Bragi Guðbrandsson – Founder of the Barnahus Model, Member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child
Bragi Guðbrandsson is a Member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child as well as the Committee’s Coordinator of the working group on emergencies that address the situation of children in Ukraine following the Russian aggression. He was the Former Director General of the Icelandic Government Agency for Child Protection (1995-2018). In addition, he is also the former Chair (2014-2016) and a member of the Council of Europe Lanzarote Committee, the monitoring body of the Lanzarote Convention. He was a member of the expert groups that drafted the Lanzarote Convention (2009) and the Council of Europe Guidelines for child friendly justice (2010) as well as number of other instruments of the Council of Europe.
Mr. Guðbrandsson is the founder of the Icelandic establishment of Barnahus (Children´s House) in 1998, an inspiration for a child-friendly and multidisciplinary response to child abuse which has now been implemented in around twenty countries. He is also an honorary founding member of the Promise Project for implementing the Barnahus model in European countries. This project defines the Barnahus as a “child-friendly office, under one roof, where law enforcement, criminal justice, child protective services, and medical and mental health workers cooperate and assess together the situation of the child and decide upon the follow-up”.
The Barnahus Model is currently implemented, or in the process of implementation, in several European countries. From these experiences, which would you say are the most common obstacles encountered during the implementation process? How can such obstacles be overcome?
Traditional approaches in addressing child abuse and neglect reflect the different roles and responsibilities of the legal entities that are responsible for interventions of the different sectors. Without clear framework for collaboration, these interventions are fragmented and lack the comprehensive and child-friendly strategy that is necessary for the voice of the child to be heard while avoiding secondary traumatisation as well as ensuring appropriate services in accordance with the best interest of the child. The path to bring about reforms differs from one country to the next and even within the same country. However, there are some obstacles more common than others. I think that the lack of child friendly justice and the inherently conservative nature of the justice system is probably the biggest challenge to overcome.
The Barnahus Model promotes a constant evaluation of itself in order to be updated, improved and adapted to each context. What would you highlight as recent or upcoming adaptation or update that in your opinion represents a notable advance?
Barnahus was originally limited to response to child sexual abuse. In most European countries today children who are witnesses or victim of all types of violence, including domestic violence, are referred to Barnahus. Perhaps the most notable advances are in the field of evidence based forensic interviewing and trauma focussed therapy. Adaptations or updates include that unaccompanied migrant minors and asylum-seeking children, who often have suffered trauma, are referred to Barnahus to obtain their narrative and assess their needs for support.
Even though the Barnahus Model is currently mainly implemented with child victims and witnesses, do you think its child-friendly principles can equally apply to children who are suspects or accused persons in criminal proceedings?
There is no doubt in my mind that the child-friendly and multidisciplinary approach should be implemented with regard to children in conflict with the law. The Council of Europe Guidelines on child-friendly justice contain principles that should be applied for children suspected of crime and these are the same principles as those of the Barnahus model. However, I am not advocating that we should mix the two groups in the same facilities, as safety of vulnerable child victims is a priority. However, a child in conflict with the law has the same rights to quality services as any other child.
Before the child case can be treated in the Barnahus, someone must be able to identify the situation of violence or abuse that the child is suffering. What kind of awareness-raising measures does Barnahus promote among professionals and the general population to be able to identify such situations?
The path of referrals to Barnahus are diverse in European countries. However, the most common is that the child protection system/social services make the referrals, at least where there is a mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect. In some countries the police and the medical sector can make referrals as well. Awareness raising must be tailored to these different professional communities as well as teachers and other staff in the educational sector. Very importantly, awareness raising must also be targeted at parents and the general public. Barnahus may not always be entrusted to carry out awareness-raising. However, as Barnahus are competence centres that collect comprehensive and reliable data on the nature of child abuse, this makes possible to disseminate knowledge which is crucial for awareness raising.
In your role as Member of the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child, you have worked on the issue of the corporal punishment of children, which is still very common in many parts of the world. How is the Committee currently contributing towards its elimination?
The Committee mainly contributes to the elimination of corporal punishment through its jurisprudence as reflected in the Concluding observations (COBs) following the state reviews of the implementation of the Convention. The monitoring of legislative measures that ensures the full prohibition of corporal punishment in all setting, including in the family, alternative care, day care and educational settings, penal and other institutions, are without exception examined. Moreover, awareness raising on harmful impacts of corporal punishment and strategies with the aim of strengthening non-violent upbringing, in particular with regard to parenting skills, are examined and recommendations are made to individual states in the COBs. A great emphasis is also placed on the collection of disaggregated data and research on the topic and how this can support strategies for governments at central, regional and local level aimed against corporal punishment.
As the Committee’s Coordinator of the Working group on Emergencies, can you give us an update on how the Committee is currently working for the protection of the rights of Ukrainian children?
Following the Russian invasion an ad hoc working group was established to monitor the situation of children in Ukraine, a working group that now has the broader task of addressing emergencies concerning violations of children´s rights. The working group continues to work on Ukraine, especially vulnerable children such as children without parental care placed in residential institutions and as well as displaced children. The main emphasis has been on monitoring, collecting reliable information and collaborate with the Ukrainian Government, UNICEF, EDF (European Disability Forum) and other UN mechanism such as the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) with the aim of supporting children in Ukraine.
The Committee engaged in meetings and correspondence as well of submitting public statements on the Ukrainian situation. Moreover, it has provided the Ukrainian Government with guidance on measures to be taken to ensure the safety and improve the care of children with disabilities, especially children with high support needs. Ukraine´s report on the implementation of the Convention came under the review in September 2022 and comprehensive guidance was provided following informative dialogue with the Ukraine delegation in our Concluding Observations on the implementation of the Convention under the adverse circumstances due to the war. In addition, the Committee and the CRPD jointly submitted a call for urgent action to protect children in institutions and children with disabilities in October and early this year the Committee had informal engagement with the EU on measures to support Ukrainian children in care. The Committee will continue to monitor the developments in Ukraine and respond accordingly.