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Protecting a Child from Violence: Tools are Available, Just Use Them

2021-06-11

Yesterday‘s discussion Protecting a Child brought together judiciary, police and prosecutors of Lithuania and Norway, as well as Lithuanian legislators and international organisations. On the International Day for Protection of Children, the hybrid discussion with online and live TV studio elements focused on helping children with direct or eye-witnessing experience of violence, who are involved in legal processes.

Mr. Bjørn Erik Brustad, the Counsellor of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway to Lithuania, welcomed the participants and emphasised that international exchange of information and good practices is important for sustainable development projects. The Counsellor argued that, dealt with by governmental institutions and NGOs alike, „protecting children‘s rights is essential for sustainable development“. According to the embassy representative, participation of all stakeholders in such initiatives, as exemplified by this round table discussion and other similar projects, is a substantial contribution to defending human rights.

Ways to be found for helping abused children, say statistics

Data of IT and Communications Department indicate that 1,720 minors became victims of crimes in 2020, and 2,522 in 2019. Out of them, 499 suffered from their parents in 2020, and 637 in 2019.

„Imagine how many children witness violence at home? How many of such cases are not reported? – a rhetorical question came from the Director of the National Courts Administration dr. Natalija Kaminskienė. – We are here to share experiences and solutions, which I believe will facilitate better understanding of what has to be done to deliver justice, in a maximally friendly manner, to child victims and eye-witnesses of violence“.

In the first presentation of the event, Eglė Maziliauskienė from the police noted that the pandemic reduced chances for children to suffer from strangers, resulting in shrinking indicators of violence against children. Yet, as the lockdown made many families consume more alcohol, physical abuse constituted the biggest share of harm inflicted on children (73%), while the environment of violence was home (‚close environment‘) in 68%. Maziliauskienė expressed concerns about growing statistics of molesting and ‚shadow threats‘ of domestic violence. Particularly alarming is that „50% of suicides come from dysfunctional families or have experienced domestic violence“.

Children‘s interests first

Prosecutors and courts representatives focused on issues of representing children in proceedings. Presenting the protection of children‘s interests in pre-trial investigation, Raminta Goštautaitė, the assistant to the Chief Prosecutor of the Department of Criminal Prosecution of the Prosecutor General‘s Office, stressed a need for all institutions to cooperate actively, fulfil their functions and promptly share information with colleagues about new cases of child abuse.

Arūnas Purvainis, the Chairperson of Kaunas Precinct Court, presented the topic of proper representation of children. He noted that all institutions should prioritise children‘s interests, including cases of selecting and preparing children‘s legal representatives. „Representing an underage victim in criminal proceedings is a particularly important legal mechanism to ensure their rights and freedoms, as they can neither exercise their rights and duties nor protect their legitimate interests due to age“, - argued the judge.

Children need help to cope and feel safe

Silvestra Markuckienė, a psychologist of Save Children Lithuania, told about feelings and experiences of domestically abused children before and after legal proceedings. „It is not legitimate to claim that children‘s emotions come and go. You might be friends again after abusing your child, but they will not forget it. Children remember everything,“ – claimed Markuckienė. She referred to statistics and indicated that domestic violence is passed over generations in a vicious circle, something that has to be stopped by helping victims in changing mentality and behaviours. The psychologist also made a case for strengthening the system of social assistance in order to address problems on the social level, along with the legal one.

According to Dr. Neringa Grigutytė, the supervisor of forensic psychologists in Lithuania, while violence against women is well described and studied, „little information is available on effects of violence on children who eye-witness assaults against a parent or a caregiver. Such children are referred to as overlooked victims of domestic violence“. Echoing Markuckienė, Grigutytė promoted the idea of helping children, direct victims or witnesses of violence alike, in building appropriate social skills and safeguarding their mental health: „such children need an adult whom they can trust and who can make them feel secure, relaxed and attached. Social services are also necessary to enable a child to deal with their negative experience“.

Jenna Shearer Demir, the Programme Advisor for the Gender Equality Division of the Council of Europe, revealed that the Istanbul Convention counters violence against both women and their offsprings. The speaker referred to many provisions in the document to prevent the domestic violence. „Women are the most frequent victims; however, the Convention protects both them and their children, - mentioned Demir. – The Convention enshrines many gender-neutral clauses to defend women and men, girls and boys“.

Cooperation and diligence indispensable for child protection

Head of Children at Risk Unit of the Council of Baltic Sea States, Olivia Lind Haldorsson from Sweden presented Barnahus, a model of inter-institutional cooperation for child-friendly justice and care used in many countries of Europe. „Multidimensional inter-disciplinary cooperation is key for facilitating a child‘s physical and moral recovery after traumatising experiences, and securing assistance and proper participation for them in the criminal proceedings, - said Haldorsson. – Barnahus, or child‘s house, is a physical space with four rooms, representing social and medical services, and law enforcement institutions. Children feel comfortable and safe; they do not need to be transported between institutions and repeat their testimonies“. Jon Gunnar Kaplerud, a judge from Norway, played a video showing how testimonies are collected from children in such ‚child‘s houses‘, while recordings are later used as evidence, avoiding repeated interviews.

Topping off the event, a discussion moderated by a journalist Daiva Žeimytė-Bilienė dwelled on legislative tools available in Lithuania to prevent child abuse. With references to painful cases of violence against children in Lithuania, attempts were made to identify better ways of institutional cooperation. Purvainis noted that legal instruments in Lithuania are sufficient, yet they have to be employed properly. Every professional working on sensitivities of protecting children‘s interests should go beyond formalities, so that all aspects are taken into account. Markuckienė highlighted a need for a child to feel safe while participating in legal proceedings and giving statements, to have access to a trusted person and to enjoy stress-free environment. MP Stasys Šedbaras agreed with his discussion partners on importance of a child‘s feeling of security during interviews. He pointed out that the mechanism for prevention of child abuse should involve all stakeholders, such as preschool and school communities, out-of-class supervisors etc., to ensure shared responsibility and timely response.

As participants focused on situation of child witnesses, Purvainis noted a need for ad hoc consideration of a necessity to interview a child in each case, and for „comprehensive verification and cautious handling“ of children‘s testimonies given their typically fragmented nature and way of expression different from adults. All discussants agreed that institutions and professionals working on child victims of domestic violence, such as legal representatives, prosecutors, judges etc., should prepare themselves very well for interviewing a child. This is to make sure answers are reliable, instrumental for administration of justice and leaving no need for further interrogations, which frequently lead to distortions and re-traumatisation.

The full discussion is available HERE.