a child is sat in a room with an adult who is talking to her

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New centre will offer safety for children exposed to crime

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Last year the University began work on an inspiring collaborative project – to improve the experience of child witnesses and their families.

Experts from the University’s School of Social and Political Science are playing a vital role in the new project, which will support children who witness violence, help them recover from the trauma they’ve experienced, and ultimately help them achieve justice.

Currently families who find themselves in this position face a complex range of support, which can involve visiting multiple services, often in different locations. This can sometimes lead to secondary victimisation, which sees children experience further trauma from the way in which they interact with support services.

The Barnahus project offers up a support mechanism that provides children with a singular safe space, in which they are visited by support services. This puts the children at the centre and is designed to improve their experience and help prevent the possibility of further, lasting trauma.

The Barnahus, or Child’s House for Healing, is being looked at by University researchers, who are leading on a three-year evaluation of this approach. Dr Mary Mitchell, Lecturer in Social Work, is the Principal Investigator for the initial part of the project, working with Professor John Devaney, Centenary Chair and Head of Social Work.

Dr Mitchell explains: “Barnahus – which means ‘a house for children’ in Icelandic – is a child-friendly, multidisciplinary and inter-agency model, responding to child victims and witnesses of violence.”

The model has already proved successful in Scandinavia, and researchers hope that building a similar site in Scotland will aid children in their recovery and ensure they experience justice.

A cosy room is shown with comfy chairs and fittings
An example of one of the rooms at the Icelandic Barnahus.

A collaborative project

The Barnahus project is a collaboration across several key institutions and illustrates how powerful these partnerships can be in leading the way for change.

The University team is working with Children 1st and Victim Support Scotland – two large Scottish organisations who work closely with children and families impacted by violence and abuse, as well as Children England, an infrastructure charity communicating learning from the children’s sector to decision-makers in England. In April 2020, the project was awarded additional funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, in order to source a site to begin building Scotland’s first Child’s House for Healing.

Working to implement this model has meant working with local services too. Professor Devaney shares how the project has benefited from the wide range of perspectives and expertise: “One of the early developments has been to establish a high-level strategic group called Delivering the Vision, with partners across the Scottish Government and the public sector, including the Crown Office, NHS Scotland, Police Scotland and Social Work Scotland.

“This group will ensure that the Child’s House for Healing – and the learning from the evaluation – has the potential to influence and support all the systems in Scotland for protecting children from harm.”

Dr Mitchell believes that this successful collaboration is an example of what the University research community is capable of, when they look to work with external organisations: “The partnership behind this new project is a model of good practice for how the University can work with local partners in ways which are meaningful and have the ability to deliver real and sustained impact from all that we do.”

a group of children sit around a table with an adult

A model for the future

The appetite for this project has shown the need to transform systems to uphold children’s rights to justice and support to recover from violence and abuse. Professor Devaney elaborates: “Multi-professional child-protection interventions are developing and changing to reflect more integrated and child-centred approaches for handling suspected child abuse.”

Once the Barnahus is built, it will provide opportunities to carry out and share more research in this area. The idea is to encourage knowledge exchange across the partnership and, once they’re built, across other Barnahus sites too.

“This project will provide rich learning opportunities, which will make a significant international contribution to the theory and practice of working with children affected by violence,” Professor Devaney adds.

The team is already engaged in additional work supporting the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People in ensuring that a Barnahus is established there.

Dr Mitchell is also excited to see how the project could develop: “Future plans for research include looking at how the Barnahus concept and model adapts over time and between national contexts, given the different legal and child protection systems internationally.”

Professor Devaney concludes: “The University’s social work department has a long and well-established reputation for internationally significant research with children and families. We’re delighted to be involved in this internationally relevant work that shows the value of research in partnership with civil society organisations in addressing pressing societal issues.”