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Barnahus: Improving the response to child sexual abuse in England

In England, it is estimated that only 1 in 8 victims of child sexual abuse are identified by the authorities. Children who disclose that they have been sexually abused face multiple interviews with social workers, the police and medical professionals in a variety of settings. Interviews are often the only source of evidence in sexual abuse cases, yet for many children the interviews led by the police do not enable them to provide the best possible evidence. Repeat interviews can be confusing and cause children, particularly young children, to give inconsistent evidence which, in many cases, will lead to the perpetrator not being charged. Children can be traumatised by having to give an account of their abuse to multiple professionals in multiple locations. They can also then face long waiting lists to access specialist therapeutic support.

The current system is not child-centred, and does not achieve the best results, either for children or the criminal justice system. We have identified a possible way forward in the Barnahus (children’s house) model in use in Iceland. Since its introduction in 1998, the Barnahus has delivered compelling results – a trebling of the number of perpetrators charged, a doubling of the number of convictions, and better therapeutic outcomes for children and their families. This paper outlines the potential of the model for substantially improving the response to child sexual abuse in England.