Children as war crimes witnesses: how to work with them in courts and during investigation to avoid re-traumatising them. Column by Yevheniia Bondarenko for ZMINA
Many tragedies caused by the Russian invasion have taken place in front of young Ukrainians. They are witnessing and becoming victims of attacks, deportations, and tortures. According to official figures, since the beginning of the war, more than a thousand children have been injured, more than a thousand are missing, and about 20,000 have been deported.
Many children may become witnesses or victims in war-related criminal proceedings. However, they are a group that requires special understanding and adapted approaches. After all, a child perceives the world differently from an adult.
Regardless of the role played by the child in the proceedings, participation in court proceedings has a strong impact on them. It is stressful, especially if the child is very small. They are already vulnerable because of their status as a child, but the circumstances they experience as a result of war can make them even more vulnerable.
It is therefore very important that children feel safe. This will protect them from re-traumatisation and help them to give the fullest possible testimony, which is important for investigating war crimes in particular.
How to help children cope with stress in court better?
In developed countries, this practice is common. A special person is appointed to support the child in court. This person should have special skills and be sensitive in working with children, helping to reduce anxiety and stress.
This person provides support to the child at all stages of participation in court proceedings. For example, they can wait for the court hearing with the child, explain the court processes and outcomes, sit next to the child while the child is testifying, and calm the child down if necessary. During the trial, such a person can ask the court for a break when the child needs it. At the same time, the presence and role of parents or guardians is not rejected, as such a person is not intended to replace the guardians, but to create comfortable conditions for the child.
Another good practice is to invite a special mediator for the court interview. This person should establish a connection between the interviewer and the child in communication. This should not necessarily be a psychologist. However, such a person should be trained in communication with children and court interviewing techniques.
How to interview a child?
An interview or questionnaire makes the child relive the traumatic experience and, as a result, can lead to distortion of evidence. It is therefore recommended that the number of testimonial interviews to be conducted should be kept to a minimum, ideally to one. It is important to remember that an adult is a figure of authority for a child. When the same question is asked several times, the child may change his or her testimony to gain approval. This will not be a lie, but a consequence of misunderstanding the child’s psyche.
There is a problem with closed-ended or multiple-choice questions for children. Unconsciously, children may answer “yes” or “no” to closed-ended questions without thinking. Or they may simply choose the last option. This can lead to false testimony. Therefore, it is important to prepare open-ended questions and encourage children to tell what they saw in their own words.
When a child finds it difficult to express himself or herself after a traumatic experience, especially sexual and physical abuse, other methods of eliciting information may be worth considering. For example, using anatomical dolls can help, on which the child can show which parts of the body were touched and what was being done. You can offer to indirectly tell about the facts of violence through a drawing, etc.
It is also important to have a conversation rather than an interrogation so that the child feels as comfortable and protected as possible. You should not demand answers to every question asked, or push the child to “crack”. This will not work. Instead, it is better to rephrase the question or switch to details that are not relevant to the case in order to establish psychological contact with the child.
Where should children be interviewed?
It is advisable that the child testifies in a separate room via videoconference rather than in the courtroom. This will help the child avoid contact with the defendant. The Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine provides for such an option.
The room where communication with the child takes place should be comfortable and safe. A useful practice is to use so-called green rooms. These are cosy, bright, soundproof, spacious rooms with calm colours around. In such rooms, a child can draw or sort through toys rather than look at the person he or she is talking to.
It is also worth making waiting rooms child-friendly. Furniture in such rooms should be of two sizes: for very young and older children. There should be comfort items in the waiting area, such as soft-coloured cushions, toys and books appropriate for different age groups.
If the child is present in the courtroom, he or she should also be able to use comfortable furniture (e.g. high chairs) that does not create barriers.
Today, Ukraine is actively developing a system of services for vulnerable court visitors. Many judges and court staff members have taken the initiative to create child-friendly spaces, and court volunteers provide the necessary support to children during proceedings.
For example, the Kozelshchynsk District Court in Poltava region has a “green room” that helps to create a child-friendly environment for children who are witnesses or victims.
The Vinnytsia Court of Appeal and the Ternopil City District Court are involved in implementing the Barnahus model.
Barnahus (Icelandic for “home for children» – ed.) is a place where a multidisciplinary team of law enforcement, criminal justice, child protection, medical and mental health professionals work together to ensure that children – victims and witnesses – receive coordinated and effective protection and services, as well as child-friendly justice.
In a barnahus, children can be interviewed, get a comprehensive assessment, a forensic medical examination, and be referred to professionals to receive necessary therapeutic services.
This experience should be shared as the number of war crimes cases involving children as witnesses or victims will only keep growing.
*Yevheniia Bondarenko, national expert of EU Pravo-Justice Project
The text was first published in online media ZMINA.