Exploring Barnahus: a Nordic approach to supporting child abuse victims

Barnahus (which literally means Children´s house) is a child-friendly, interdisciplinary and multiagency centre where different professionals work under one roof in investigating suspected child sexual abuse cases and provide appropriate support for child victims.

Learning from the Nordic countries

Barnahus has assumed a key role in the child protection and child justice systems of many Nordic countries, including Sweden and Iceland. While there are some small differences in definition of the model across these nations, the general principle remains the same: to create a one-stop-shop for services that children can access under one roof. Services range from country to country, but usually include a combination of police, criminal justice services, child and adolescent mental health practitioners, paediatric doctors and social services.

The Barnahus model involves a high level of interdisciplinary working between different teams and allows for a complete package of care and support for a child to be created to reflect their needs. Within the Barnahus centres there are normally facilities including medical rooms, interview rooms, courtrooms, and residential facilities for those young people deemed at risk and who need to be taken immediately into temporary residential care.

Evaluations of areas that use this model of intervention have found significantly better outcomes for child victims and their families because of the multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach. Some discussions have also suggested that creating an adapted model for adult victims could also be a possibility in the future.

Reducing the trauma for victims of child sexual abuse

In England, it is estimated that only 1 in 8 victims of child sexual abuse are identified by the authorities. Children who disclose that they have been sexually abused face multiple interviews in multiple settings to a number of different people, often asking them the same questions. This can be confusing and frightening, as well as traumatic for many children who have to repeatedly recount the story of their abuse. Once the interview process is over, they can also then face long waiting times to access specialist therapeutic support.

The Barnahus model seeks to reduce some of the trauma experienced by victims of child sexual abuse by making the approach child-focused, emphasising the importance of a positive, safe and supportive environment in which to be seen by specialists, give evidence and receive support. For example, within the models used in Iceland children and young people are interviewed and examined within a week of the abuse allegation being made. These interviews are all conducted and recorded in a single location with specially trained officers and medical professionals, and they are then used in court as evidence, avoiding the victim having to revisit court in order to give evidence or testify.

Inside the centre, a specially trained interviewer asks questions, while other parties watch via a video link. Any questions they have are fed through an earpiece to the interviewer. Lawyers for the accused have to put all their questions at this point.

Another benefit to the model is that children who are interviewed are then able to access immediate assistance and counselling; in the current system in England, children may face cross-examination in court months after the alleged abuse, and would have to wait for victim support therapy.

Allocation of funding from government

In 2017, in response to the success reported in the Nordic models, the UK government earmarked Police Innovation Funding of £7.15m to help establish and roll out a similar scheme in London, which would see criminal justice specialists working alongside social services, child psychologists and other services and, it is hoped, pave the way to create a UK-wide Barnahus model in the future.

Building on the existing model in London, CYP Haven, which provides largely clinical, short term care, will provide a multi-agency, long-term support and advocacy service that is expected to support over 200 children and young people each year. Criminal justice aspects of aftercare will be embedded in the service, with evidence-gathering interviews led by child psychologists on behalf of the police and social workers, and court evidence provided through video links to aid swifter justice.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles:

Child abuse by children: why don’t we talk about it?

Secure care in Scotland: measuring outcomes and sharing practice

Child abuse by children: why don’t we talk about it?

As a society we don’t like to discuss it, but child-on-child sexual harm is more commonplace than we would like to admit. Whether it is young adolescent or prepubescent abuse; sibling abuse; or sexting and revenge porn among underage teenagers, it remains a taboo subject, and one which the care, education and criminal justice systems can be reluctant to tackle head on.

The scale of the issue

While the majority of sexual abuse is committed by adults, a study in 2003 reported that 20% of convictions for sexual offences in the UK relate to children who are themselves under the age of 18.

There are also high profile cases which have been extensively covered in the media and are often placed within a narrative on ‘poor parenting’, deviance and deprivation. These include the case of a 10- and an 11-year old boy from Doncaster, who were sentenced in 2009 for the beating, torture and sexual abuse of two other boys; and the murder in Liverpool of James Bulger in 1993 by two ten year-olds.

Acknowledging behaviour as harmful

Research by the National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service (NCats) published in 2010 found that authorities, teachers, social workers and doctors often miss opportunities, or are unsure whether to intervene when they become aware of sexual behaviour.

In many instances the research found that adults were reluctant to acknowledge behaviour as “sexually harmful”, and instead label it as “playful” or “exploratory”. Recognising the difference between these and acting upon it appropriately is vital if children are to be prevented from displaying further harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) in the future.

One doctor commented in a BBC interview that it was not uncommon for a serious teenage sex offender to be referred to a doctor with a complete and detailed history of instances of harmful sexual behaviour, but with no action having been taken in the early years. Research from the NSPCC has also been critical of the provision of support services, both for victims but also for child perpetrators of child sexual abuse, with one academic describing the availability of support services as being a “postcode lottery”. They stress the need for a national strategy to deal with young sex offenders.

In early 2016, the Report of the parliamentary inquiry into support and sanctions for children who display harmful sexual behaviour was published by Barnardo’s. The inquiry found a lack of joined-up working, with different agencies too often dealing with harmful sexual behaviour in isolation from others.

To address this, the NSPCC have produced a framework for assessing harmful sexual behaviour which is designed to provide direction for frontline workers, encourage inter-agency working and help services provide support to families of children who display harmful sexual behaviour.

New challenges in the digital age

Recently professionals are also having to deal with new challenges in relation to the impact of the “digital age”, with online grooming, sexting and revenge porn, and the accessing of online pornography becoming increasingly common among young adolescents and pre-pubescent children.

A survey by one teachers’ union found that children as young as seven were found to be “sexting” at school, while a quarter of teachers who responded to the NASUWT survey said they were aware of 11-year-olds sexting.

In 2012, a qualitative study of children, young people and ‘sexting’ was produced by the NSPCC. It confirmed that even young children are affected, with access to technology and smartphones, making it much easier for them to view, share or produce their own sexual content. It found that in many instances, peers, not older children or adults were the biggest “threat”, particularly to girls.

And a recent campaign by the NSPCC highlighted that one in seven young people have taken a naked or semi-naked picture of themselves, and over half went on to share this picture with someone else.

More action needed

It has been widely acknowledged that the government needs to act to create a specific set of guidelines around child sexual behaviour, and in particular child-on-child abuse. The rise of mobile technology has presented authorities with a new problem and makes it easier than ever for young people to become exposed to, or become victim to, harmful and sexual abuse.

Better guidance and training for different professions is needed on how to recognise and deal with harmful sexual behaviour in children. Similarly, the support networks for victims and perpetrators must be strengthened in order to allow children to feel able to speak up and report instances of abuse, and also to break potential cycles of abuse and prevent children from continuing to project harmful sexual behaviours into adulthood.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.