IJM Guatemala: Best Practices Become Permanent Reforms in the Justice System

Earlier this year, the Guatemalan Supreme Court authorized a new Protocol that establishes standards for judges interviewing child victims in a criminal case.
Earlier this year, the Guatemalan Supreme Court authorized a new Protocol that establishes standards for judges interviewing child victims in a criminal case.
Inside the Geselle Chamber, where children can testify in a room that is made to feel more child-friendly
Inside the Geselle Chamber, where children can testify in a room that is made to feel more child-friendly
The judge and lawyers participate in the interview from the other side of a one-way mirrored window.
The judge and lawyers participate in the interview from the other side of a one-way mirrored window.

Most impoverished families in Guatemala do not think justice in a court is possible, at least not for them. Families face significant obstacles in order to report a crime or take a case to trial. Even then, the justice system is complicated and intimidating—especially for children.

IJM has seen these obstacles firsthand. Since 2005, a small team of Guatemalan lawyers has been prosecuting cases of child sexual assault, while IJM social workers help the survivors receive holistic care.

With this kind of support—and new justice system changes—many families have seen that justice is possible.

Improving the Law

"I was a lawyer for several years in Guatemala, and before I started working with IJM, I honestly didn't think getting justice for the poor was possible," says Pablo Villeda, who led IJM's office in Guatemala as field office director before becoming the Regional Director for all IJM offices in Latin America. "But as we worked on very difficult cases and secured justice for very poor clients, we saw the gaps in the system. We thought, if we could just fix this problem in the system, then it would work better for everyone—including the poorest of the poor."

Some of the gaps in the system seemed to start with laws already on the books. Definitions for sexual assault crimes were largely outdated and inadequate.

Working with local and international organizations, IJM Guatemala started advocating with legislators and key congressmen. In 2009, a new law passed to strengthen definitions for trafficking and sexual assault crimes, and to increase penalties against traffickers and rapists.

Implementing those Improvements

Improving the law was an important step, but it was just a start. Without a specific policy on child-friendly practices, judges and prosecutors did not always ensure the legal process was appropriate for children.

In IJM's cases, lawyers worked hard to make sure that the child and alleged abuser were kept apart as they waited to enter a courtroom, then brought in at different times. IJM also asked judges to allow a social worker to accompany a child into the courtroom. But still, victims generally had to testify in the same room as the suspect, sometimes having direct eye contact with the person who raped or assaulted them—making it very difficult to tell the truth about the abuse they endured.

Over time, IJM successfully advocated for a curtain to be set up in the room as a visual barrier when a child would testify. It made a world of difference for IJM clients like Tami,* who testified against the serial rapist who had attacked her at gunpoint and raped her when she was 16 years old. Her brave testimony helped the court convict the man for his crimes against her and ten other young women.

Working closely with UNICEF, IJM also championed the use of the Gesell Chamber, a safe interview room in the courthouse where children can testify. The room has comfortable chairs and small toys to minimize the re-traumatization of having to speak again about the abuse. A psychologist asks the child questions fed to her from the judge and lawyers standing on the other side of a one-way mirror. The entire proceeding is recorded so that the child's testimony can be used as evidence.

These incremental changes have dramatically improved the likelihood of successful prosecutions in child sexual assault cases—increasing the conviction rate by 1000% since IJM first began.

New Policies Make Lasting Change

In 2012, IJM Guatemala developed and proposed a set of national best practices for handling child sexual assault cases, so that all children—not just those represented by IJM—could benefit. In 2013, these best practices were formalized as policies for both prosecutors and judges.

In May 2013, the Guatemalan Attorney General authorized a "General Instruction"—a new national policy establishing important standards for investigating and prosecuting crimes against children. IJM has begun facilitating trainings for prosecutors who deal with child sexual assault cases, and more trainings are scheduled for September 2013. That same month, the Guatemalan Supreme Court approved a Protocol for judges that established guidelines on how to interview children who have been victims of violent crime.

The Protocol:

  • Explains how questions should be framed in a way that is respectful and dignifying to the child
  • Prohibits contact between the child victim and the alleged abuser
  • Underscores the importance of only interviewing a child once to minimize the re-traumatization
  • Describes appropriate methods for collecting testimony from children, highlighting the Geselle Chamber

The Supreme Court invited IJM to help lead a course for all Guatemalan judges on the new Protocol, and this summer IJM lawyers and psychologists facilitated the first trainings in three districts.

"These policies for prosecutors and judges represent a dramatic shift in the way the Guatemalan judiciary will protect children," says Pablo. "These minimum standards will make justice possible for so many children in Guatemala, especially the poor children who rely on the most basic legal services."

*A pseudonym