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The Rights of the Children in Practice: Exploring a Multidisciplinary Approach to Child-friendly Justice in European Law

Assoc. Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D. i Ankie Vandekerckhove
Assoc. Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D. i Ankie Vandekerckhove

The professional training named “The Rights of the Children in Practice: Exploring a Multidisciplinary Approach to Child-friendly Justice in European Law” took place in Zagreb on November 19th and 20th. The training was sponsored by European Commission and the lecturers invited were: Lana Peto Kunjundžić, Rebecca O’Donnell, Aisling Parkers, Ankie Vandekerckhove and Gordana Buljan Flander.

Lana Peto Kujundžić is a juvenile judge with over 30 years of experience, president of the County Court Department of Youth and the Juvenile and Family Judges Association’s president. She actively participates in law constructing regarding her fields of interest and binds the institutions focused on child protection, also partaking in different ethical committees. She is a Council of Europe’s educator and an international UNICEF consultant. She authorized numerous expert scientific papers and books and works as a permanent lecturer in graduate university programs.

In her lecture named “The Difference between the Regulations and Reality in Judging Felonies when Children Damaged” she presented the treatment legislation of children and youth on the Court of law. However, she also alerted to the real Croatian legal system, which often has no the capacity to fulfill the legally certain conditions and actions (e.g. there is no enough staff in order to have a professional associate in every court). The lecturer appointed to importance of permanent specialization of every expert included in child-care system. She proposed some concrete suggestions of improvement – conducting the program of court rationalization, introducing some special child-care units in the Centre for Social Welfare, opening specialized policlinics as medical institutions and conducting expert’s further specialization. She introduced the audience in Croatian juvenile court’s history and the Children’s Right Convention, which includes prevention, interventions, protection and participation. She explained the specificities of being juvenile judge or professional associate with children in court, as well as the disciplinary measures for youth.

Reecca O’Donnell qualified as a Barrister in Law at the Honourable Society of the Kings Inns (Dublin, Ireland). She is the co-founder of Child Circle, the recently established Brussels based NGO focusing on child protection in EU law and policy. She also works as an independent expert with a wide range of stakeholders on strategic advocacy initiatives and regional projects in the field of EU Justice and politics. She has worked with Save the Children EU Office for six years, where her work focused on EU asylum and migration law and policy. She also worked as a European partner in an international law firm dealing with EU antitrust. During her thirteen years long career in the field of EU law in Brussels she had represented clients in a wide range of cases before the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.

In her lecture “General Principles and Basic Instruments for the Protection of Children’s Rights in Justice Settings”, the lecturer has explained when and how the EU processes can influence the children in court matter, trough defining the political area and types of processes which go to support the children friendly legal system. Furthermore, she has explained the obligations introduced by EU law, for example studying the child support regulations and assessing their circumstances. She has pointed out the European Court for Human Rights and European Court of Justice’s newest regional court practice. In the end she has explained which EU resources can contribute the participants trough awaking especially authoritative EU resources, presenting the guidelines for their usage, studies and projects. Finally the participants have had the opportunity to actively participate the debate based on real case scenarios prepared by the lecturer.

Dr. Aisling Parkes is an academic member of staff at the School of Law, University College Cork, Ireland since 2008. She teaches Children’s Rights, Disability Law, Child Law, Sports Law and English Land Law. Her occupational research fields are the children’s rights and laws. She actively participates public and media debates, as well as scientific and expert conferences. She is the member of interdisciplinary research team situated on her parent university. She is highly skilled and rewarded for her teaching, especially regarding disabled students’ rights. She is the program director of the Evening BCL Degree.

In her lecture “Ensuring Effective Participation: The Children’s Right to be Heard” the lecturer has explained the reasons children should have the right to speak up regarding the decisions including themselves. She corroborated it by the Children Right Convection; due to Article 12, the child has the right to be heard and his stance should be taken according to the child’s age and maturity. The lecturer has conducted the literal and legal analysis of the Article 12 and explained its practical meaning in different fields – family or felony matters and any processes including children as victims or witnesses. Furthermore, she has presented all the conditions needed for children’s successful participation in court – informing the child, child-friendly environment, acknowledging the child’s individuality, providing feedback and ensuring the objecting mechanisms. She has also pointed out some common obstacles in realizing the Article 12 – age limits, cultural and family traditions, lack of skills and professional training, arbitrarily judges’ behavior, lack of political will and enforce the law etc. Until recently the lack of concrete guidelines was the important obstacle as well, but they are composed and presented in this lecture. The participants have had the opportunity to apply their recent knowledge on some practical cases.

Ankie Vandekerckhove studied law and criminology in Belgium. She had worked as a lawyer, researcher at the Ghent University Centre for Children’s Rights, legal and policy advisor in public agencies. She is an independent children’s right expert for the Council of Europe and the EU, as well as a project coordinator at research center focused on early childhood care and education.

In her lecture “Best Practice Guidelines for Interacting with Children in Legal Situations” she has presented some guidelines for making the legal system child-friendly (2010). The main points are: the children’s participation right, pleading children’s best interests, protecting the children’s dignity, protecting the children of discrimination and ensuring the function of legal system, no matter the specific child’s age. She described in detail the environment and language well adjusted for children in court, for example the person of trust present or child informed about the environment and roles in courtroom. She presented the children’s perspective regarding their needs in court. Their main needs include treating them with respect, listening to them, providing them understandable information and information about their rights. The participants had a chance to critically discuss and apply their recently acquired knowledge through the workshop.

Assoc. Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, Ph.D. is a psychologist and psychotherapist who devoted her career to child rights protection. Ever since she started working at Child Hospital Zagreb, she has focused her work on traumatized children and their families. During the war in Croatia she volunteered with children victims and refugees. She founded the helpline for children called “Brave Phone” in 1997, and in 2002 she also founded the Child Protection Center of Zagreb, which is the only institution specialized for children’s abuse and neglect in the whole South-East Europe. The Center is recognized as an example of good practice by European Commission. Currently she is the Center’s principal, a coordinator, educator and supervisor of expert project “Prevention and intervention in child abuse and neglect”. She is teaching students at graduate and postgraduate programs at the University of Zagreb and University of Osijek. She authored and co-authored numerous scientific and expert papers and books regarding child development, parenting and child trauma. She has been appointed a court expert for psychology.

In her lecture “Best Practices in Communicating with Children in Legal Proceedings” she has explained the children’s needs in legal procedures, emphasizing the importance of sending the message that abuse is never a child’s fault, as well as the time itself will not help the child. She pointed out the importance of non-abusing parent’s support and referred the participants in reasons children do not talk about abuse, especially in context of adults’ reactions on children’s disclosure. She described children’s feelings on court and explained the children’s stress predictors. Despite the existence of European Guidelines for child protection in such delicate situations, the lecturer has warned about still present gap between theory and practice, which can be spanned by multidisciplinary and intersectional approach. She presented the Child Protection Center of Zagreb. Furthermore she described the forensic interviewing conducted in the Center and modern NICHD forensic protocol. At least she encouraged the judges to refer children in the Center, where they can witness supported by forensics and mental health experts.