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'Secure youth care institutions can never be the only remaining option'

Secure residential care for young people should be abolished, Jason (21) said recently in national Dutch media. He had stayed for more than a year at institutions providing secure residential care but according to him he didn’t benefit from it. PhD candidate Maria de Jong investigated the how and why of this type of youth care and will defend her doctoral thesis on 7 March.

Secure youth care institutions have existed in the Netherlands since 2008. Children with serious issues who resist help, can be placed in secure residential care by a juvenile court. Up till 2008 this group of youths was placed in a youth custodial institution together with those placed there by the criminal courts. “For a long time now, concerns have been raised about the failure to provide help to children suffering from depression in secure youth care institutions, and - unfortunately - about the number of suicides that occur in these institutions, ” De Jong explains. “Even though these should be a safe place for youths requiring intensive care.”

Maria de Jong-de Kruijf

What brings a juvenile court to issue an order to a youth for secure residential care? This question intrigued De Jong. “This is a major decision. But it is something that happens a lot in the Netherlands: in 2017 1,916 youths were placed in this type of care.” As part of her research, she spoke with many children who were residing in secure youth care institutions. She asked them, for example, if they could explain why they had been sent there and how they experienced being locked up. “In addition, I reviewed 200 years of the history of secure youth services. Who decided if a child was locked up? In the past, a father could request this at the courts! And how was placement in a secure institution justified in legal practice?’

Purpose of placement

She also considered children’s rights. “The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights states that a minor may be detained ‘for the purpose of educational supervision’. Detention in a secure youth care institution must therefore be assessed in light of the purpose of this detention. The assessment framework shows that detention is permitted, though only under strict conditions. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and other legal sources indicate that the detention of children may only be applied in exceptional cases, as a final measure and for as short a period as possible. I have drawn up a children’s and human rights assessment framework which can be used to assess the justification of detention.”

De Jong reviewed this framework against all 586 court judgments given in the first ten years of secure youth care institutions. “The case law study demonstrates that the grounds for court decisions were more a description of the problem, than aimed at a purpose and solution. It can therefore be concluded that juvenile courts review in particular the criteria of necessity and to a lesser extent the criteria of purpose. This is especially problematic when a decision concerning an extension is taken.” The reasoning of the court often voiced doubt as to the suitability of the secure youth care institution, but often the decisive factor was that there was no other suitable alternative to detention. “This is due, among other things, to the lack of a clear definition of ‘appropriate treatment’. One clear function of detention is that it is done to create peace and stability. But does detention satisfy the requirements for legitimacy if all the treatment it can offer is that?”

'Half the number of places in secure youth care institutions.'

De Jong concludes that placement in secure youth care institutions in the Netherlands is ordered mainly because of a lack of suitable and realistic alternatives offered by child and youth psychiatry, specialist foster care and other types of youth protection and assistance. “One of my recommendations is to half the number of places in secure youth care institutions. It should also be regulated by law that an authorization for detention can only be given for the duration of six months. In addition, I believe that juvenile courts should be given more freedom: at present they can only reject a request for detention in a secure youth care institution, allow it for a short period, or allow it. I believe that a juvenile court should also be able to choose from “open” placement in care or placement in a youth mental health care institution. However, this does require a great deal of investment in the coming years and realistic alternatives to secure youth care which takes the youth in question seriously on their path to adulthood, both their problems and their character.

The researcher hopes that her research will contribute to awareness that placement in a secure institution results in deprivation of liberty, and for a balanced decision process this requires a strong legal position of children. “Deprivation of liberty is sometimes a necessity, but it must always be accompanied by a purpose that is worth pursuing that takes account of a child’s right to attention, particularly when it comes to youths with serious problems. Children’s rights imply that a child gets a second chance, particularly in today’s hard reality.” De Jong hopes that her dissertation will lead to serious improvements. “These youths benefit from specialist treatment. Secure youth care institutions cannot be the only remaining option.”

Text:Floris van den Driesche

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