Children are a particularly vulnerable population because they are often without their parents, do not understand the information that is provided to them, and are susceptible to exploitation. It is important to remember that they are not just small adults. Children have needs and abilities that are significantly different from those of adults. This greatly affects the ability to impart or gain information from them and for the child to communicate his concerns and experiences. The provision of accurate information in a child-friendly manner can be empowering to children and facilitates their involvement in making appropriate decisions and choices. Effective communication with children is of paramount importance to uphold the best interests of any particular child. As a result, it is important to employ strategies in your work with child clients that make them feel comfortable and safe speaking to you.
This page will help you consider what strategies would be best to employ. First, it will discuss child protection policies that your office should consider adapting. It will then describe the signs of a stressed child, and finally it will detail ways to communicate and interview a child that may help minimize this stress.
Individual casework with children, including legal representation before the decision making authorities, must be based on a continuous assessment of whether the steps taken are in the best interest of the child.
Working on the child’s testimony, the legal advisor might come across specific vulnerabilities that affect the child’s ability to articulate his or her claim. This includes, but is not limited to trauma, development level, literacy, trust of countrymen and interpreters, trust of authorities, availability of interpreters, and the interview environment.
The extraordinary experiences refugee children have gone through may lead to an uneven development between their survival skills and emotional development. The child’s mental development may affect how he or she acts in the refugee status determination interview. For example, the child’s anxiety may take over in an interview and he or she may be unable to determine what information is relevant to their asylum claim.
Many refugee children have been exposed to torture or trauma. As a result, they may develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. These mental health problems can severely impede their ability to provide details of their claim, particularly in the case of accompanied, unaccompanied and separated minors. It can also cause them to be highly anxious during interviews. Children have different ways of coping with trauma, some may be unable or unwilling to recall trauma, for others speaking to a legal advisor can be helpful for developing a coping mechanism.
Child protection policy
As children may feature disproportionately among the vulnerable groups that you advise, you should draw up a child protection policy for your organization. The policy may aim to create a child-friendly, safe environment in your office and in the delivery of your services through attention protocols. A child protection policy need not address the specific rights of children with regard to RSD and human rights; however it should be rights-based, (i.e. informed by these provisions). Further information on the rights of refugee children can be found here.
A child protection policy should include:
- A Policy Statement including information about:
- What your organization wants to say about keeping children safe.
- Why your organization is taking these steps.
- How (in broad terms) your organization is going to meet this responsibility.
- Who it applies and relates to (e.g. all staff and volunteers, children up to 18 years old).
- How your organization will put the policy into action and how it links to other relevant policies and procedures, e.g., taking photographs and videos, internet use, recruitment.
- A Code of Conduct (e.g. do’s and don’ts, practical behavior guidelines).
- Reporting Procedures (e.g. whistle blowing, confidentiality).
- Responsible Persons (e.g. child protection focal point).
Protection considerations when working with children
- Create systems that minimize children being asked the same question many times.
- It can be useful to have one person stay with child throughout whole process (e.g. don’t swap lawyers / decision-makers – this allows trust and rapport to be maintained).
- Referral systems are important – e.g. who to contact when there is a child-related issue.
- Community focal points can be useful – a trained community member can keep an eye out for any child protection issues.
- Regulate donor use of information about children or donor contact with children
- Establish policies on: privacy, photo policy, confidentiality.
- Child abuse/exploitation should be considered in your policy.
- Obligations under national laws must be adhered to.
Signs of stress and PTSD
The RSD and asylum process can be particularly stressful for children because of the power disparity between the child and the adult decision maker. This can make the child anxious and it may cause him or her to feel that he or she must give the interviewer the “right” answer to his or her question. It can also be stressful for children to try and remember every detail of what happened to them during an interview. Often, children are unable to remember dates or other specifics about their refugee claim.
Children who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often act younger than their chronological age, have trouble concentrating, and may be anxious or over alter. They may also suffer from sleeplessness and have failing short term memories. Children who have experienced traumatic events often experience flashbacks and nightmares.
As a result, children suffering from PTSD may have trouble disclosing what happened to them. Often children who have survived traumatic situations hide what happened to them. Therefore, it is important that you take time to build a rapport with the child and work to make him or her feel comfortable during all of your interactions. Children suffering from PTSD also often have a difficult time providing details for their claim during interviews.
The symptoms of PTSD tend to vary across age groups. Younger children usually exhibit very high levels of anxiety, social withdrawal, and regressive behaviors. School-aged children tend to have flashbacks, poor concentration, sleep disturbance and conduct problems. Adolescents often exhibit aggressive behavior, delinquency, nightmares, and trauma and guilt over their survival.
When you are interviewing a child, it is important to be aware of how he or she may manifest stress and identify signs of retraumatization through the refugee status determination interview process. The section below will give best practices on communication with children that can help to reduce stress.
These signs include:
- tight, closed posture (e.g., arms/legs crossed, head down);
- emotional sensitivity and low frustration tolerance (e.g., tears, irritability, aggression);
- nervous behaviors (e.g., nail biting, hair twirling, fidgeting);
- poor eye contact (e.g., looking down, eyes darting around the room);
- shaking or trembling;
- quiet, soft-spoken tone with brief or one-word responses;
- physical complaints (e.g., stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, diarrhea); and
- low self-esteem (negative, doubtful statements about self-worth, abilities).
When working with refugee children, your office should take steps to minimize the risk of retraumatization. You can minimize this risk through conscientious conduct and supporting refugee clients with professional psychological attention.
