Debate on a legislative proposal aimed at reforming and improving support for child victims of sexual abuse in Wales

Published 01/04/2019   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

On Wednesday 3 April 2019, Bethan Sayed AM will lead a debate on her legislative proposal for a bill to reform and improve support for child victims of sexual abuse in Wales.

The purpose of this bill would be to:

  • introduce the Barnahus Model of therapeutic led support for victims;
  • work with police to use the Barnahus Model of investigation in all cases of child sexual abuse; and
  • introduce statutory changes to improve emergency and temporary accommodation for abused children who cannot return to their home or are homeless.

Her proposal is based on concerns set out in a petition from a constituent which is currently being considered by the Assembly’s Petitions Committee.

What is a ‘Barnahus’?

Since 2016 two ‘child houses’ have been piloted in London based on the Barnahus Icelandic model. Adopting this model was recommended in a 2005 NHS England Review of pathway following sexual assault for children and young people in London. It describes the Barnahus model in the following way:

In Iceland for example, when a child discloses sexual assault, an appointment is made at the Barnahus. An interview is conducted by a specially trained forensic interviewer (with a background in child psychology) in a child-friendly room which is video-linked to an observation room. The interview is witnessed by the child’s advocate, social worker, the defence and prosecution teams, with a Judge presiding. The Barnahus is effectively an outreach of the courtroom at that time and the recorded interviews usually suffice as the child’s full testimony for court. The interviews are reportedly more successful in obtaining information with increases in the number of prosecutions and convictions for CSA. Because the interviews are usually completed within one to two weeks of the initial allegation being made, this allows the child to start therapy quickly, either at the Barnahus or locally. The recorded interviews are also used to plan therapy and medical examinations / aftercare can also be provided at the Barnahus.

This press release further describes the Barnahus stating:

The model recognises the vulnerability of the child victim and the harm caused to the child by multiple interviews. The Barnahus in Iceland provides one place in which the child can have forensic interviews and make court statements, have medical examination and access therapeutic services, which are also available for the victim’s family. Since the Barnahus model was established in Iceland, the number of child victims of CSA coming forward for help has more than doubled per year, indictments have more than tripled, and convictions have more than doubled. The Barnahus model has since been exported to Norway, Greenland and Denmark, with pilots planned in Finland and Lithuania.

The Child Houses in London

The UK’s first two Child Houses, funded by £7.2m secured by the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC) and NHS England (London) from the Home Office Innovation Fund, are intended to offer medical, investigative and emotional support in one place, removing the need for young victims to go through the trauma of repeating their statement several times to different agencies.

The press release goes on to state that the child houses:

will provide a multi-agency, long-term support and advocacy service under one roof. Criminal justice aspects of aftercare will be embedded in the service, with evidence gathering interviews led by child psychologists on behalf of the police and social workers, and court evidence provided through video links to aid swifter justice.

[…]Based on the original Icelandic Barnahus model, which promotes a multiagency, interdisciplinary approach under one roof, the Houses will gather more effective evidence from interviews and offer faster progress in investigations and court cases.

Views of the Children’s Commissioner for England

In 2016, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, published a Report on Barnahus: improving the response to child sexual abuse in England. In it she concluded:

It is clear that the Barnahus represents a truly child-centred approach to child sexual abuse. Services are designed and administered in a manner consistent with the best possible criminal justice and therapeutic outcomes, and the results obtained are extremely impressive.

Experiences in Sweden, Norway and Denmark demonstrate that the model can be adapted and implemented within the legal framework of another country, without compromising the core principles which deliver such impressive results. It is now time for commissioners in England to look at how the model can be piloted here and adapted to our own legal system so as to help improve rates of prosecution and, ultimately, outcomes for children.

Welsh Government’s initial response to calls for a Barnahus model in Wales

In December 2018, then Minister for Children, Older People and Social Care, Huw Irranca-Davies AM, responded to correspondence from the Petitions Committee. In it he states that ‘evidence gathering in support of the prosecution process means that the development of Child Houses is largely a reserved matter’. He says ‘it would be prudent to wait’ for the evaluation of the Child Houses in London. His response to the Committee also refers to the funding for the ‘child houses’ being similar to funding arrangements for Sexual Assault Referral Centres.

What are Sexual Assault Referral Centres?

Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) are different from ‘Child Houses’. They are all-age facilities where a range of specially trained professionals are located to support individuals who have been raped or sexually assaulted. SARCs are intended to provide a single, safe location where victims of sexual assault can receive medical care and counselling, as well as assisting Police investigation into alleged offences. They should include facilities suitable for a high standard of forensic examination.

Views of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales

The Commissioner facilitates and chairs a national roundtable meeting about child sexual exploitation (CSE). In November 2018, Professor Sally Holland published her Annual Report 2017-18 and in the accompanying media release she says:

Children who have been raped or sexually assaulted face unacceptable waiting times for medical examinations and support.

The Commissioner’s main concerns relate to two areas:

  • ‘children who have been raped or sexually assaulted cannot access a forensic medical examination quickly enough after the traumatic event they have experienced, due to shortages of suitably qualified and experienced medical staff, and often have to travel long distances; and
  • access to specialist counselling for children and young people affected by sexual abuse is not available when required in order for those children to begin the road to recovery.’

The Children’s Commissioner went on to recommend:

[….] that Welsh Government ensures that Sexual Assault Referral Centre provision for each health board area includes 24/7 access to a rota of suitably trained paediatricians and forensic medical examiners, so that no child has to wait for many hours or even days for an examination, and that sufficient counselling and recovery services for victims are available throughout Wales.

The Welsh Government accepted this recommendation in November 2018 stating:

The Welsh Government agrees that nobody, whether adult or child, should have to wait for services following any incident of sexual violence. The care and needs of the victim should be paramount for all services.

There have been issues in relation to the provision of paediatric services in recent years and the NHS is currently leading work to develop a sustainable and appropriate model of sexual assault services across south, west Wales and Powys. This work is being conducted in partnership with the Police, safeguarding, third sector and others and includes consideration of children’s services. Work will continue throughout 2018 and into 2019. In the interim the NHS is working with its partners to ensure paediatric and Forensic Medical Examiner provision for children can be provided in a timely fashion in line with the needs of the young person.

What happens after the debate?

The purpose of this plenary debate is to provide individual Members with an opportunity to debate potential ideas for legislation and test the level of support in the Assembly outside the confines of the formal legislative process. The motion, if agreed, would have no binding effect and there would be no requirement for the Welsh Government, an individual Member, an Assembly committee or the Assembly Commission to introduce legislation as a result.

In February 2019 the Children’s Commissioner for Wales set out her views on calls for a Barnahus model to be developed in Wales.

The Minister for Health and Social Care has also provided more information to the Petitions Committee about current measures in place for the safeguarding of children reporting and needing protection from sexual abuse.

It will be for Assembly Members to discuss the merits of developing the Barnahus model in Wales. Whatever their views on that aspect of Bethan Sayed’s legislative proposal, this debate will again place child protection on the Assembly’s agenda.

Article by Sian Thomas, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales