Bringing justice to a foreign land

Bringing justice to a foreign land

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Some days my work feels familiar: discussing the therapy needs of a sexually abused child; organizing training for child forensic interviewers; and working with lawyers to ensure an accused child molester faces trial. It all feels like the work I’ve done in Georgia for the past decade as a juvenile court judge and state child advocate.

This time, however, the work is in Guatemala City, where I’m spending three years as director of a field office of the International Justice Mission (IJM).

IJM brings legal representation and integrated social services to victims of oppression, including human trafficking, bonded labor or child sexual abuse. IJM lawyers, investigators and social services professionals bring to the victim what is often out of reach for the poor in the underdeveloped world: justice and restoration.

For the past five years in Guatemala, IJM has focused on representing child victims of sexual abuse, a serious problem with an estimated 8,000 or more victims each year. Only 2,500 are officially reported, a fraction of which go to trial.

The work can be hearbreaking but also heartwarming. Sometimes victims are vindicated, as in a case last year involving one of the 10,000 families who make their living picking up usable trash in the Guatemala City dump. Our client family—four children and their mother—suffered years of sexual and physical abuse by the father. Given relief at last and moved to a safer location, that family last fall participated in his trial and conviction. He was sentenced to 95 years in prison.

Referrals to IJM come most often from the attorney general’s office or from other nonprofit agencies such as Doctors Without Borders. IJM social workers interview the child and family and begin providing social, medical and psychological services to the victims, relocating children and families if necessary.

The direct legal representation of and multidisciplinary care for the victim is what makes IJM’s efforts successful. From 2008 through 2010, this small nonprofit group has been responsible for over one-third of all child sexual abuse convictions in metropolitan Guatemala City. The integrated approach makes up for weaknesses in a system where many public prosecutors are committed to their work but sometimes have more than 1,000 cases to manage.

Still, my colleagues here have faith that the system is improving, with the country making great strides to strengthen laws against femicide, domestic violence, human trafficking and child abuse. With the help of international donors, the attorney general’s office has created 24-hour offices of victim assistance and special teams of psychologists and medical professionals who can provide immediate response to a victim of sexual assault or other violent crimes. Both government and private organizations are responding with increased services to provide the therapy and assistance needed to help victims recover their dignity and self-worth. Here at IJM, we hope our new capacity-building and training program will bolster the ability of the system to respond adequately to these victims’ needs.

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