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A Madrid Court's Method To Help Children Testifying In Sex Abuse Cases

Madrid courtrooms have designed private "waiting rooms" for children. In these spaces, a mix of talk and play with a psychologist allows the children to calmly testify before judges.

A Madrid Court's Method To Help Children Testifying In Sex Abuse Cases

A playroom at the Plaza Castilla court complex in northern Madrid

Irene Dorta

MADRID — The hallways of the Plaza Castilla court complex in northern Madrid are cold. With their grey tones, signs written in black and wooden doors that usher you into courtrooms or offices, they are barely palatable to any citizen having to pass through. But on the third floor, there is a colorful little oasis in this dour, judicial setting.

The sign outside calls it the Safe Childhood Space (Espacio infancia segura). Inside, children try out certain dynamics meant to distract them from the gruesome tales they may soon have to relate if they have to testify against relatives or describe episodes of sexual abuse. The initiative began in October 2021 and seeks to ease younger children's passage through the judicial process.

Setting up the space was complicated "because it wasn't a nursery. It meant introducing a service that had little to do with judicial authority," says Carmen Martín García-Matos, head of judicial infrastructures at the regional government's Justice, Interior and Victims department.

"We weren't certain and do not even have a clear protocol now for how many children may come in daily, what they need, how they'll react," she says. This pilot project began in one of the capital's special courts dealing with violence against women, where it was so successful it has been replicated in the Plaza de Castilla courts that process cases like divorces, abuse and domestic violence.

Since July 2022, this room has been filled with pictures, books and puzzles. It has hosted, on average, two or three children a day.

A shelter for children 

It is not a playroom, says Milenka Maldonado, who runs the project. "It's not a space where they come and play. They're here so they are able to testify, so with this in mind, I try to provide them with a shelter."

She has a slogan written in colored letters stuck on a cork board: Join the Dots to be Strong (La unión de los puntos hace la fuerza). This, she says, "means we're part of the social network so the child in question doesn't feel alone or there is no life outside the family. It means we're a team with the judge and the lawyer and that when deployed, they'll feel they have been received and are no longer the weak link in a family that likely hasn't given them the love and protection they need."

The child is less alarmed and feels more comfortable.

With the premise of the points, the little ones weave bracelets or bookmarks they can later take home. This, says Maldonado, "helps them reflect. Firstly by retreating in a private space as they usually arrive with their energies disrupted and don't want to talk much. They already know they have to come and talk and, as it were, 'tell on' the one causing the trauma."

Court professionals are also putting this room to good use. "Psychologists use this kind of antechamber to say, 'let's sit on the couch a minute' and use the atmosphere before accompanying the child when it's time to do what they're here for," says Esteban del Castillo, head of the Asociación Trama (Weave) running the space.

He describes it as a "form of mediation to help the child say their things quietly, without giving too much importance to the cognitive element or his or her own thoughts." In this space, he says, the child "is less alarmed and feels more comfortable when it comes to starting the process" of testifying.

Hard to prove

In September 2022 alone, 20 minors aged two to seven years spent time in the room, according to figures from the Madrid Community or regional government. Generally, they spend between one or two hours here, which can yield all manner of comments or disclosures.

You realize something is going on, otherwise how could she talk like that?

Some children have asked if "this is my new school," says Maldonado, while one seven-year-old girl who was repeatedly abused by her stepfather insisted one day that "everything was fine" in her family until "that nurse came and started making things up."

She had become used to the abuse and was thankful things were quiet at home, says Maldonado, until a nurse made revelations that put her stepfather in jail. But when "a seven-year-old girl mentions semen and sexual relations, you realize something is going on, otherwise how could she talk like that?" she asks.

The judge must be given a clear picture of such traumatic situations so that the judiciary can do its work and ensure crimes that are difficult to prove lead to a sentence. For some years now, children have been testifying in a detached space (removed from the judge or prosecutor), termed the Gesell dome. It is a room with an opaque window that allows the child to be isolated from the courtroom holding the parties concerned (including possibly an aggressor and relatives), judge and the prosecutor.

Photo of an empty witness stand in a courtroom

Courtrooms can be traumatic places for minors

Wikimedia Commons

Avoiding 're-victimization'

The minor thus talks in a more friendly, even playful setting, under supervision. There, the child speaks only to a psychologist asking questions communicated by the court through earphones, with the statements are furthermore validated the first time around as pre-constituted evidence. This means the child will not have to repeat their statements in court to avoid what is termed re-victimization.

Currently, there are 25 Gesell rooms across Madrid's 21 judicial districts. In Plaza de Castilla, the courtroom is literally yards away from the children's space with the idea of having them at hand and in a similar atmosphere without them feeling they are involved in a court case.

All this is part of a project unfolding for years in the Spanish capital that is intended to humanize the judicial process. Martín García-Matos of the regional government says the Community wants Gesell domes in "the new buildings we have adapted to the status of victims, with different exit points, for example, to avoid the victim and aggressor meeting."

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