Does Finland have two limits of the age of consent?

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Perjantai 10.5.2019 klo 8.23 - Johannes Remy

On December 15, 2016, the European Court of Human Rights found that Finland had violated freedom of speech of a mother who attempted to protect her child from sexual abuse. The sentence can be read here: My blog text is based on the sentence.

Finnish media have not reported this sentence. Finland sentenced the mother for defamation, because she told to authorities about her concern that the father might abuse their somewhat less than three-year old daughter. The mother feared that this might happen during the visits which were based on the father’s contact rights.

The case merits attention, because the ECHR’s sentence indicates the existence of several systemic flaws in the protection of children from child abuse in Finland. Child sexual abuse may be left uninvestigated because the victim is younger than four years of age. The legal age of consent in Finland is sixteen years. Does the administrative practice establish also another, lower age limit? Does the law protect only children between 4 and 15 years of age? Furthermore, once the first civil servants committed a mistake, the whole administrative machinery protected them.

A daughter was born to a Finnish couple in November 2004. In the spring of 2006 the mother observed that the child’s father was behaving strangely with the child and that the child did not want to stay at home alone with her father. She also started to fear for her own and her child’s safety as the father was, in her view, violent. Fearing for her child’s safety, the mother in May 2006 together with the child moved away from the father.

In August 2006 the Kouvola District Court gave an interim decision that the father was to meet his daughter for two hours every other weekend under supervision. In June 2007 the same court gave another interim decision according to which the father had a right to meet with his daughter for 2 to 4 hours at a time without supervision. The child was at that time about two and a half years old. On 4 September 2007 the court gave both parents joint custody of the child. She was to live with her mother and to meet her father every other weekend from Friday to Sunday and during the holidays, unsupervised.

According to the mother, after the third unsupervised visit with the father in August 2007, the daughter’s behaviour changed radically and she was showing strong symptoms. She was using vulgar language and was restless and anxious. The child had told her mother about things that her father did to her. The mother contacted the child welfare authorities in Helsinki reporting her suspicions of sexual abuse. Thirteen days after the mother’s report, the child welfare authorities reported the case to the Helsinki Police Department.  The pre-trial investigation began one week after the welfare authorities’ report that is 20 days after the mother’s initial report to the child welfare authorities. Both parents were questioned. Sixteen days after the child welfare authorities’ report that is 29 days after the mother’s initial report, the Police Department requested assistance from the Forensic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Centre in Helsinki. The child was then two years and ten months old. 35 days after the mother’s initial report to the authorities, a physiological examination was carried out to determine whether the child showed any signs or symptoms of the alleged abuse, but no such external signs were revealed. This is not surprising, because it is rare to find such signs more than one week after the abuse.

The Forensic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Centre refused to interview the child or conduct a psychological examination. Here, I find it best to quote the ECHR’s sentence in verbatim, in order not to be suspected of twisting the matter:

“The Centre replied that children under three years old could not be interviewed within the forensic-psychological interview framework as it was not possible to obtain reliable information on possible sexual abuse from children under three years of age, especially in situations involving custody disputes. Such interviews became effective only in respect of children aged four years or more.”
The above quotation reveals two relevant matters: 1. The Forensic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Centre refused to investigate the matter referring to its own rule, according to which children less than four years of age are not examined; 2. the Centre presented the ongoing custody dispute as an additional argument to back its refusal. This might perhaps be an argument in the final proceedings at a court of law, but as an argument for refusal to investigate a crime, it is strange. Of course, the suspect is not guilty until found guilty, but if this is a valid cause not to investigate a crime, then no crimes can ever be investigated.

The Helsinki Police Department closed the pre-trial investigation on 15 October 2007 as it found no appearance of any crime. Four days after that, the mother in a telephone conversation expressed to a social worker her fear that her child continued to be at risk of being subjected to sexual abuse when meeting her father and insisted on another investigation. She was concerned that the pre-trial investigation by the police had not been complete.

As a concerned party, the suspected father later gained access to all documents of the case, including the social worker’s notes of this telephone conversation. He filed a report for defamation against the mother. In September 2009 the Helsinki District Court convicted the mother of defamation and sentenced her to pay a fine of 630 euros. She was ordered to pay the father 1,000 euros in non‑pecuniary compensation and his costs and expenses. Again, I quote verbatim the District Court’s sentence:

“When assessing whether one is guilty of defamation, it is irrelevant that the act has been committed by pursuing an earlier report to child welfare authorities and that it has been made to a public official who is bound by confidentiality. Even in a child welfare report one must not give untruthful and smearing information or insinuations about others. M.P. must have understood that the insinuation was of such a kind that in any event it would come to the knowledge of [the child’s father] and that its content, being almost of the worst kind, was bound to cause him suffering.”
This when the police had never seen the child, no psychological examination of the child had been conducted, and the authorities had merely ignored the information provided by the mother. She appealed against the judgment of the District Court to the Helsinki Appeal Court (Hovioikeus) which however upheld the Disctrict Court’s sentence.

