The youth welfare system does not succeed in guiding parents and children with serious problems to a better and healthier home situation. It makes it harder to justify government intervention in family situations – a serious remedy. This is stated by researchers from Leiden University on Wednesday in a critical evaluation report on the Act on the Assessment of Child Protection Measures. “The government may actually only intervene in a family if the situation improves,” says Mariëlle Bruning, professor of juvenile law and lead author of the evaluation report.
More than 10 percent of Dutch youth under the age of 18 received some form of youth care last year. There may be situations where parents get help at home on a voluntary basis with the upbringing of their child. But there are also families where there are so many problems that the child’s development is threatened. Until the end of 2021, 32,000 children were covered by youth protection, 1 percent of all young people under the age of 18.
Families where the parents are unable to care for their child may be placed under supervision. If, after years, a safe home situation has still not been created, parents can permanently lose custody of their child. The Juvenile Court always has the last word on these measures.
In practice, it often proves impossible to provide sufficient help to a child and the parents in time due to, for example, waiting lists and a lack of staff and foster families. As a result, juvenile justices must base their decision on whether or not to remove a child from their home based on how long it has been since they were placed in care, rather than whether support to family members has been effective – in the law includes a condition within which the temporary supervision turns into a loss of parental authority.
According to Bruning, in recent years, juvenile court judges have become less and less daring to proceed with this termination of custody, the strictest protective measure, because many other, lighter interventions cannot be attempted. That, says researcher Bruning, often means “choosing between two evils”: keeping parents who have had too little help away from their child or allowing the child to return to an unhealthy home situation.
The researchers also conclude that the legal position of parents and children is weak. According to them, this can best be seen in the so-called perspective decision, where youth welfare institutions make a decision about where the child will stay until he becomes an adult. This decision is used by youth protection officers when a child has been removed from home but has no legal basis. For example, youth welfare institutions may decide that the child must remain in a foster family until the age of eighteen instead of returning to the parental home.
How that decision comes about is often shrouded in mystery. Neither parents nor children can oppose such a decision before the institution or the juvenile court. Bruning: “It is very strange that such a drastic decision cannot be tried by the court.”
For her and her fellow researchers, this also applies to the implementation of a guardianship measure: When a youth welfare agency makes a decision, (foster) parents and children cannot challenge this in court. Think about contact with parents or transfer to another care home.
Other way of life
The evaluation, which took around a year and a half and was carried out on behalf of WODC, the knowledge center of the Ministry of Justice and Security, also shows that far from all protectors have a transfer to another form of accommodation in time. to the juvenile court, even if this is required by law. It is Bruning’s impression that “youth guardians find the legal system very complicated”, which may be due, among other things, to the fact that their education does not teach them to think legally.
She also sees this in the emergence of a system within youth care where families are encouraged by youth protectors to accept help on a ‘voluntary basis’ before action is taken. This is also not regulated by law, which makes it unclear what rights and duties there are for parents and children. “Youth guardians are very hostile to the legal system, but we lawyers believe that the legal system can also help the juvenile guardian,” said the professor.
Also read: Youth advocates critical of supervision after detention report
In line with this, the evaluation report questions the role of the child protection board, which reviews the decisions of the youth protectors. When, on the basis of a dossier, a youth welfare institution decides that a family must be supervised, the Child Welfare Board must legally issue an independent opinion on the proposal – usually based on the institution’s own file. The judge then decides what action to take. Bruning: “Then you have three organizations that have something to say about one measure. The question is whether it is effective.”
It is not without reason that the legislature has determined “that an independent assessment is necessary” of a measure that violates family life, the council replies to NRC.Yes, the judge is also independent, but ‘you can’t possibly ask them to monitor the whole situation in the family during the short hearing period. Therefore, the judge needs an independent opinion.”
According to the council, a bigger problem is that since 2015 the municipalities have been responsible for youth care. The organization refers to the decentralization of the Youth Act in 2015, which turned out to be disastrous: the demand for care grew against all expectations, the costs got out of hand. As a result, the availability of help for the children has deteriorated.
“We have felt abandoned by the system for a long time,” says Limburg’s youth protector Frans Claessens (57). For far too long, his work has been about finances, permits, codes and hours rather than people. According to him, it regularly happens that if a juvenile court judge has decided on the need for help, a municipality does not buy it for financial reasons. And if necessary care is purchased, according to Claessens, the municipalities will still interfere in, for example, the length of a treatment. “Bizarre, then you’re going against a court order,” says Professor Bruning.
To the empire
All those involved with NRC has spoken, argues for central organization and funding of care for children with the greatest problems. In short: The national government must take up youth protection again. The Rutte IV cabinet’s coalition agreement states that half a billion euros must be cut from youth care.
Also read: Critical report on errors in youth care silent
“The most stupid cuts you can think of,” replies FNV federation director Maaike van der Aar. “If you want to save this sector, you must not let the people who are still there fail.” The union therefore sent Minister Franc Weerwind (Legal Protection, D66) an ultimatum at the beginning of July, in which an additional 400 million euros are structurally required for youth protection. Research has shown that 5,000 new youth protectors are needed to ease the workload on the sector. A timely real response from the minister did not appear, the ultimatum expired on 19 August.
“An absolute majority of our members have indicated that they want action,” says Van der Aar. This means that “even before Budget Day” action will be taken, including indefinite strikes. “We don’t want to drop the real crises, but it means others have to wait longer for help.”