The boy sounds agitated. « Hello! Can we please speak on the phone? But only the weekend after next, when I’ll be with my aunt again,” says the eight-year-old in a shaky voice. “Things are not going well in the childcare home. But my supervisor mustn’t know about this, it would just make things worse. Please call me, but please make sure that my supervisor knows nothing about it.”
The Kinderanwaltschaft Schweiz (Swiss Child Advocacy Organization), an independent association in Winterthur, Switzerland, receives such messages regularly – this one was sent by email as an audio file. The boy’s identity is kept anonymous, as are that of all children who contact this office. “We cannot defend children’s rights without protecting their identities,” says Irène Inderbitzin, 50, managing director of the organization. Unlike state institutions such as the Swiss Child Protection Agency, Child Advocacy only goes into action following the expressed wish of the little boy or girl concerned. Once a child has asked for help, the organization uses its experience, negotiation skills and extensive network to come to his or her assistance.
“When I started hearing children’s voices describing their stories and their situations on the phone, I was deeply moved,” says Inderbitzin. This feeling drove her to push for a justice system more mindful of children’s rights. “A justice system in which children are given greater power. The state has a heavy responsibility; if children are empowered, they can grow up to become healthy, responsible adults, despite their difficult circumstances. If, on the other hand, matters are decided over their heads, they are weakened and may suffer the consequences their whole lives,” she says.
WATCH VIDEO: Giving children a say in their affairs
Children’s rights lawyers and psychologists specialized in child development founded the Swiss Child Advocacy Organization in 2006, in response to the lack of full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in their country. Switzerland ratified the convention in 1997 but 10 years later, certain central aspects of it – such as the right to be informed, to be heard and to participate – were still overlooked. “The interests of the child should always come first, ahead of those of the parents or the State,” Inderbitzin says. “And in order to determine the child’s interests, the child always needs to be consulted.”
Asking for a child’s opinion does not necessarily mean that the decisions taken are the ones he or she asked for, emphasizes Inderbitzin. But allowing children to participate strengthens their resilience – for they realize that their actions and responsibilities have some effect. “As a result, the child understands the outcome better and is more inclined to support it.”
Child Advocacy is pushing for the right of every child involved in a legal process to be kept informed, to be heard and to participate – and to have a legal representative when necessary, for cases such as divorce, child protection, asylum requests, school issues and medical procedures. But while the organization takes calls and letters from children, it does not interact directly with them. Instead, it acts as an intermediary, making contact with the relevant authorities, organizing discussions and ensuring that children are kept in the loop.
Some 100,000 children come into contact with the Swiss justice system every year. Often, says Inderbitzin, their rights – which should be guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – are violated. In 2017, Child Advocacy intervened on behalf of 356 children, usually because their right to be informed and heard was not respected. In most cases, the organization was able to mediate. But in seven cases out of 100, the child needed a legal representative.
Five people work in the Child Advocacy office, and five more sit on its board. Volunteers regularly offer their assistance, while half a dozen experts provide the organization with legal and scientific advice. Dozens of public ambassadors support the organization’s work, including prominent publishers, businessmen, politicians and artists.
“If children are given the chance to participate, injustices are prevented and all of society benefits,” Inderbitzin says. Dozens of times she has seen that “when children are heard and empowered, they cope better with a difficult situation.”
Such was the case for the eight-year-old boy having trouble at the childcare home, whose mother was unable to care for him and whose father was not around. He eventually agreed to inform his supervisor of his problems. Their discussions led to an all-parties agreement that included the boy. Today, he is living with his aunt.