Topics: Child Protection in Sweden

Davies L (2011) Interviewing Children – Good practice in Sweden. Community Care 8th September.

In Sweden, children’s rights are paramount. I recently visited three Barnahus (Children’s Houses) in Uppsala, Mälardalen and Västeras where, in contrast to England and Wales, the core concept is the joint investigative interview conducted under the formal authority of a court judge with children’s rights as central to all the processes.
The Barnahus is a child friendly, interdisciplinary centre, situated within Children’s Services, whereby different professionals work under one roof in the rigorous investigation of child abuse. It is a partnership between the police, state prosecutors, health and social services and the house is designed to maximise the child’s comfort throughout the process. Children also access treatment services for themselves and their families. The Barnahus has office and meeting room facilities for all the professionals and separate waiting rooms for young children and adolescents furnished and designed for their needs.

The first Barnahus in Europe was established in Iceland in 1998. While Finland and Greenland are just developing this system there are now 22 Barnahus in Sweden, 1 in Denmark and 7 in Norway. The main cases are those of child sexual abuse, children as young as 3 do provide evidence and about three quarters of all those interviewed disclose evidence of crime.

In England and Wales the investigative interviewing of child victims and witnesses in a context of criminal proceedings has, since 1992, been a joint process between social workers and police conducted according to the Achieving Best Evidence guidance. Social workers and police are trained together to equip them for their duty to investigate when there is reasonable cause to suspect actual or likely significant harm (Section 47 Children Act 1989). The interviews are visually recorded in child friendly interview suites and conducted according to the child centred phased interview approach.  On the face of it the system is in place. However, since the mid 90s, these systems have been severely undermined by government policy which has minimised statutory, proactive child protection work and emphasised single agency assessment of children’s needs as an alternative approach. Restructuring of children’s services resulted in the closure of many specialist child protection investigation teams and a reduction in joint training opportunities. Police now mainly investigate abuse and conduct child interviews on their own and the specialist social work skills of investigation and interviewing risk being lost entirely.

Neither Laming nor Munro addressed the importance of a perpetrator focused approach and key words which describe aspects of the investigative processes such as joint investigation, strategy meeting, investigative interview, forensic retrieval, police child abuse investigation team(CAIT) and probation, are largely absent from their recent reviews. Training is referred to in the most general terms with no emphasis on police and social workers training together in advanced level skills. This was the training that neither of the social workers for Victoria Climbié or Peter Connolly had undertaken.

A very important aspect of children’s healing after abuse is to achieve justice through the conviction of the perpetrator, and social workers must work closely with the police in these processes. However, the work of CAITs was scaled down in 2003 after Laming, in his Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, recommended that police should focus on the investigation of crime rather than significant harm. This shift in protocols seriously impacted on the effectiveness of joint work with tragic consequences which were  clearly apparent in the Peter Connolly case.

‘I think your system is barbaric’ said one of the Barnahus workers. She was referring to practice in England and Wales, where child witnesses and victims have to be available in court for cross examination. In Sweden the visually recorded interview suffices in a system which ensures professional criminal investigation and a fair trial without compromising the best interests of the child. She was also highly critical of a system which criminalises children from the age of 10 (it is 15 in Sweden) and still fails to provide children with equal protection under the law in relation to physical harm – a change which Sweden pioneered in the 70s. In the UK children are asked during the interview to demonstrate their understanding of truth but in Sweden this test is not required.

Two children arrived at the Barnahus whilst I was there. They were aged 12 years and had been raped by a man who had groomed them online. That morning a strategy meeting had been held with a social worker, police officer, prosecutor, the children’s legal advocate, therapist and other professionals with knowledge about the children. They had decided to proceed with visually recorded interviews.  On arrival the children entered a comfortable waiting area with games consoles, magazines and refreshments. They were interviewed by a police officer trained in the child centred phased interview approach in an interview room designed to remove all distractions from the interview content. Interviews rarely last more than 40 minutes and, although drawing and play may be used, the emphasis is on the verbal account. In the control room the therapist and child’s legal advocate, monitor the child’s wellbeing throughout and the prosecutor may suggest questions. The social worker’s role is that of co-investigator but they remain in the control room and do not conduct the interviews. It is thought to be overpowering for a child to have more than one interviewer in the room.  If the defence lawyers, on viewing the recording, wish to ask further questions then the young person returns to the Barnahus within a few days to respond to extra questions. The young person does not then need to testify in court which enables therapeutic support to be ongoing with the child and family in subsequent weeks.   There is also a medical room enabling examinations to take place outside of a hospital environment depending on the detail of the case.

Despite both the Laming and Munro reviews having the word ‘protection’ in the titles neither addressed the basics of child protection investigative processes or considered how these have been so severely and dangerously eroded.  Having learnt about the Barnahus model of child protection I am clear that we have much to learn from our Scandanavian colleagues.