Last year, more than 630 people turned to Children's Houses — children's advocacy centers in Estonia run by the Social Insurance Board (SKA) — with concerns about suspected child sexual abuse (CSA) or harmful sexual behavior. Over the years, the number of such cases has remained on the rise.
Operated under the internationally recognized child-friendly, multidisciplinary and interagency Barnahus model, Children's Houses have been established in order to help sexually abused or children suspected of being sexually abused, including by ensuring that criminal procedural acts are conducted in a child-friendly manner that would not cause victims additional trauma.
There are currently four Children's Houses in Estonia — in Tallinn, Tartu, Jõhvi and Pärnu, the last of which was opened just last fall.
In 2017, when the country's first Children's House was opened, fewer than 140 people utilized the center's services. Just a couple of years later, however, the number of people needing help exceeded the 400 mark, and last year rose to 631.
According to SKA Children's House director Anna Frank, the main reason the number of cases reaching the centers has gone up is an increase in awareness.
"The number of ways to get help has grown, and it is being talked about more," Frank noted.
The average age of children to end up at Estonia's Children's Houses last year was 11. More than half of those helped by the centers' services were girls.
"Abusers are typically men, and they abuse both boys and girls," the director described. "If a boy has been abused by a man, the boy is even more afraid to speak up about the fact that he has been abused by a man, and about how this has impacted him and his sexuality. Fear is what is stopping boys from reporting [CSA]."
She also highlighted that more than half of all calls or requests it fielded last year involved suspicions of CSA, however a quarter specifically involved harmful sexual behavior.
"That there is no suspicion yet that they may have been abused, but their behavior is concerning; it involves inappropriate sexual behavior," Frank explained. "And a third target group we're increasingly coming into contact with, a newer target group, is children who themselves are acting out sexually."
Sexual violence crisis center expert and OB/GYN Kai Part said that the number of people reaching out to the crisis centers, of which there are likewise four in Estonia, has increased as well. Child-related concerns accounted for a third of such cases.
"Sexual violence crisis centers are there precisely for once sexual violence has already been committed or is suspected," Part said. "They're open 24/7, and the first seven days is precisely [the timeframe in which] people turn there."
She stressed that it is crucial as a preventive measure to teach children from day one about body awareness and safety, including the so-called bathing suit rule.
"Nobody is allowed to to touch children's personal body parts — those that are covered up by a bathing suit — for no reason and without the child's consent," Part explained. "And absolutely no touch may be bad or feel bad, and it should never be kept secret if someone has touched you. It's important to equip children with body-related vocabulary as well as skills and feelings."
"If you ever suspect that a child may have been sexually assaulted, don't bear this worry alone," Frank urged. "Reach out even just anonymously to the Child Helpline. If you're already more certain, simply report that you see that the child has either some sort of injuries or other indications — reach out somewhere right away. Everyone must report a child in need; that is everyone's responsibility."
The Barnahus model of children's advocacy centers, or children's houses, is recognized by the Council of Europe, the UN and the European Union, among others.
Estonia's Children's Houses are located in Tallinn, Tartu, Jõhvi and Pärnu, but provide services to children from anywhere int he country.
Editor: Aili Vahtla