Column | Youth care should rather be for children

The youth care must have an inspection. I know because everyone says so. “Youth care must be overhauled, and quickly,” writes a professor of forensic psychology in August 2021. “Youth care must be overhauled,” promises de Volkskrant in May 2022. “In the long term, the youth care system needs an overhaul,” says NOS in September 2022. Fashion model Kim Feenstra says it in metro news also: ‘System on the bucket’.

Unfortunately, Jeugdzorg Nederland reports this month that the system is far from being overhauled. It is true that the Minister and the Secretary of State have plans to solve acute bottlenecks in the youth protection chain, but there is no urgency.

The plans for youth care read “mainly agreements that follow ‘in the autumn’, an action plan that still needs to be made, a non-binding guidance, a conversation, an ‘exploration’ of the ‘possibility’, an inventory.” And money, well, adds Ungdomsplejen worryingly.

Here is the story in a nutshell. A crumbling system, damning reports, no prospect of recovery and half a billion cuts in youth care in the Rutte IV cabinet coalition agreement. So is there money to be made? Yes, of course money must always be added. The half billion was “the most stupid cut you can think of”, says FNV federation director Maaike van der Aar in NRC. Rescue workers urgently need support.

Then the same Maaike van der Aar enters metro news speaks of financial interests and perverse incentives in the healthcare market. Institutions get paid per occupied bed, she says. “Then as an organization you have to make sure that your beds are covered. Whereas ideally we don’t want to place children out of the house.” In short, money needs to be added, but you shouldn’t put children out for fun who don’t need to be moved out at all. In other words, the system needs an overhaul!

Well, what else can I add to this? Maybe I think the system has long since been overhauled and little attention is paid to it. It is certainly true that the government is training. That she has to do so much at once, with so little, that she has dampened her faith in the malleability of society. System on the go? she sighs. First an exploration, a guide, an inventory.

But lo and behold, that’s where the cavalry comes in through a back door, in the form of AI. It will enable governments to solve all problems as if by magic. Get rid of the bottlenecks: Projects are being started in one municipality after another to track child abuse with data analyses. You search all data on all children in the neighborhood and then you can simply decide which child to remove from the home using risk indicators. Smart!

Under the name GIRFEC (Getting it right for every child), this approach has come over from Scotland, where it has long since been withdrawn, there are problems with it. But in the Netherlands, people are more flexible about this. Do you want to link data from education and care, while it is not allowed according to the ‘letter of the law’? A director of an institution for children with serious behavioral problems exults in conversation with the Dutch Youth Institute that the ban has been circumvented by asking the children for ‘permission’. Boy boy.

The system appears in one municipality, is withdrawn due to unrest and reappears in another municipality, under a different name. Now again in Maassluis, Vlaardingen and Schiedam: Municipalities and care providers believe that they “need dynamic insight into the development per (sub)target group and for the individual neighborhoods and districts in the municipality as a basis for our actions”. Here, too, young people are asked for permission to share data.

It sounds good, but it is not so beneficial to lurk in sub-target data in individual neighborhoods. What is really wrong with prejudice about abuse is going at least as wrong with computerization. Because what is abuse? The information systems have no idea. Are children being abused by their parents if they don’t get food because of the high gas bill? Are broken shoes a sign of neglect? Or just poverty? Knows the systems a lot!

Searching for data is a showcase for optimism about manufacturing capability. But youth care already has enough problems. Nor can she use prejudices about sub-target groups that are stored in systems that you, as a parent or carer, cannot talk to. Yes, youth care needs an overhaul. By being nicer to children. Not by digitizing old mistakes and perverse incentives.

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