Support for children in conflict with the law

During emergencies, child protection actors report that numbers of child victims, witnesses and (alleged) offenders rise dramatically. Within conflict settings in particular, when justice systems are weakened through under-investment and lack of regulation, normal rules of detention are often misapplied or unenforced. Standards to ensure the wellbeing of juveniles in the justice system may be unmet or disregarded. In several countries, children displaced by conflict face a high risk of arrest and detention. Like other groups of vulnerable children, refugee and IDP children are at risk of spending longer periods in detention.

Of all the stages in a juvenile justice system, it is at first contact (arrest and immediately thereafter while in police custody) that the accused is most likely to be the victim of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Girls may be especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. Access may be more difficult in an emergency context because detaining authorities obstruct access to places of detention and interrogation, because the nature of the emergency makes access difficult or dangerous, or because there are too few actors on the ground. According to international standards, detention of a minor should be a measure of last resort, for the minimum necessary period, and should be limited to exceptional cases.

When should we use a programme to support children in conflict with the law?

  • When your organisation has experience in advocacy, legal support or working with children’s justice
  • When the emergency has weakened the justice system or there is a lack of capacity for ensuring that children are protected and treated fairly in it
  • When there are unaccompanied and separated children
  • In protracted emergency or post-conflict situations, particularly where there has been displacement and/or children have crossed borders
  • Where there are many children involved in child labour or living on the street

How to set up a programme to support children in conflict with the law

Establish a tracking system for children in detention
  • Identify all children in detention, including their whereabouts, status and treatment
Documenting violations
  • Document and analyse patterns of violations against children’s rights that occur within the justice system, and take action in urgent cases
  • Documenting violations from the earliest possible stage of the emergency is also important as a basis for evidence-based campaigning
Linking children with appropriate asssistance and support
  • Map the different organisations and people involved in programmes that can deliver justice for children in a child-friendly way (including informal structures)
  • Set up an inter-disciplinary team of human rights, psychosocial, medical and legal frontline workers to monitor and respond to identified cases.
  • Advocate for release of children when the detention is illegal or facilities are inappropriate
  • Advocate for appropriate standards of treatment where children are detained:
    • Telling the child’s guardians immediately that the child is arrested
    • Adapting any detention regime to take account of age, sex, disability and specific needs, with separation of girls and boys, adults and minors
    • Ensuring contacts with the outside world, in particular with independent legal counsel, medical personnel and family visits, take place as often as needed and are allowed by the detaining authorities, as long as this contact is in the child’s best interests
    • Ensuring leisure activities, outings and educational activities are included in the daily routine
  • Advocate for the prevention of future violations
Support diversion

Diversion is a process which seeks to avoid a first or early contact with the criminal justice system by directing children away from the formal justice system and prosecution towards community support and appropriate services or interventions.

  • Where possible, diversionary measures aim to involve and strengthen support networks of the child including the family and community. Diversion measures, especially for children, will often also incorporate principles of restorative justice.
Community-based mechanisms
  • When appropriate, encourage community-based solutions when the formal system has collapsed

Monitoring and Evaluation

Develop indicators such as:

  • Number of cases of detention of children in the last three months
  • Average time spent in detention
  • Percentage of children who are in contact with the police who are dealt with using child-friendly procedures
  • Percentage of cases of children who received support from a multi-disciplinary team

Additional tools and guidelines

Information on this page is primarily drawn from:

For safeguards which apply to child victims or witnesses should a case reach trial, see ECOSOC Guidelines on Justice Matters Involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime

A detailed exploration of issues and approaches to children involved in the criminal justice system is DfID and Penal Reform International (2013), Protecting children’s rights in criminal justice systems

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