Criminal Justice: What tactics are practitioners using to help child victims access justice through the criminal court system?

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Criminal Justice: What tactics are practitioners using to help child victims access justice through the criminal court system?

In this discussion topic, we will explore the tactics that practitioners are using to help child victims access justice through the criminal court system. How are children and teens empowered to participate in the criminal court system? What tactics have practitioners used where the identification of the child victim would be dangerous for the child because of reprisals or risks of re-victimisation? Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

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When the justice system views child victims as offenders

There's no doubt that the criminal justice system can be tough on child victims.  Kids are dragged through a complex system they don't understand and are often made to relive their trauma several times over.  While there are more "child-friendly" procedures in place now than in years past, I'm struggling with the challenges facing children who are bought and sold in the sex trade.  Unlike other child victims, these children are often arrested and detained, rather than rescued and treated.  Does anyone know of child-friendly procedures that work for these kids, in particular?  Are there ways to improve identification and reporting?

(On a side note, I wonder if there are lessons from cases in which kids are used in other kinds of illegal activity, such as drug trafficking or smuggling...)


Assist, don't arrest.


Darlene -- I agree. In the context of commercial sexual exploitation of children (and many other issues), we need to see children as they really are: as victims and survivors, not criminals.  That takes a mindset shift. It also requires addressing institutional incentives. It's difficult to expect law enforcement to change their approach, if all their job incentives remain the same. The officer who arrests fewer individuals in an attempt to be more victim-centered is less likely to be promoted, if incentives are still based only on arrests, prosecutions, and convictions.

In terms of identification, I think other sectors -- health care, education, and the private sector among others -- have a key role to play in this area.


Child-friendly villages example to spark ideas for procedures

While I don't have a specific example of how criminal justice procedures have become 'child-friendly', New Tactics does have a tactic case study about building child-friendly villages in India. It's a useful resource because it is full of examples of impact, but also outlines the steps taken to build/change the attitude of villages on every level. It really prioritizes giving voice to children and including them in decision-making. Maybe this example could spark ideas for child-friendly procedures.

Save the Childhood Foundation, which was started under the banner of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, developed the concept and application of child friendly villages as a way to not only promote education for all but also combat the cycle of child labor. Child labor is both a cause as well as a consequence of poverty, illiteracy and lack of human security. The aim of child friendly villages is to create and sustain a child friendly atmosphere within the community to ensure education and put an end to child labor.

Looking forward to learning of other examples of resources for building child-friendly procedures, attitudes, structures and villages!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Resources on child-friendly approaches


Picking up on the broader theme of child-friendly initiatives, there are a few Innocenti publications that provide interesting ideas on child participation:

Roger Hart, Children's Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship,

Gerison Lansdown, Promoting Children's Participation in Democratic Decision-Making,

Feinstein and O'Kane, Children's and Adolescent's Participation and Protection from Sexual Abuse and Exploitation,

More generally, as I suspect this group knows, there is the UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Initiative (  I've seen some of the materials on this, but I haven't had the chance to examine/evaluate particular programs. I'd be interested to hear of any evaluations of these or other child friendly cities initiatives. Thanks.

Testimony by Child Victims & the Best Interests Standard

We've spoken about the early stages of access to justice in the criminal system -- identifying victims and helping victims to report.  I've been doing some reading about "child-friendly" courtroom techniques, which are designed to make the courtroom experience less traumatic for kids and help them hold their abusers accountable.

In some countries, the law does not require children to provide live testimony, for example.  A variety of alternatives exist, such as closed circuit TV, prior recorded testimony, or even admission of the child's testimony through an intermediary.  (In the US, where the defendant's right to confrontation is strong, the laws are a bit more restrictive, but accommodations can still be made under certain circumstances, such as when a child is very young or very fragile.)  

While these child-friendly courtroom procedures are on the books in many countries, I wonder if any of the practicing lawyers out there can speak about whether they are actually being used?  In the US, motivated prosecutors can submit pretrial motions to seek accommodations for child victim/witnesses.   How is it done in other places?  Are the hurdles higher? Lower?  (I have a particular interest in SE Asia, East Africa, and Eastern Europe.)

Of course, many prosecutors prefer that a child testify live, assuming the child is strong enough, because live testimony has the greatest impact. Looking at this through the lens of child rights, what do we think?  When is it in the child's best interests to testify?  When is it empowering and when is it damaging?  Is there research that can help us know where to draw the line?

To end with a broader question:  The CRC and OPSC require prosecutors to manage their cases with the best interests of the child victim/witness in mind.  Yet, while the best interests standard is quite familiar in children's courts, it is much less understood in adult courts where crimes against children are tried, particularly in jurisdictions without child-specialized units. My question is:  Do you think criminal justice professionals around the world have a good understanding of the best interests standard as it applies to prosecutions of crimes against children?  Is the standard being applied when children seek justice through the criminal courts?


Darlene, your point about

Darlene, your point about training on best interests for judges in criminal courts (and not just youth courts or family courts) is an important one. I'm now aware of efforts to address this, though I'm interested to hear if others know of such efforts. I think you've identified a potential gap. 

On your other point, I know there are select jurisdictions in the US where prosecutors are trying to build cases against perpetrators of child trafficking offenses without relying on the child victim as witness. The easier route is of course to start with witness testimony but there is movement in select office to build cases around the victim/survivor, so that (a) the child's testimony isn't required and thus further trauma can be avoided, and (b) so the child doesn't feel the unduly pressured to testify as in some cases when the entire case depends on the child's testimony (that allows the child to have more of a choice in deciding whether to participate in the trial). 

