the number of prosecutions.
DCS Keith Niven, the former head of the child abuse command at the Metropolitan police, said the creation of child houses was “exciting and innovative”.
“All partners work together to gather evidence from a child victim of sexual assault in the least intrusive way, providing a strong and accessible network of support to enable the child to move forward from such a traumatic incident,” he said.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, who recently visited the Barnahus in Iceland, has held a meeting with police and crime commissioners to persuade them to provide funding to build a network of child refuges across the country.
She said the interviews currently carried out with child victims of sexual abuse were multiple and were a complex, gruelling process that often broke down and could take months.
Longfield said: “This can be incredibly traumatising to the child. There may also be a delay in them getting therapeutic support whilst the evidence is collected for fear that it may prejudice what they say. The Barnahus approach has proved to be incredibly successful at overcoming these hurdles where it has been introduced. I hope that it will be trialled in a number of police authorities around England.”
The first two child refuges are to be opened early next year in London, with three more planned for the capital.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “Children who have suffered sexual abuse are the most vulnerable in society … Our child’s house scheme will put the child’s care and recovery at its centre. By allowing the child to give their evidence remotely, we can minimise their suffering, improve the quality of evidence and ensure they get the justice they deserve.”