Romanian civic activists and legal institutions team up to create child-friendly interview spaces for young victims of sexual abuse.
A comfortable sofa, a small table with two angel-winged chairs, coloring sheets and crayons, and even a doll’s house. Things that would not be expected in this formal building. But rooms 305 and 306 are different. A sign on one of the doors reads: “Good Place. Children’s hearing room.”
We are in the Bucharest Prosecutor’s Office, a place where victims, witnesses, and defendants of the most serious crimes in the Romanian capital are interviewed daily.
Mihaela Chiper, president of Asociatia Victimelor Infractiunilor Sexuale (Association for Victims of Sexual Crimes, or VIS), is framing drawings that children have made while being interviewed over the past two years. She will hang the pictures on the newly lilac-colored walls. In 2022, VIS renovated and installed modern video equipment in the rooms.
Since 2021, Chiper and her association have set up this and seven other hearing rooms in prosecutors’ offices across the country, from scratch, through a fundraising campaign with another non-governmental organization.
“I wish every prosecutor’s office had a prosecutor specializing in child sex abuse cases,” Chiper says when we meet again in Constanta, the seaside town where she lives with her partner and their three daughters. Two years ago, a special interview room funded by VIS opened here. It’s a warm space, papered in blue with white polka dots and decorated with children’s drawings in colorful frames on the walls.
Along with a team of prosecutors and psychologists, her NGO brought in international experts last year in a joint project to train Romanian professionals in a relatively new, less stressful, method of interviewing child victims of sexual abuse.
Developed two decades ago by experts at the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, along with researchers from Israel, this method, known as the NICHD protocol, is now in use in around a dozen countries. Based on research into child psychology and memory, the method helps children to recall and tell the most painful stories of their lives in a way that makes them feel safe and listened to. Prosecutors and judges in the countries that have adopted the use of the NICHD protocol believe it allows them to obtain important details of a crime and improve the chances that the perpetrators are found and sentenced.
In 2022, 1,485 children were sexually abused in Romania, according to data from the county social welfare and child protection departments. Romanian police data, which are not correlated with social services data, show that in the same year there were 869 criminal reports of child rape and 694 reports of sexual assault on minors. Police also recorded 3,097 reports of the crime of sex with a minor, although in almost 70% of these incidents, the case was not sent to trial, according to justice experts.
The children’s hearing room in Bucharest first opened back in 2016, on the initiative of FONPC, an umbrella group of children’s NGOs.
At the time, Marian Trusca, a prosecutor in the Bucharest Prosecutor’s Office, set up the country’s first team of prosecutors specialized in child sexual abuse, all of them eager to use the well-received NICHD protocol. After seven years, the VIS group wanted to replicate this model throughout the country.
The germ of the idea behind VIS came to Chiper at her former job, when she covered the justice beat as a reporter on national TV. In 2016, the last story she filed, shortly after becoming a mother, reported the trial of several teachers at a private preschool accused of physically abusing toddlers.
Chiper sat in the courtroom, watching as very young children were brought in to testify. It was an image that stuck with her, and got her thinking about what she could do to make justice more child-friendly.
“I was shocked and didn’t understand why the judge was ordering that the children be brought to the courtroom for statements,” she says.
Already aware of the special children’s hearing room and team of trained prosecutors in Bucharest, Chiper found herself wishing that every Romanian town could be similarly equipped. When in 2020 she mentioned this dream to a former TV colleague, Melania Medeleanu – now the head of Zi de bine (“Tell Me the Good News”), an association that raises funds for various humanitarian causes – Medeleanu replied, “Why don’t you create these rooms yourself?” and promised to support her.
Just over two years ago, with the support of friends, her life partner,who is an architect, and Zi de bine, VIS raised funds and gained official permission to open the first special hearing room in Constanta.
Child Victims: Neither Seen nor Heard
Prosecutors from Bucharest’s special team say that unlike other crimes, where evidence can take the form of witness statements and audio or video recordings, in the case of child sexual abuse the victim’s statement is the crucial evidence. And to obtain such a statement requires not only the physical infrastructure of the special interview rooms but also human infrastructure: prosecutors trained to interview under the NICHD protocol. This method helps them to relate and build a safe relationship with the child in order to get important details about their abuse story.
More than 85% of complaints of sexual abuse never reach a judge, Trusca says, and many that do are dismissed for lack of evidence.
In the fall of 2022, Trusca went public with a claim that the Prosecutor General’s Office bore responsibility for the lack of training of prosecutors across the country to investigate cases of child sexual abuse.
