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‘Family situations are never black and white’

She bridges the gap between research and practice, has excellent research skills and is pleasant to work with: these words of praise were lavished on Sabine van der Asdonk (29) when she won the Gratama Science Prize 2021 in June. In this interview she explains more about her research into vulnerable families with complex problems.

Sabine van der Asdonk fell in love with Leiden when, at the age of 18, she decided to study Education and Child Studies here. ‘The first 18 years of a person’s life are so crucial. I found that fascinating,’ she explains. The environment and family situation that a child grows up in determines its development. The very youngest children are particularly vulnerable and dependent on the care of their parents or guardians. All parents want the best for their child, but the family situation is by no means always ideal. I wanted to explore the questions of how we can improve that.’ 

For a long time Van der Asdonk thought she would become a practitioner and work directly with families, but during her master’s she realised that research suited her better. ‘As a researcher you’re still closely involved with the practice,’ she explains, ‘particularly when vulnerable families are your target group. Personal contact is important because you first have to win their trust. To me that contact is really valuable because you find out what is going on in the family. Otherwise it’s really difficult to do applied research.’ 

What is... forensic family studies?

Forensic family studies focuses on difficult family circumstances where legal steps may need to be or have already been taken. This means families at risk of or affected by child abuse or neglect or extreme behavioural problems. The situation and problems are nearly always complex: parental mental health problems, financial problems, domestic abuse. A forensic family psychologist tries to diagnose the problems and to develop interventions or treatments to help the family. 

Van der Asdonk received her PhD last year for research into families where there are concerns about child abuse. She researched whether the parents in these families, who have already been on the radar of social services for a while, could improve their parenting skills with an intervention developed in Leiden. ‘We looked at whether this intervention, which consisted of video feedback, makes parents more sensitive, or in other words whether they can identify their child’s needs and respond accordingly,’ Van der Asdonk explains. ‘The families were admitted to a clinic for a few months and received very intensive, personalised support to improve their situation. If sufficient progress was seen in the family, the child would not need to be taken into care.’ 

More objective

The aim of the research was to improve the decision to take children into care. ‘Taking a child into care is extremely distressing, both for the child and the parents,’ she explains. ‘There are complex and diverse problems at play in these families, but with the right support the child would in some cases be able to carry on living at home. These family situations are never black and white. Decisions about taking a child into care will always be subjective to a certain degree, but our research showed that there was more consensus about the decision if information about the result of the intervention had a bearing on the decision. That appears to indicate that the decision was that bit more objective.’

Sabine van Asdonk received the Gratama Science Prize on 25 June.

Disturbing cases

During her research Van der Asdonk dealt with disturbing cases. ‘It does affect you when you hear all that a family has experienced,’ she says. ‘Fortunately I can talk to my colleagues about disturbing cases. But the best thing was to see how pleased the families and support services that we worked with were with our efforts. Families with these profound problems are rarely studied because the problems are so complex. It’s important to know what is going on in real life so that we really can make a useful contribution with our research.’

For her new research into mothers and young children who end up in a woman’s shelter after domestic violence, Van der Asdonk is also bringing together research and practice. ‘We are trying to gain knowledge about the efficacy of treatments in a target group where this is hardly ever studied,’ she says. ‘I hope to help improve the care for vulnerable families.’

This article previously appeared in Leidraad, our alumni magazine (in Dutch).

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