Educating prosecutors about the impact of prosecutions on children and also on effective methods for building cases that don't rely so much on the testimony of child victims is important. 

Impacts of consistent testimony and Trauma-informed care

Darlene, to continue your discussions on child friendly techniques, I want to share some research that may help to explore your question of When is it in the child's best interests to testify?  When is it empowering and when is it damaging?  Is there research that can help us know where to draw the line?.

It seems that every case has unique circumstances but that a universal precaution is the necessity to avoid children testifying multiple times.  Research by Gail Goodman titled Childhood Trauma, and Court: The Psychology and the Law found that children who “suffered severe and intrafamilial” abuse that testified  multiple times showed  correlations with “later sexual problems, defensive avoidance, and internalization problems, such as depression”. Even children who seemed resilient at the time of their testimony ”later as adults did nearly as badly as those who presented behavioral problems”.

Despite, the impacts of consistently sharing testimony, the research emphasized the need for children to still speak and have their voice heard.  Goodman writes that “CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) victims who had the chance to speak at trial tend to have a more positive attitude towards the legal system and are more likely to think that the trial of their abuser was fair”.  Advocates need to minimize the number of times that children share traumatic stories.

I also found a report sharing recommendations for  legal advocates to consider  when the approaching youth who have encountered trauma.  It also  explains how to integrate Trauma-Informed Care of into Juvenile Justice systems.

Trauma creates a cyclical process of harm for youth. A report titled  HEALING INVISIBLE WOUNDS: Why Investing in Trauma-Informed Care for Children Makes Sense   by the Justice Policy Institute identifies that traumatized youth have disproportionate contact with the Juvenile Justice system and that the Juvenile Justice system traumatizes youth. The report  examines the impacts that the absence of Trauma-informed care practices have on youth.

Mobile Courtrooms, Paralegals & Juvenile Justice

To help young people access the justice system, the Philippines created a program to transform buses into mobile courtrooms. The program started in 2004 and was launched to alleviate decongestion in youth reception centers, juvenile facilities, and jails. It focused on rural areas that were hard to reach where children were detained for a longer period than allowed under the maximum penalty for their case. Similar to a traditional courtroom, young people were given access to judges, prosecutors, mediators, clerks, and lawyers. Each bus also traveled with a court stenographer, docket clerk, process server, and a courtroom guard. 

In Kosovo, the courts created at least one juvenile judge position in each jurisdiction. The prosecution also provides for specialization in juvenile criminal law. The Kosovo Judicial Institute provides special trainings to judges, prosecutors, probation officers and others on best practices and outcomes for children. These trainings have also been instrumental in creating more awareness and acceptance of diversion programs. 

In Nepal, paralgals are stationed in police stations and they've been helpful in ensuring juveniles are not wrongly processed as adult offenders. They also help young detainees reach out to relatives to find funding for legal representation. 

Thanks, Christina.  And I

Thanks, Christina.  And I recommend your blog, Reinventing the Rules, to everyone.  It's a great to place to check out interesting new techniques for improving access to justice.

Thanks, Darlene! Sorry about

Thanks, Darlene! Sorry about the belated response! I just moved to Chicago and had some internet issues but I'm actually working on youth violence with Cure Violence (formerly Ceasefire). Not sure if you've heard of the organization, but figured I'd mention it since you went to school up here!

Progress on recognizing children as victims

I would like to share a great advancement in the state of Minnesota regarding victim focused services, especially for children victimized by sex trafficking.

Safe Harbors Law, SF1/HF1, Special Session Public Safety / Judiciary Bill, Article 4 Sexually Exploited Youth

This legislation allows Minnesota to build a system that responds appropriately and effectively to child victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking (prostitution). Included in the omnibus public safety budget bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law on July 20, 2011, Safe Harbors Minnesota does the following:

  • Treats sexually exploited (prostituted) children (under age 16) as victims in need of protection, not criminals, and establishes a mandatory first referral to services for youth ages 16 and 17;
  • Increases fines on “johns” to create a funding stream for supportive services; and
  • Develops a victim-centered statewide service model.

Key Provisions

  • Explicitly defines sexually exploited (prostituted) youth and sex trafficking (prostitution) victims as children in need of protection or services.
  • Excludes sexually exploited (prostituted) youth and sex trafficking (prostitution) victims from the definition of delinquency. This provision phases in, effective 2014, to ensure that adequate systems to address sexually exploited (prostituted) youth are in place.
  • Amends the definition of “prostitute” to include only individuals 18 years of age or older, effective 2014.
  • Charges the commissioner of public safety, in consultation with the commissioner of health, the commissioner of human services, and other stakeholders to develop a victim services model to address the needs of sexually exploited (prostituted) youth and youth at risk of sexual exploitation (prostitution).
  • Increases penalties for buyers of prostitution with revenue split between service providers, prosecutors, and law enforcement.

For more information about the progress the United States is making on recognizing minors as victims, go to Minnesota Girls are not for sale, I recommend the Women's Foundation of Minnesota website:

Resource - a model for better access to justice for children

I just came across a terrific resource from an organization in the United States, Shared Hope International. They have just published a very comprehensive report, Protected Innocence Challenge: A Legal Framework of Protection for the Nation's Children (2014). It outlines existing state laws and designed in such a way to help advocates assess what is happeningin their own state and equip them to push for better laws, resources and services to help child victims of trafficking.

Perhaps this could serve a good model for others advocating for better overall access to justice for children.