“The General Prosecutor’s Office in Romania is ignorant when it comes to dealing with child sexual abuse,” he wrote for Juridice.ro, a site for Romanian justice professionals, making similar statements in an interview with RFE/RL.
Trusca had already joined VIS’s project to open more special children’s hearing rooms and train prosecutors in how to use them. Chiper and her organization “accomplished in a year what the Romanian state has not been able to do for decades,” he told Transitions.
“She has created processes that are now a model for the Romanian state, for the public system, and I hope this model will be taken up,” he said.
Romania’s justice system has also come in for criticism from international institutions over the way it tackles sexual abuse of children.
According to a 2016 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision, Romanian justice investigates such cases inconsistently, with no nationwide coordination, and has failed to pass legislation punishing all forms of rape and sexual abuse of children.
Laura Albu, a civic activist and a member of the Council of Europe’s GREVIO expert group on violence against women and domestic violence, argues that the Romanian justice system fails to treat children with respect. It’s a longstanding problem in Romania, Albu says. In the early 2000s, she helped set up a children’s hearing room in Iasi, the northeastern city where she lives.
Opening the room in itself was “an incredible achievement,” she says, before sadly recalling that police never used it as intended.
“Now, 20 years later, we’re in the same situation, nationally. We don’t have special rooms where children can be listened to; we don’t have justice professionals specialized in interacting with children; we don’t have continuous training for these professionals,” she says.
In a report issued in 2022, GREVIO cited the need for children’s hearing rooms, so that their statements need to be taken only once so as not to interview them multiple times and increase the risk of further traumatizing them.
Some children’s advocates say Romania’s legislation treating sexual violence is not in line with European law and have called for European Union action to spur Romania to update its legislation. This spring, 36 non-governmental organizations called for European Commission action against Romania over the treatment of victims of sexual crimes.
One problem is that interviews with child victims are not video-recorded so they are often interviewed more than once, which can cause re-traumatization, according to the NGOs.
Government Follows Civil Society’s Lead
In 2021, Medeleanu and Chiper raised almost 82,000 euros to set up six children’s interview rooms through crowdfunding campaigns and corporate donations. They say it costs 13,000 euros to furnish a room and equip it with a special recording system.
“It’s not a sexy topic and it wasn’t easy to raise the money, but we at Zi de bine mainly fund solution-based projects that can be replicated, either by the state or further managed by NGOs. And this project was clearly a solution for the justice system,” Medeleanu says.
Chiper said dozens of prosecutors and judges got in touch with her after learning of the rooms opened by VIS and Zi de bine to say such facilities would help them in their daily work of interviewing children.
Last summer, a prosecutor from Constanta told Chiper that he obtained a five-year sentence for an elderly man who intimately fondled his 9-year-old niece. Being able to interview the child in the prepared hearing room made her statement important evidence in the case, he said.
The positive reception of Bucharest’s pilot of special hearing rooms led to the idea being adopted on a countrywide level. In 2021, the Justice Ministry started a 2-million-euro project with Norwegian funds to set up 35 more interview rooms for minors.
“It’s extremely important that, once this kind of trauma occurs, the minor does not end up being subjected, again and again, to relive those abominable events,” Mihai Pasca, state secretary in the Ministry of Justice, said last year, the educational news site Edupedu.ro reported.
In addition to these new hearing rooms in prosecutor’s offices, a governmental program called “Din grija pentru copii” (For children, with care) oversaw the creation of 23 children’s interview rooms in police stations in 19 counties, as of October 2022.
Chiper welcomes these steps on the part of justice and police officials, saying it demonstrates that the idea of treating young victims with respect is having an impact. However, she stresses, both she and the original Bucharest group of prosecutors of crimes against minors, whom she considers her partners, know that physical infrastructure is only half the solution.
That’s why, starting last year, with the help of a UNICEF Romania grant obtained by VIS, half of the country’s prosecutors are being trained to interview children using the NICHD protocol.
A Kind, Yet Powerful Legal Instrument
Trusca, a prosecutor with more than 20 years’ experience, was among the first to undergo such training six years ago. He has since worked to train his colleagues, passing on his knowledge to younger prosecutors.
Last year, the Bucharest prosecutor’s office took another step not common in Romania, assigning a prosecutor to work solely on child sexual abuse cases.
This job belongs to Alexandra Tomescu, an enthusiastic 34-year-old. A mother of two, she says she has always been the kind of person who connects easily with children.
Tomescu has prosecuted numerous sexual perpetrators and obtained preventive measures and convictions based on victims’ testimonies, in one case tracking down evidence in a rape case 10 years after the assault.
