Significance of the Children's House and IMPRODOVA projects for effective high impact violence management in Slovenia
Due to its nature, domestic violence is often concealed. It occurs behind the walls of apartments and houses, away from the public eye, neighbours and supervisory institutions. Considering the findings of family therapy, the developments in a family are isolated from its surroundings by means of invisible psychological, often impenetrable barriers. The barriers make the impact of supervisory and social institutions, such as the police, social work centres and schools, restricted and limited. This is especially true when things that are considered to be domestic violence occur in the family. We already want to keep the lives we lead at home private, and silence and concealment are further enhanced when domestic violence occurs within the family.
Some authors thus wonder if the reality on the prevalence of such violence is different than presented by official statistical data. Can it perhaps be described with an illustration of the iceberg, and the actual reports on domestic violence are only the tip of the iceberg, while the concealed part that is inaccessible for discussion in pre-trial and criminal proceedings is much more extensive?
The fact that domestic violence is very common can be checked online and no official data by competent authorities is needed to support that. A quick enquiry in an Internet browser of average quality about the phrase "domestic violence" will provide as many as 58,300,000 results. The official data from the Police is also very high and even higher if compared to the comparable period of the previous year, at least for criminal offences. In the first half of 2019, the Slovenian Police investigated 638 criminal offences of domestic violence; this number increased by 106 of such offences in the first half of 2020. Under the chapter of criminal offences against marriage, family and children, experts also classify criminal offences of neglect and maltreatment of a minor, abduction of a minor and certain other criminal offences. In the first half of 2019, the number of such criminal offences totalled 1,242 and this number increased by as many as 235 criminal offences in the first half of 2020. If this data only represents the tip of an iceberg, what is the actual situation?
The IMPRODOVA project and high impact domestic violence
Highly-trained criminal police officers investigate criminal offences of domestic violence, while other police employees deal with domestic violence with regard to research, systemic and targeted discussion. This is particularly true when the former conduct their duties within the framework of various research and innovation projects. Due to the truly acute issue of violence in the modern society, these projects are growing in numbers.
One of these is also the IMPRODOVA – Improving Frontline Responses to High Impact Domestic Violence H2020 project financed by the European Commission, which deals with high impact domestic violence. It refers to improved response by frontline responders to such violence and is based on the assumption that a section of unreported criminal offences of domestic violence can be the subject of improvements in the response procedures of frontline responders. High impact domestic violence certainly includes violence against the weakest members of the family and society – children. Any type of violence taking place in the family is unacceptable, and this specifically refers to violence against children. Irrespective of whether children are exposed to violence as witnesses when they observe violence between their parents on a daily basis or if they are victims of physical, sexual, psychological or any other form of violence (we forget too frequently that neglect is a form of violence), this is inadmissible from the aspect of modern society. We should therefor do everything in our power to prevent it from happening. We should do everything possible that the occurrence of such behaviour would diminish and its consequences decrease.
Children deserve to live in a safe and loving environment. Unfortunately, the reality is different for many children, since they are too often the victims of abuse and exploitation or they witness criminal offences by those who should enable them to grow up benevolently, peacefully and healthily. Although the home should be a safe and stable environment for every family member, particularly children, we know from experience that this is frequently not so.
The Children's House project
When a child's reality becomes a reality of abuse and exploitation, Children's House or Barnhus can provide a safe and stable environment, although only for a short time. This project ensures special treatment of a child, the victim of sexual violence and other criminal offences against sexual integrity. Children's House also represents the joint efforts of competent state authorities to minimise children's trauma in procedures that need to be implemented in order to clarify all circumstances and details of inadmissible conduct towards them or that which they have witnessed. In simpler terms, the system comes to the child.
The activities for the introduction of Children's House in Slovenia have been underway since 2017 when the Government of the Republic Slovenia adopted the decision to establish Children's House. It is thus prevented that the child, a victim of violence, is repeatedly interrogated or asked questions by various services and medically examined at different locations. The inter-ministerial harmonisation of the proposed Protection of Children in Criminal Procedure and their Comprehensive Treatment in Children's House Act is currently underway. Slovenia is one of only a few countries to arrange the operations of Children's House with a special act.
