‘If you know how the system works, you can stand up for your rights’
Legal protection. What do those involved in youth care and child protection understand by this concept? And what needs to change to improve legal protection? This question was explored by researchers from Leiden University’s Department of Child Law. Their research fits with the government’s ambition to improve the youth protection system in the Netherlands as a whole.
Professor Mariëlle Bruning, Marike Lenglet and Jolien van Boven of the Department of Child Law, were commissioned by the living lab (in Dutch: proeftuin) in Utrecht and Utrecht-West, one of the 11 national living labs experimenting with the government’s Toekomstscenario voor kind- en gezinsbescherming (scenario for the future of child and family protection), to investigate legal protection in the Dutch child protection system. The Leiden researchers explored what the parties involved in the youth care and child protection system understand by the concept of legal protection. Their research report ‘Perspectieven op rechtsbescherming in de jeugdbescherming’ (perspectives on legal protection in the Dutch child protection system) answers this question and sets out what needs to be changed to improve legal protection. According to the respondents in the study, this is not so much about challenging decisions, but about the context in which these decisions are made. This context should be about contact with parents and young people, where there is room to be heard and seen, to be informed about rights and procedures, and to receive support.
The Toekomstscenario kind- en gezinsbescherming is a government policy programme which aims to develop a more effective system of child protection. One of its ambitions is to improve the legal protection of parents and young people. The Dutch Minister for Legal Protection has also placed this issue high on the (political) agenda. To achieve sustainable improvements in the legal protection of parents and young people, it must first be clear what legal protection means to all parties involved. The research report provides insights into this. The purpose of the small-scale, exploratory research project was to map the various perspectives on the concept of legal protection, on what those involved in youth care and child protection believe is going well and what not so well, and what areas they feel need improvement. On the basis of interviews with professionals in the sector, parents, and young people, the researchers mapped out what the various stakeholders in the Dutch child protection system understand by the concept of legal protection.
It appears that a difference exists in how the respondents interpret the concept of legal protection – not only between parents and juveniles on the one hand and between professionals on the other, but also between professionals themselves. The answers to the questions on what is going well when it comes to legal protection and what could be improved, also demonstrate these differences. Furthermore, the research shows that legal literature attaches a different meaning to legal protection than how parents, young people, and professionals view it. In the legal literature, the focus is on challenging decisions and actions of government agencies and organisations involved in youth care and child protection. For the respondents, however, it is not so much about challenging decisions, but more about the correct and just context in which decisions are made. In other words, legal protection is associated with being heard and seen, participating in decision-making, being taken seriously, being informed about rights, and receiving independent support.
The report’s findings make it clear that legal protection is a factor to be considered much earlier in processes that could result in a child protection order. It is about being heard and seen, being informed about rights and procedures, and receiving support. This requires that decisions are made on the basis of sound research that is carefully reviewed by the juvenile court and, if necessary, can be refuted through the right to counter-expertise.