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Topic five - Improving the criminal justice response to VAC


There are a range of challenges related to the role played by the criminal justice system in responding to VAC and to protecting child victims. The criminal justice system is responsible for bringing perpetrators of VAC to justice, protecting child victims of violence, and working closely together with other systems (education, welfare, child protection, health). There are several proactive measures that the police can take to detect incidents of violence against children (United Nations, 2014, Article 19). Among other things, guidance and training can be provided to front line police officers on how to recognize different forms of violence against children and how to identify signs that children may be at risk or victims of violence.

Police have a responsibility to engage in proactive investigations of suspected violence against children whether an official complaint has been registered or not. The primary responsibility for initiating investigations and prosecutions lies with the police, the prosecution and other competent authorities. Sufficient resources must be allocated to these investigations and, therefore, the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against children must formally and practically be identified as a system's priority. Officials who are responsible for an investigation must have the power and authority to obtain all the information necessary to successfully complete that investigation (United Nations, 2014, Article 19 and 20; UNODC, 2015a; 2015b).

The most effective operational response to incidents of violence against children is usually through an integrated, multidisciplinary specialized unit that can respond quickly and competently to the medical, psychological, social and legal needs of the child as well as his or her need for protection. The establishment of such specialized unit should be considered also with a view for other systems to enhance the protective environment framework for children.

Effective detection and reporting mechanisms are at the very core of any effort to protect children against VAC.

However, the capacity of the criminal justice system to intervene proactively to protect children against violence is usually quite limited and it is quite powerless unless complaints and reporting mechanisms exist to identify instances of violence.

The criminal justice system must rely on reports or complaints that are generated by the children themselves, parents, caregivers, other adults around them, and various professionals. Children, however, may distrust the police, often with good reasons, or are unaware of the assistance that may be available to them if they report their victimization. They also frequently fear public exposure, stigmatization, harassment and reprisals if they make incidents of violence known. This is why it is so important to have in place safe and accessible reporting mechanisms (SRSG, 2016). Lecturers may like to contemplate whether there are effective complaint and reporting mechanisms in their own country. Does the law, for example, create a legal obligation for different categories of professionals and officials to report incidents of violence against children to the authorities? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these mechanisms? The report of the SRSG on VAC on Safe and Child-sensitive Counselling, Complaint and Reporting Mechanisms to Address Violence against Children (2012) can be consulted for useful examples.

Two questions should be asked when reviewing existing reporting mechanisms:

  • Are there safe, child friendly and gender sensitive procedures and mechanisms for victims and others to report or complain about incidents of violence against children?
  • Are these mechanisms easily accessible to all children and their representatives or a third party without fear of reprisal or discrimination?

The United Nations Model Strategies (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18) suggest that States should ensure that "criminal justice professionals who routinely come into contact with children in the course of their work are aware of risk factors and indicators of various forms of violence, in particular at the national level, and that they have received guidance and are trained on how to interpret such indicators and have the knowledge, willingness and ability necessary to take appropriate action, including the provision of immediate protection" (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18, Article 19b).

Another measure which should be seriously considered in order to facilitate the reporting of violence against children, particularly when the latter are very young and unable to do so on their own, is creating a legal obligation for certain groups of professionals who are routinely in contact with children (e.g. doctors, nurses, teachers) to notify the authorities when they suspect that a child is, or is likely to become, a victim of violence (United Nations, 2014, Article 19c).

Most importantly, child sensitive and gender sensitive complaint, reporting, and counselling mechanisms (and related procedures) should be established by law. These should be respectful of the rights of the child, and be made easily accessible to all children and their representative without fear of reprisal or discrimination (United Nations, 2014, Article 19d). People, especially children, who report in good faith alleged incidents of VAC should be protected by law against all forms of reprisal (United Nations, 2014, Article 19d).

A child-sensitive approach is one that is sensitive to the children's needs and level of development, considers the age- and gender-specific risks and vulnerabilities of children, and respects their dignity and integrity.

Once child victims are identified, the criminal justice system must do all that it can, in a child-sensitive manner and in collaboration with child protection agencies, to protect these children from further victimization, humiliation and trauma. It is also important for the police, courts and other competent authorities to have the legal authority to issue and enforce protection measures such as restraining or barring orders in cases of violence against children, including removal of the perpetrator from the domicile and prohibiting further contact with the victim, as well as to impose penalties for breaches of those orders (Economic and Social Council Resolution 2014/18, Article 20f). It is equally important to ensure that, when the legal authority exists, these protection measures are diligently and consistently enforced and that any violation of a court ordered protection measure is dealt with seriously (United Nations, 2014, Article 20g). To ensure that protection orders are enforced it becomes important to establish a functional registration system (or registry) to keep track of these orders and make it possible for the police and other officials to quickly determine whether such an order is in force. In many situations, the law may permit or even encourage informal settlement of cases involving violence against children. The laws and existing informal settlement and mediation practices need a careful review to ensure that they only apply in the respect of the principle of the best interests of the child.

The manner in which investigations and prosecutions are conducted is obviously also very important. The safety of the child is a primary consideration. Training, operational policies, guidance tools and effective supervision are all needed to ensure that the investigation, including the collection of evidence, is conducted in a child sensitive manner and respects their dignity and integrity. For a further discussion of the criminal justice system response to VAC, refer to Module 13 on Justice for Children in the E4J University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

Next: Topic six - Addressing violence against children within the justice system
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