Icelandic scheme to tackle child sex abuse could be brought to West Yorkshire

Anne Longfield, children's commissioner for England

Anne Longfield, children's commissioner for England

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The children’s commissioner for England says she is hopeful that a pioneering Icelandic method of preventing child sex abuse can be established in West Yorkshire.

Anne Longfield says creating a ‘Barnahus’ could double the number of child sexual abuse convictions in West Yorkshire and spoke on the subject last week at a meeting in Wakefield.

The concept has been in operation in Iceland since 1998. When child abuse is suspected all the services for victims are provided under one roof. These include the forensic interview, medical examination and child or family therapy.

Ms Longfield is urging all police and crime commissioners to establish a ‘Barnahus’ in their area. Two pilots have so far been proposed in London and one in Durham.

West Yorkshire’s crime commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson says the proposals are “interesting” but that Yorkshire had “very different circumstances” for applying the Icelandic experience because of the two countries’ different legal systems.

Speaking after last week’s meeting in Wakefield, Ms Longfield said: “I’m very grateful to the Police and Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire for facilitating this meeting which allowed us to hear about the benefits of Barnahus.

“It was highly positive and there was a lot of commitment to explore ways that could improve the support victims of child sexual abuse currently receive.

“Everyone who was in that room wants to do the best by these extremely vulnerable children.

“I was particularly pleased regional health, police and local authority representatives were able to hear from the lead for the Mayor of London’s project to establish a pilot in London.

“We were able to discuss how it might be possible to adapt Barnahus so it works in West Yorkshire alongside existing services, any possible obstacles and the lessons so far from the London project.

“Regional agencies will now look to follow up on points raised, and hopefully we can move forward towards establishing a Barnahus.”

The introduction of a ‘Barnahus’ in Iceland in 1998 resulted in the number of convictions for child sexual abuse increasing from 49 between 1995 and 1997 to 101 between 2011 and 2013.

It is claimed that the approach minimises the trauma caused to children as they give evidence to a trained psychotherapist within days of reporting abuse and therefore do not have to recount their experiences of abuse multiple times to different professionals as part of evidence gathering.

The majority will quickly have access to therapy rather than waiting many months and even years in this country.

Mark Burns-Williamson, West Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, said “I constantly review the support available to victims and it is crucial that the services for children and young people who have experienced these horrendous crimes are appropriate and consistently available throughout West Yorkshire.

“This was an initial meeting with the Children’s Commissioner however the approach is interesting and I, along with NHS England who lead the commissioning of these services, and our other partners, will be fully looking into whether it is something that would benefit our communities in West Yorkshire.

“The Icelandic legal system is very different to our own, we can certainly learn from the Icelandic experience but need to apply it in very different circumstances.”

Describing the Barnahus project, Ms Longfield said: “The Barnahus approach has doubled convictions, and improved access to therapy for victims.

“This is a highly significant meeting. Many hundreds of thousands of children in England are abused and we need to get much better at identifying these children and supporting them afterwards.

“When it is suspected that a child has been sexually abused they currently often have to be interviewed many times by the police, social workers and medical professionals in an attempt to gather evidence so that a case can go to trial.

“It is a complex, gruelling process which often breaks down and which can take many months. This can be incredibly traumatising to the child and may delay their access to therapeutic support.

“The Barnahus approach has proved to be incredibly successful and I hope that it will be trialled in Yorkshire and beyond, as well as other police authorities around England.”