She believes children need safe spaces where they can speak without fear, but it’s more than the infrastructure. The interviewer also needs training in how to talk to children.
“The relationship you form with the child in the interview is very important,” Tomescu says. “The central evidence is this statement by the injured party, which ideally should be taken with this scientific method, the NICHD protocol.”
Importantly, the child must know it is acceptable to tell the interviewer that they don’t know the answer to a question, and that they should speak up when the interviewer makes a mistake. In this way, Tomescu explains, the prosecutor can establish a trusting relationship with the child and train their memory to recall details that may prove vital.
The NICHD protocol is used extensively in the Nordic countries as well as Canada, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Portugal, Scotland, and the United States. Legal professionals are trained not just in how to elicit information, but in how to gain the child’s trust and cooperation. Often the interviewer will start by asking open-ended questions about the child’s everyday life, preparing the child to later answer questions about the recent traumatic event.
Like any human interaction touching on highly intimate topics, it cannot be learned from a simple workshop of an hour or two, says Tomescu, who has practiced this interviewing method since 2021. But it can be learned from recurrent, ongoing training and practice in the special rooms, with support from your superiors, she adds.
It’s important not to sit with your nose stuck in the printed protocol in front of you, but to connect with the child without tiring them out, she says. That means “to somehow be connected with their story, not to sit and write all the time. That’s why it’s good to have a backup person in the other room, watching the interview, and prompting you afterward to ask other questions if you’ve missed things.”
Next Step: Training and More Training
To help prosecutors deal with the 13,000 child sexual violence cases in the pipeline, training in the NICHD protocol at the national level is urgently needed, according to Chiper.
The grant from UNICEF Romania brought in international experts to train 30 prosecutors and psychologists. The trainers included researchers who helped develop the NICHD interviewing method, such as psychology professors Mireille Cyr of the University of Montreal, Canada, and Irit Hershkowitz of the University of Haifa, Israel.
Alexandra Tomescu and her colleagues from the Bucharest Public Prosecutor’s Office attended the training session. This year, they are the ones who will teach the technique to other prosecutors in the country.
Investing in justice in this way is extremely important, says former judge Corina Voicu, a lecturer at the National Institute of Magistrates, where she teaches future prosecutors and judges.
Voicu says the Romanian state has always underfunded the justice system, starting at the grassroots level. Some judges, including her, have bought their own ergonomic chairs or PC monitors. “Equipping the justice system has been a problem that nobody has been interested in,” she says.
This becomes clear at trials of accused sexual offenders, she says. “Although on paper we have laws that protect all kinds of victims from meeting [the accused] in court, in reality those much-needed separate circuits for victims and aggressors have not been built.”
If the authorities replicate the training scheme at a larger level, Voicu hopes, this along with the growing network of special interview rooms will persuade more prosecutors to specialize in child abuse cases.
Chiper says that since the VIS-supported rooms started operating, reports of child sexual abuse have risen nationwide. Hundreds of children have been interviewed in the less stressful setting of the new rooms. However, not every prosecutor’s office is using the rooms to their full potential, she says, noting that at one point, only five interviews had been done in Sibiu, compared to 80 interviews in Bacau, although the two rooms opened at almost the same time.
Another, potentially more serious obstacle to using the rooms and the NICHD protocol at full potential is the patchy acceptance of the new methods by judges. Prosecutors who use the new hearing rooms hoped to use the recorded interviews with child victims to help them educate judges who may not fully grasp the reality of children’s suffering, Chiper says. Some judges do not watch the recorded interviews and choose to re-hear victims, whether in private or in the courtroom, despite the risk of adding to the child’s trauma.
“The problems with [such judges] go beyond our nice cameras and good quality recordings,” Chiper says.
Chiper is now working full-time, joined by five other staff members, with the goal of developing her organization and providing NICHD protocol training to more legal professionals. VIS recently took part in a swimming contest to raise funds for a children’s interview room in Vaslui County in the far east of the country, where many people live in vulnerable rural communities impacted by high rates of poverty and domestic violence.
Assessing the VIS project, now in its third year of training legal professionals and setting up child-friendly interview rooms, Chiper says its biggest achievement is to have reached many prosecutors and psychologists across Romania.
“They all share the same concern for children that we do. But they also share the belief that we have to support children, to believe them and make their voices heard.”
Oana Sandu is a freelance journalist with more than 15 years of experience in radio and narrative journalism in Romania. Her reporting focuses primarily on social issues such as domestic violence, extreme poverty, and discrimination against children with disabilities. In 2022, she was awarded a fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and wrote about the impact of domestic violence on early childhood.
All photos courtesy of Asociatia VIS.
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