Universiteit Leiden

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‘The child protection system really isn’t in good order’

Last Thursday the Dutch House of Representatives held a debate on children being put into care when the childcare benefits scandal (toeslagenaffaire) had caused problems for their families. Four Leiden University academics were asked by the House to produce a fact sheet for this debate, bringing together their knowledge on this issue.

The facts for the debate were supplied by Professor Mariëlle Bruning and Assistant Professor Kartica van der Zon from the Department of Child Law, and Professor Lenneke Alink and Assistant Professor Sabine van der Asdonk from the Institute of Education and Child Studies. We spoke to Mariëlle Bruning about this special assignment.

Do you think it is an important task for academia to provide accurate information for politicians?

‘We think it’s really important. As researchers, it’s our duty to contribute to public debate and provide building blocks for that debate. So we were pleased to accept this assignment, and are also glad that it’s now receiving so much public attention. Because that’s what we want to do: make sure people know the facts. Personally, I put a lot of energy into that, by maintaining a large network of people working in law and implementation. Not just to provide input but also to ask what topics they think need to be researched.’

How were you chosen for this assignment?

‘We received the request through the Parliament and Science project. I didn’t even know that this organisation existed, but in fact members of the House of Representatives can contact it to request academic knowledge. The organisation then looks for the necessary specialists. So when they were asked for relevant insights on taking children into care, they contacted me, which is logical because Leiden is the only university with a Department of Child Law.

‘And we were pleased to contribute to this fact sheet. Not only because it’s our job, but also because there really are problems with those being taken into children in care. Another good point is that for once it’s happening the other way round: we’re being asked to share our insights. Normally, we have to try hard to bring our research to people’s attention.’

Was it easy for you all to find time for this fact sheet?

‘It was quite a challenge. We were contacted at the end of last year, in the autumn, and asked whether we had time during the first few months of this year, starting in January. So we did our best to free up some time for it. We didn’t need to do any new research: it’s a compilation of relevant existing insights. But you do still need to be able to make time in two departments because Education and Child Studies also did some of the work. Fortunately, we’ve often worked together in the past: Child Law and Education and Child Studies. So by now it all runs very smoothly.’

You’ve already mentioned the problems with taking children into care. What are the biggest concerns?

‘There are many problems, and much more research is needed, especially behavioural science research. Because generally speaking, the way that children are taken into care doesn’t make life any better for them. This is a shocking observation. Why is this? In the main, the decision to take a child in care is often necessary. That’s not where the problem lies; it’s in what happens after that. Once a child goes to live somewhere else, they often end up living in many other places, which vastly increases the risk factors. It really shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

‘Another concern is the position of the parents and the children. How are they protected against a powerful government system? That’s something else that isn’t well regulated. And it needs to be because placing a child in care is the most drastic intervention you could imagine.’

So will you be listening with interest to the House debate, to see whether it goes in the right direction?

‘No, we don’t have the time for that. I will hear or read the outcome later, of course. But we hope that there will be changes because the child protection system really isn’t in good order. We’ve actually known this for many years, but nothing changed during the Covid pandemic. What makes this even more regrettable is that the pandemic placed the home situation under much greater strain. However, I now hope that the House of Representatives will be patient for another two months: that’s when we’ll be publishing the evaluation of the Revised Child Protection Measures Act (Wet HKBM), which contains many legal guidelines for making changes. Because it’s clear that changes are needed. For the ten per cent of children in the Netherlands who are having a difficult time, the care we provide is absolutely not good enough.’

Text: Marijn Kramp
Photo: iStock

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