Within the framework of a pre-trail procedure, the police will still implement all proceedings necessary to prove a criminal offence. As before, the expert workers will conduct procedures to protect the victim and provide first aid to the victim and those closest to them. Whereby both authorities will be able to use Children's House, which will dispose of the entire service enabling the discussion of the victim. This includes the possibilities of medical examination, gynaecological and psychological if necessary. A forensic interview with a child will also take place in Children's House.
At the prosecutor's proposal, the investigating judge will be able to issue an order to refer a child to Children's House within criminal proceedings where procedures of comprehensive discussion will be carried out.
Children's House is not directly aimed at investigating domestic violence or criminal offences classified in the Criminal Code under the chapter on criminal offences against marriage, family and children. As stated above, it aims at investigating or otherwise dealing with criminal offences of sexual abuse and other criminal offences against sexual integrity whose victims are children. Whereby, it does not focus so much on who the offender was and where the criminal offences took place. Children may be victims of offenders who are not family members and may be victims in and outside the family or a family-like community (e.g. other relatives with whom the children do not live, teachers, childcare workers, strangers, etc.). Children's House puts forward the victim's needs, everything else is of secondary importance.
Similarities between the IMPRODOVA and Children's House projects
When thinking about what can be learned in the IMPRODOVA project from the Children's House project, we can see that both projects have many things in common that may lead to the universal principles of responding to high impact domestic violence. Both projects:
- deal with violence and the safety issue that was recognised as important by the Slovenian Police and other institutions, which may contribute to a suitable discussion;
- are primarily aimed at protecting children as the victims of violence irrespective of who the offender is and where violence is taking place (family or elsewhere);
- are based on mutual cooperation of various institutions (the IMPRODOVA project focuses on cooperation of the frontline responders such as the police, health workers, social work centres, NGOs, while the Children's House project is aimed at the cooperation of the police, the judiciary and social and health institutions);
- have established themselves in various EU Member States and were adjusted to legislative frameworks of individual Member States;
- are founded and supported by means of media, professional and scientific sphere by applying different communication channels (e.g. websites, social platforms, scientific contributions within conferences and consultations, etc.);
- serve as the basis for updating or amending the existing legislation. Although the activities within the IMPRODOVA project have not given any concrete results in Slovenia as yet, the findings from the Children's House project have on the other hand already encouraged proposals to amend the Protection of Children in Criminal Procedure and their Comprehensive Treatment in Children's House Act. As per the Criminal Procedure Act and the Criminal Code, this is a specialised act whose purpose is to improve child protection and is currently undergoing the inter-institutional and inter-ministerial harmonisation;
- are aimed at training experts. The findings of both projects will be used, for example, within the PROMISE 3 project that started for the first group of Slovenian criminal police officers on 5 October 2020 and is anticipated to start in March 2021 for the second group. The observations of the IMPRODOVA project are also incorporated in the curriculum renewal at the Police Academy and the training programmes of police officers;
- strive to form lasting and universal recommendations regarding the response to family violence. Within the IMPRODOVA project, a monograph, Handbook of High Impact Domestic Violence in Europe, is expected, while similar activities of the Children's House project are included in the proposal of the so-called Children's House Act. This in addition to the institutional framework, principles and procedures to protect minors within a special expert public institution, also include crisis and psychosocial support for the child.
If we return to the beginning, we can establish that there is a significant amount of family violence and violence against children, irrespective of its categorisation. Too much, even if we do not consider the illustration of the iceberg. However, the fact that there is increasingly more high-quality research, knowledge-based police activities and other competent stakeholders is encouraging. Also encouraging is the fact that the focus of supervisory institutions in this field is shifting from offenders to the victims of violence, particularly with regard to the protection of the most vulnerable members in our society and those who need our help the most – children. We thus believe that the projects, such as Children's House, PROMISE 3 and IMPRODOVA, are important and, above all, socially responsible.
Nevertheless all the above is still only scratching the top of the iceberg, as it concerns only the reported cases. To achieve more, all of us (all members of the community) should take a stand of zero tolerance against domestic violence and thus report all indicators of such actions against the most vulnerable.
2020-12-07 by Dr Aleksander Koporec Oberčkal, Police Academy, Slovenia