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Last year the University began work on an exciting collaborative project – to build Scotland’s first Barnahus.

Dr Mary Mitchell, Lecturer in Social Work in the School of Social & Political Science, explains exactly what this is: “Barnahus – which means a house for children in Icelandic – is a child-friendly, multidisciplinary and interagency model responding to child victims and witnesses of violence.” Working with Professor John Devaney, Centenary Chair and Head of Social Work, Dr Mitchell is part of the team bringing this revolutionary concept to Scotland.

Based on the successful Scandinavian Barnahus model, Scotland’s first Child’s House for Healing is the outcome of an impressive collaboration with Children 1st, Victim Support Scotland and Children England. In April 2020, the team was also awarded additional funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery to source a site to begin building the house.

Icelandic Barnahus exterior.

Professor Devaney explains more about how this new house will help children and their families who have been exposed to crime: “The ambition of the Child’s House for Healing is transformational change for children, young people and their families when they experience child protection and justice processes. The House will be underpinned by a rights-based approach embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The University of Edinburgh has responsibility for leading on the external three-year evaluation of the Child’s House for Healing and Dr Mitchell is the Principal Investigator for this part of the project.”

This model differs from the current system as it provides the children with a singular safe space, which will improve their experience of the process and hopefully prevent lasting trauma. Dr Mitchell elaborates: “Children exposed to violence and abuse are vulnerable and may need several services to support them and their family. Currently, services in Scotland are primarily delivered by multiple providers in multiple settings, creating the risk to children of ‘secondary victimisation’.”

Professor Devaney adds: “Barnahus offers a model that attempts to meet children’s needs by offering multiple services under one roof in a child-friendly venue. It is hoped that the experience of children in Barnahus will not only provide them with justice, but support their recovery from any trauma they may have experienced, in a manner that recognises their rights and capacities.

“The project aims to transform the manner in which services are delivered to children. Ultimately, improving the outcomes and wellbeing of children affected by violence is our goal. Knowledge will be transferred and exchanged with international collaborators, and there is a hope that the model will take root in Scotland.”

The Barnahus project is a huge collaboration across several key institutions and illustrates how powerful these partnerships can be in leading the way for change. Dr Mitchell shares more detail about who’s involved: “The current project is a partnership between the University and two large and well-respected Scottish organisations – Children 1st and Victim Support Scotland – which work with children and families impacted by violence and abuse. We are also fortunate to be working with Children England, an umbrella organisation advising the Westminster government about the needs of children.

“Bringing together these different sets of expertise and knowledge allows us to look at how the learning from Scotland’s first Child’s House for Healing can help to improve services for children and families who have experienced or witnessed violence or abuse.”

Working in this collaborative way, while staying at home has had its challenges, but Professor Devaney feels that the varied backgrounds of people involved has meant that the project has benefited from a huge 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.

Icelandic Barnahus interview room

“This group will ensure that the Child’s House for Healing and the learning from the evaluation has the potential to influence and support the systems in Scotland for protecting children from harm. This aims to ensure that children experience justice, and that they are supported to recover from the harm they have experienced.”

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 borne out of a long-standing working relationship between Children 1st and the University of Edinburgh. This 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.”

Professor Devaney agrees, and believes there are wider implications too: “The promotion of the Barnahus model internationally can be considered a manifestation of how multi-professional child-protection interventions are developing and changing to reflect more integrated and child-centred approaches for handling suspected child abuse.

“As such, 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. We are 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 of Edinburgh, and the social work department in particular, has a long and well-established reputation for internationally significant research with children and families. We are 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.”