Supporting vulnerable children

Children should be able to grow up without the fear of threats and abuse. The national knowledge centre Barnafrid has its direction clearly defined – but its task is demanding.

Moa Mannheimer Photo credit David Brohede

“We have to find a balance between coping with a feeling of insufficiency, while at the same time keeping in sight what we are fighting for. And we must remember that other actors are working for the same cause”, says Moa Mannheimer, director of Barnafrid.

In 2015, Linköping University, in competition with other institutions of higher education, was awarded a commission by the Swedish government to start and operate a national knowledge centre for violence and other abuse against children. The Barnafrid knowledge centre was subsequently opened in December 2016, located on the University Hospital Campus in Linköping. From its initial phase with just a few researchers and professors, it has grown to include equal numbers of investigators and other support personnel, and today approximately 14 people work at the centre. 

“We could easily employ four times as many people as we do, and I expect we will expand in the future. This is an area given priority by all politicians, independently of where they stand on the political scale. Furthermore, our work is in the public interest. With a combination of regular research grants and income from commissions, I’m sure that we will grow”, says Moa Mannheimer.

Barnafrid is part of child and adolescent psychiatry, and the aim of the centre is to collect knowledge and make it available for professionals who meet children in any one of several ways, such as through the social services, the healthcare system, schools, the judicial system or other government agencies.

“Sweden is home to two million people younger than 18 years. You don’t need to be a statistician to understand that among these people there are many who have been exposed to serious sexual abuse while growing up. In addition, many of the children who have fled to Sweden have experienced war or other traumatic experiences. The children sitting in our schools and courts appear in the social services and they need care.”

Barnafrid works to increase the expertise of professionals who meet children who have been victims of abuse. The centre, however, also carries out preventive work by increasing knowledge and awareness about children who risk being the target of violence at home or on the internet.

“If we are to properly adopt a child-focussed perspective, we must walk in children’s shoes and see things from their point of view. We must never come to a situation in which we set one vulnerable group up against another, but we should start with children’s issues, because those who are exposed to violence when young can themselves later become perpetrators. One example of a question that we have taken up is changes to sex education in schools: children should learn at an early age to develop healthy relationships”, says Moa Mannheimer.

Barnafrid is to be a link between research and practice, and the centre is today responsible for several national networks in which active professionals are invited to meetings. Here they can attend lectures and exchange experiences with each other.

“We are also in the process of building a national multidisciplinary research network, to include researchers in the fields of child medicine, family law, and teaching methods that ensure the correct use of knowledge. One of the most important reasons that we are based at a university is the ability this gives us to create new knowledge through research, and we can be sure that the results we present are evidence-based.”

One of the most important tasks of the centre director, according to Moa Mannheimer, is to find the correct balance between, on the one hand, working in the national theatre and performing outreach, and, on the other hand, working at Linköping University with education and research.

“And then we have to think a lot about linking research and practice. If we discover that a certain number of many children have been subject to a specific form of abuse, what can we do with that knowledge? In this situation, I believe that it’s important to ensure that the personnel feel that the knowledge can be translated into changes in working methods, otherwise it can often be difficult to cope with this knowledge.”

A curious, friendly octopus. This is how Moa Mannheimer describes herself in her professional role.

“What’s needed are several arms to deal with questions in parallel, and a large body that keeps everything in circulation. New phenomena and target groups are always arising, and you need tentacles if you’re going to be really talented at capturing such changes. And I need curiosity and a desire to always learn something new. If we are still doing the same today as we did several years ago, then we have a problem. We must always aspire to new knowledge.”

In the long-term, Moa Mannheimer wants to see more ways of reaching active professionals who are currently meeting children, and she wants to create not only the possibility for spreading knowledge throughout Sweden by travelling to meet people, but also a telephone number that people can call to obtain advice dealing with tricky cases.

“And I’m convinced that we can use technology and social media to improve communication, reaching more people by, for example, web-based training, chat forums and ask-an-expert services”, she says.

Translated by George Farrants

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