Good communication is critical when working with children. It also generally requires a different approach than when working with adult clients because children have different emotional and cognitive abilities than adults. Also, there is often a lot of variation between child clients depending on their age or their experiences. Child clients may be naïve and uninformed or they may seem to understand most of what you say. Placing memories in a proper context is a skill that develops over time, and is not fully developed until an individual is in her early twenties. Childhood memories are often recalled as isolated events, without being able to recall the full context. An adolescent would be able to recall a memory with the same factual accuracy as an adult, but may have less orientation to time.
As an advocate for a child, it is essential that you be honest and reliable. A large part of being honest with your client is not making promises that you might not be able to keep. Children often encounter adults who have not followed through on their commitments. Set yourself apart and show your client you are reliable. For example, if you tell your client that you will call her every week on a certain day to check in; then do it. This small gesture will demonstrate your commitment to the child and your ability to stay true to your word.
Confidentiality: explain to the child (in simple terms) that you will not be telling everyone about what they say. Do not promise that you will not tell anyone because in some cases you may be obliged to share information with other relevant people (e.g. if child is at risk). If this occurs, you should also explain to the child if and why you must share information. (e.g. ‘need to know’ concept – “I need to tell [person] so that they can help you and keep you safe.”) Check to make sure that the child understands what you are telling him or her.
Be careful not to inadvertently reveal information to the child – e.g. an orphan/adopted child may not be aware that they are orphaned/adopted, and you should not be the one to accidentally reveal this information to them – they have a right to know at some point (e.g. when they are older) but it is not our role or decision. If there are sensitive elements to the case like this, be sure to let all relevant people in the process know so they do not inadvertently reveal such information.
Remember interpreters should also be trained on working with children if possible, and it is important to brief your interpreter before the session with the child – interpreters may also be able to help you to understand the cultural context for the child, and give you a few handy words in the child’s language – also be sure to explain the role of the interpreter to the child so they are not confused.
Do not force a child to talk or probe too much into traumatic events, but also do not stop the child talking if they wish to talk about these events to you – it may be important for them to tell you about these events. When necessary, take breaks and explain to the child why the information you are asking is important.
There are several strategies that you can employ to help communicate with your child clients more effectively:
- Using Props
Relying exclusively on verbal communication during a meeting with a child client can limit the client’s ability to fully contribute to the process. A child client, especially one experiencing PTSD symptoms that impair focus and concentration, is likely to feel frightened, overwhelmed, distracted, angry, threatened, or any combination of these emotions during a legal meeting. These strong emotions can significantly interfere with a child’s ability to process and retain information.
Under these circumstances, you child client may be unable to listen and understand what you say to him or her. One way to overcome this is to use visual aids, games, tools, and other props during your meeting to diversify the way you give the client information. The goal is to use props to encourage information sharing and encourage retention of information by the client.
- Social Scripts
A social script is a type of role play used to prepare a client for a particular legal situation. Social scripting involves reviewing an upcoming legal proceeding or event with the child, and helping him or her understand what he or she will be asked to say or do during the proceeding.
This type of scripting helps a child predict and anticipate what will happen in a given situation, including what others might say, how figures of authority might react, and what possible outcomes can be expected. It can help lessen a child’s anxiety about the proceeding.
- Meeting Agendas
Meeting agendas are a good way to help alleviate any anxiety that the child may feel about the meeting because he or she will know exactly what is going to be discussed during the meeting and how long it will take. You should review the agenda with the child at the beginning of the meeting and give him or her the opportunity to add to or change the agenda. This keeps the meeting collaborative and offers you the chance to find out about new concerns the child may have since the last meeting, or to ask questions about matters previously discussed. If the child wants to add many topics or an agenda item that you judge to be low-priority for the day, you can explain the time limitation, why you feel the other topics are essential to get through, and suggest that you add it to the agenda for your next meeting instead. You should immediately set a date for that meeting before proceeding with the agenda for that day.
Give the client a copy of the agenda so that he or she can follow along as the conversation progresses. For young children, you can still provide a copy of the agenda and guide them through it as the conversation moves from item by item. This will allow the child to track progress of the meeting.
How to minimize stress and anxiety during the interview process:
Interviews can be highly stressful events for children, particularly if they have been interrogated before. The following steps should help you minimize the risk of retraumatizing the child through the interview process.
The interview space
- Create a quiet, distraction-free, and comfortable environment in which to meet the child.
- This will help the child feel safe, which will make him or her more likely to speak openly during the interview.
- Try not to sit across from the child during the interview because this will make the interaction seem like an interrogation.
- Try to sit diagonally from the child, which will send the message that you are seeking to work with him or her.
- Think about your seating arrangement and consider positioning yourself at eye level and not behind a desk and laptop.
- Take frequent breaks to allow the child to recover from talking about emotionally exhausting experiences.
- Use child-friendly vocabulary and age-appropriate questions.
- Use simple, short words such as “show”, or “tell me about” when asking children questions.
- Do not ask a lot of direct, specific questions.
- Allow the child to tell you about their experiences in an open ended manner. This will help build trust and make the child feel more comfortable speaking about their experiences.
- If you need to ask a question again, explain why you need to do so.
- Children often think that this is a sign that their first answer was not believed so they may be likely to embellish or change their answer if they do not understand why you are asking the question again.
- Inform the child that they have the right to say no to any questions that they do not want to answer or to request a break.
Body language and building trust
- Smile, be friendly in your manner.
- Remember that a child might feel pressure to answer your questions or an RSD decision-maker questions in the ‘right’ way.
- Be patient.