The Spanish Cabinet on Tuesday approved a draft bill setting out far-reaching protection measures for children and teenagers at risk of abuse.
Considered one of the signature issues of the governing coalition made up of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the leftist Unidas Podemos group, the child-protection legislation contains elements of prevention, early detection, protection and reparation for victims of violence.
The draft bill will now start making its way through parliament. Government sources said they will seek fast-track approval.
In February, Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, said that the new legislation will be known as the “Rhodes Law,” in recognition of campaigning by British concert pianist James Rhodes in defense of children’s rights.
The draft bill extends the statute of limitations on the most serious crimes committed against minors, introduces protocols to be followed by schools as well as sports and leisure centers where minors are present, and makes changes to judicial procedures.
Violence against children is largely invisible, say children‘s defense organizations. Half of all reports of sexual abuse were against minors, according to the latest available data. In 2018, 38,000 minors were the victims of some criminal act, said Iglesias on Tuesday following the weekly Cabinet meeting.
“With this law, our country is going to adopt the highest international standards in child protection,” said Iglesias, who also heads the Social Rights Ministry. “It will get all of society involved, and it will end the impunity that has allowed these crimes to be invisible. We frame violence against children not as a private problem but as a social one.”
“I apologize on behalf of all the public powers to all the victims of this despicable violence, for whom we are too late. Let us hope that their stories will serve the purpose of preventing other children from going through what they went through,” added Iglesias.
The genesis of the draft bill can be traced back to a 2015 parliamentary initiative that led to some joint work by children’s rights groups and the government, then under a Popular Party (PP) administration.
When Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE reached power in June 2018, one of his first pledges was to get child abuse legislation passed. The draft underwent a first Cabinet reading in 2018, and by the time the coalition government was formed, it had already been reviewed by relevant authorities such as the General Council of the Judiciary. But further parliamentary progress has been recently delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Child defense associations are comparing this piece of legislation with the sweeping gender violence law passed in Spain in 2004. These groups insist on the importance of reaching a political consensus so the initiative can take effect as soon as possible.
Luis Perdenera, chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, said that amendments could be introduced to improve the “gender perspective” as well as the provisions for children with disabilities.
Iglesias said the government is committed to “improving the law during the parliamentary procedure” and to seeking support across the political spectrum.
One of the most relevant changes introduced by the draft bill is the longer statute of limitations on the most serious crimes against minors, including sexual abuse and aggression. The time limit for filing legal action will start to run when the victim turns 30 years old, not 18 as is currently the case.
Since the time period expires in five to 15 years, victims will be able to take action until the age of 45 for the most serious crimes, instead of 33. Experts note that this is an essential step because adults who have been abused as children often take a long time realizing what happened due to memory repression.
The draft bill also establishes that children under 14 and people with disabilities will only have to give a statement once during the court investigation. Police statements will be avoided if possible, and in these cases there will be no contact with the alleged abuser. There will be trained units to deal with child abuse at local, regional and national law enforcement agencies.
The draft legislation creates protocols against school bullying, cyberbullying, sexual harassment, gender violence, domestic violence, suicide, self-harm and any other form of violence, to be applied at all education centers.
There will be similar protocols against violence at leisure and sports centers, and at centers for youths under state guardianship. “Last week we learned that a nine-year-old child had taken his own life at a home for wards of the state in Navarre,” said Iglesias. “It is paramount to establish prevention mechanisms so this will not happen.”
The draft bill also sets out a protocol for healthcare centers, and creates a central registry for information, as one of the main problems is the lack of data on violence against children. Citizens will have the obligation to report situations of violence to the relevant authorities. The draft bill also makes provisions for the creation of specialized courts to deal with violence against children.
There will be tougher conditions for accessing prison leaves and open regimes for individuals convicted of sex crimes against children under 16. And new penalties are created for online crimes such as encouraging minors to commit suicide or to hurt themselves.
English version by Susana Urra.