In March 2010 the father of the child requested the Helsinki District Court to order that the child live with him, and in January 2011 the court ordered that the child was to live with her father in Kouvola. To be sure, the mother retained a shared custody of the child.

 In February 2008 the mother lodged a complaint with the National Authority for Medico-legal Affairs (Terveydenhuollon oikeusturvakeskus) about the fact that the child had not been heard at all during the pre-trial investigation in autumn 2007. The case was transferred ex officio to the regional State Provincial Office (lääninhallitus). In November 2008 the regional State Provincial Office found that there was no minimum age for hearing a child and that the three-year age‑limit for child psychiatric interviews was only a recommendation. Here, noteworthy is the difference between the Forensic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Centre and the State Provincial Office: the first relied on an unconditional rule not to investigate children younger than four years, while the latter spoke about a recommendation regarding children younger than three years. The Provincial Office decided to take no action in the case.
In February 2008 the mother also lodged a complaint with the Parliamentary Ombudsman, asking him to investigate why the police did not hear her child during the pre-trial investigation. In April 2008 the Parliamentary Ombudsman decided not to take any measures. He found that he did not have competence to give orders to the police concerning the investigation of the matter as he could not examine the actions of private individuals.
The mother also asked the Ministry of the Interior to investigate whether the decision not to hear the child was acceptable. The Ministry of the Interior transferred the matter to the National Police Board. In August 2012 the National Police Board found that police conduct in the matter had been appropriate. The police had conducted an adequate pre-trial investigation without leaving any issues unclarified.
The mother did not gain any justice in Finland, and only some at the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR found that Finland had violated her freedom of speech and obligated the state to pay her a monetary compensation. However, to this day Finland has not overturned her criminal conviction, Finnish mass media has not deemed the case worth reporting, to say nothing of making the relevant civil servants to face their responsibility.
In Finland, the reported cases of sexual abuse of small children under five years of age lead to conviction substantially more seldom than reported abuse of older children. The ECHR’s sentence reveals one of the main causes for this phenomenon: the arbitrary rule not to conduct psychological investigation of small children. This flaw must be urgently corrected either by legislation, or new administrative guidelines. It is impermissible that the government protects from crime only children aged 4 to 15. To be sure, it indeed is more difficult to gain information from a very young child than a bigger one. Nevertheless, it is arbitrary to altogether refuse to examine children younger than four, and even more arbitrary to charge the protecting parent of defamation on that basis. What is the truth? When there is a three-year old’s word against the Helsinki Police Department’s word, I am not convinced that the latter is always more trustworthy.
I call attention to a strange slump in the Finnish statistics of the reported cases of sexual abuse of victims younger than five. In 2015, 105 cases were reported to police; in 2016, 98 cases, but in 2017, only 53. A drop of more than 45% in one year evokes questions: are some of the reported cases not registered? Source: Statistics Finland 
The ECHR sentence brings to light two additional relevant flaws in the investigation of child sexual abuse in Finland. First, the investigation often begins with a considerable delay which substantially obstructs it. Second is the unofficial but very real status of the forensic psychological examination as the court of first instance which may stop consideration of all other evidence. What a child speaks to her or his parents or other non-specialists is evidence, too. Of course, it must be carefully and rationally examined, taking into account the child’s age, possible manipulation, misunderstandings, etc. However, it is inappropriate to altogether ignore this evidence. Police should investigate child sexual abuse like it investigates a serious crime against property, actively striving to gain additional evidence. It is manifest that this is not always how child sexual abuse is investigated in Finland.
Since about a decade, I am blogging in Finnish about the insufficient protection of children from sexual abuse in Finland. I have now decided to write also in English. This is because the denial of this problem in Finland is so strong that there may be more hope of awaking my dear country of origin from abroad. My blog has many readers, but so far, it does not evoke activism. If my text and the ECHR’s sentence convinced you and if you find the cause important, please share.  

Avainsanat: child sexual abuse, European Court of Human Rights

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