Dr. Astrid Podsiadlowski - Head of Sector on Social Rights and Project Manager on Rights of the Child, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights
Dr. Astrid Podsiadlowski is focal point and project manager on Rights of the Child and Head of Sector on Social Rights in the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). The Agency is providing evidence-based advice to decision makers on European and national level based on quantitative and qualitative fieldwork research and secondary data analyses of policies, legislation and statistics.
Her areas of expertise include child-friendly justice, child participation, child poverty, discrimination and social inequalities. She is a social and cross-cultural psychologist by training and has previously held academic research and teaching positions in Europe as well as New Zealand and the USA.
FRA has recently published the second edition of the “Handbook on European law relating to the rights of the child”. Since the publication of its first edition, in 2015, what would you say have been the greatest advances in children’s rights in the EU?
In April we launched an update of the Handbook that provides an overview of legislation and case law relating to the rights of the child, both within the EU and the Council of Europe systems. It gives an overview of all areas of law and a broad range of issues ranging from civil rights and freedoms, migration and asylum, protection from violence and exploitation, family law and many others.
The new edition of the Handbook, although keeping the same structure and overview of topics, has expanded on emerging issues such as for example online abuse and LGBTI rights. Here, the Handbook reflects an incipient jurisprudence, still under development, but also legislative developments. The new edition of the Handbook has also elaborated on areas of law which were already well reflected in the first edition, but where further developments have taken place. This is clearly the case of asylum and migration and access to justice.
What areas do you believe are going to experience the greatest progress in children’s rights over the next few years in the EU?
I am confident that the legislation and case law for the protection of children from online abuse, as well as the protection of LGBTI children, or children raised in LGBTI families, will continue to develop in the years to come. The most recent crises, be it the pandemic or the war in the Ukraine, have also shed increasing light on the need to prevent and fight poverty and social exclusion of children. With the EU’s commitment to build a more social Europe through targeted policy measures and fundings progress is expected to decrease children’s risk at poverty. This should particularly be the case when it comes to children in vulnerable situations, such as living in care, or children with disabilities or migrant background.
FRA has also recently published a report on the implementation of EU Directive 2016/800 on procedural safeguards for children who are suspects or accused persons in criminal proceedings, in 9 Member States. The report draws upon interviews that were conducted with juvenile justice professionals and children alike. Based on the children’s testimonies, which are the most common shortcomings regarding the practical implementation of this Directive within the justice systems examined?
Based on what we learned from professionals and from children themselves about their experiences as suspects or accused persons, we see persistent shortcomings when it comes to ensuring child-friendly justice across Europe. Again, we see clear gaps in ensuring children’s right to information and individual assessments so that criminal proceedings are adapted to children’s needs and circumstances.
Most of the children interviewed did not receive information from authorities in a manner that they could understand what is happening to them and what their rights are. Here, lawyers function as main source of information and guidance for children. However, lawyers tend to only come in at a later stage of the proceedings, e.g., when police already questioned children and extracted confessions without a lawyer present. In those situations, some children also mentioned police maltreatment, including verbal abuse and sometimes violence. Overall, the lack of information, lack of respect and age-appropriate treatment hinder effective participation of children in the proceedings.
What measures should be taken to tackle these common shortcomings?
In all the areas that we specifically looked into we found promising practices but also shortcomings. I want to highlight a few measures that we propose in our FRA opinions in the report:
- Authorities should adapt their individual communications to ensure children understand their rights and what needs doing, taking into consideration language and maturity.
- Authorities should ensure that all children have effective legal assistance throughout criminal proceedings, including during police questioning. They should also not underestimate the support family members can provide during the whole process.
- All alleged cases of misconduct by state agents should be thoroughly investigated and punished.
- Authorities should always carry out effective and timely assessments and fully involve the children.
- Judges should use more closed hearings especially for serious crimes.
- The media should also adhere to ethical guidelines when reporting on cases involving children.
Now considering the answers provided by the justice professionals in their interviews, what is their general level of training or specialisation for dealing with children who come into contact with the criminal justice system?
What we could see is that specific training on criminal cases involving children is stipulated in law and offered in most Member States studied. However, training is mostly voluntary, and many professionals do not benefit from it. Sessions often focus on legal issues and not on child psychology, social developments and manner of communicating with children, despite clearly communicated training needs. Looking at the experiences of children to be treated disrespectfully and violently highlights the need of training, specifically when in first contact with authorities. A way forward is that many professionals interviewed acknowledge that dealing with children is challenging and that they would appreciate training.
The report has also revealed interesting good practices that some of these justice systems have implemented to treat these children in a child-sensitive manner. Would you like to highlight any?
We highlighted several promising practices in our report. Let me highlight two, one on the relevance of information throughout proceedings and another one on the also very important topic that I haven’t addressed yet: to use detention only as a last resort and as short as possible.
The first practice is about child-friendly information throughout proceedings. The Estonian Ministry of Justice has a website on child-friendly proceedings. It includes information and contacts for children and parents dealing with the legal system. The website also includes information on how a court hearing is conducted and how to behave during the hearing. The information is in child-friendly language.
Authorities in Estonia also created a template for declaring the rights of children, while they were incorporating the directive into law in 2019. It is a new declaration, separate from the general declaration of rights of suspects and accused persons. It explains procedural rights in simple, child-friendly language. It also outlines additional rights, such as the right to be informed of the progress of the proceedings.
The second practice is the Social Net Conferencing (Sozialnetzkonferenz or Soneco) in Austria, which is an initiative to reduce the time child defendants spend in pre-trial detention. It is only available to children in pre-trial detention. The probation service Neustart offers and coordinates this.
Soneco consists of meetings between crucial members of the child defendant’s social network and professionals. Members of the child’s social network include parents, neighbours, friends, football coaches and priests. Examples of professionals are job coaches, residential facility staff, therapists and Youth Welfare Authority staff. The meetings aim to develop alternative measures to pre-trial detention, and they require the child’s consent.
According to our interviewees, Soneco is a positive initiative. Recidivism rates are very low when children are released from pre-trial detention earlier through Soneco. It is an important instrument for helping reintegrate children deprived of liberty into society and prevent recidivism.