How weak links in justice system hit Europe's most vulnerable children

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By Chris Harris
How weak links in justice system hit Europe's most vulnerable children

Sexually-abused children are among European youngsters whose suffering is being exacerbated by failings in the justice system, a ground-breaking new report claims.

They are being left scared, ignored and ill-informed because police officers and legal professionals lack the sufficient training to deal with them, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

‘Unfriendly and disrespectful’

The report, the first of its kind, says the shortcomings mean youngsters are not being heard properly and don’t understand the legal process.

Astrid Podsiadlowski, author of the dossier, told Euronews some children had not said everything in police interviews because they hadn’t been told the importance a statement had in prosecuting offenders.

She added this evidence is often vital in sexual abuse cases where the youngster is often the only witness.

“Children need to be properly informed and people need to check that they understand the procedures and their rights,” said Dr Podsiadlowski. “If they don’t understand, this has a very strong influence on them being scared and afraid of the proceedings and has an influence on their statements.”

The report – which saw nearly 400 children interviewed across nine EU countries – said youngsters did not always feel protected in the justice system.

It claimed the children they questioned repeatedly complained about unfriendly and disrespectful behaviour by professionals, such as defence lawyers, judges or police officers.

Keeping children informed

Researchers spoke to a sexually-abused child in France who decided against filing a complaint because the policewoman had spoken harshly and repeatedly used the word ‘rape’.

Other victims of sexual assault in Bulgaria were interviewed by policemen, despite asking for a woman, leaving them ‘uncomfortable and constrained’.

Dr Podsiadlowski, head of sector rights of the child at FRA, said while child-friendly locations for giving evidence was good practice, it was overshadowed by the importance of the interviewer treating the youngster with respect and properly informing them.

She called for the child to be given a specific person to accompany them through the justice system.

“When the child had a consistent professional person to turn to this made a big difference and the child is better informed,” added Dr Podsiadlowski.

“This is not systematically happening. In some member states like the UK and Germany this aspect is systematic, but that’s not the case everywhere.”

Civil cases less regulated

Another key problem the report identified was that civil cases involving youngsters – often divorces – were less child-friendly than criminal proceedings.

“I think civil cases are less regulated and monitored,” said Dr Podsiadlowski.

“In France there’s good access to lawyers and support and they don’t distinguish between criminal and civil cases.

“But in some other countries the focus is very much on criminal cases.

“With civil cases there are a lot of difficulties because the child is really trapped between the both parties so what we found quite striking is children rarely have their own representative. They get support from the lawyers of one of the parents, but it is putting them in a difficult situation.”

FRA director Michael O’Flaherty said: “We are putting children who have already experienced or witnessed distressing things into an unnecessarily stressful situation.

“Both policymakers and practitioners have to ensure that the anxieties of children involved in court proceedings are taken seriously and kept to a minimum.”

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