Child abuse can go unpunished because of poor victim communication


  • Yuri Vugts

    editor Nieuwsuur

  • Linda de Groot

    reporter News Hour

  • Yuri Vugts

    editor Nieuwsuur

  • Linda de Groot

    reporter News Hour

The conversations that the Safe Home hotline has with children in the investigation of abuse and sexual abuse must be improved. That’s what experts say after investigating news hour.

This study shows that the quality and manner of children’s conversations is different from the Safe Home area. As a result, signs of child abuse may be overlooked or misinterpreted, resulting in poorer care for children and possibly going unpunished.

Unreliable statements

According to the law, Safe Home must investigate whether this is really the case after a report of violence or sexual assault. To establish this, Safe at Home talks to children from the age of 4. A protocol says that children must be talked to, but not how.

As a result, the approach differs from Safe Home region and sometimes even within a region from employee to employee. The level of education of the employees also varies. This leads to interview techniques being used without scientific underpinning. And if, during an interview, suspicions of criminal child abuse arise, interviews sometimes have to be stopped because the employees are not trained to question the child about this.

Forensic psychology researcher Brenda Erens (Maastricht University) was looking for the most suitable interview methods for her PhD research. She makes critical comments about Safe Home’s interview techniques. These can lead to unreliable statements. “It could be children who are being abused at home, but you can’t find out,” says Erens. “And vice versa: if there’s no child abuse, then you really want to know.”

Conversations are also recorded in different ways. In one region conversations are recorded for writing purposes, in the other region conversations are not recorded at all and employees only take notes. Statements from a child at Trygt Hjem are therefore often useless in a later police investigation, because the quality leaves much to be desired.

There is often no physical evidence, so conversation is a crucial element in child abuse investigations.

Brenda Erens, researcher forensic psychology

And in a number of regions Trygt Hjemme uses the ‘three house method’ for children’s talks. A child must draw three houses: a house of worries, a house of good things and a dream house. The inventor of that method says to news hour that this method is not suitable for finding facts about child abuse.

“We find it worrying that you demonstrate that children are treated differently in each region,” says children’s rights lawyer Eva Huls from Defense for Children. “There is therefore no uniform working method. This may also mean that children who are spoken to by moderately trained professionals are actually worse off.”

In a number of regions, Safe Home also uses drawings depicting the human body and duplo figures. Research shows that its use in children can create false suggestions because children cannot translate this image to the human body.

“Our findings are concerning because we know that in child abuse there is often no physical evidence and there were no bystanders,” said study researcher Erens. “Children are often the only ones who know what happened, so an interview is a crucial element in any child abuse investigation.”

Huls believes that the police interviews can also improve a few things. “It could be a little more child-friendly. Telling your story at a police station is scary in itself.”

This was also noted by ‘Julia’ who was a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 15 and told the police her story:

‘I have as much trauma from the police investigation as from the event itself’

Nine of the 25 Safe Home regions have now switched to a scientifically supported interview method: the NICHD protocol from the USA. This is based on open-ended questions, where the child tells as much about himself as possible. Research from Erens shows that this interrogation technique makes a difference. “Children talk more and report a more pleasant state of mind after the interrogation than the control group.”

Separate facts and opinions

Safe at Home wants to introduce this method everywhere in the future. The Child Protection Board will soon also switch to the NICHD protocol. This protocol is also used by the Belgian police for questioning children. In the Netherlands, the police do not use this method.

In a response, Safe Home says it is their job to separate fact and opinion and confirms there is room for improvement. “Veilig Thuis is on the threshold of an intensive period of quality improvement of the child interviews and the national rollout of the NICHD.” The network does not know when the rollout will be completed.

The responsible ministries for health, welfare and sport as well as the ministries of justice and security emphasize that Safe Home sites are organized regionally. “Within the statutory task, there is room for coloring and adaptation per region. Where improvement and/or standardization is possible or desirable at national level, we support a targeted approach, and we also specifically encourage this.”

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