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Interview: Placing children into care be handled differently

Being taken away from your parents, from your brothers and sisters, from your school, from your friends: being placed into care is a life-changing experience for children. Especially since the Dutch child welfare system fails in its caring and supervising duties. Even so, not enough is being done to make sure that children can remain with their families, according to researcher Jana-Knot Dickscheit and Ombudswoman for Children Margrite Kalverboer. ‘We know what is needed, but we do not do it often enough.’

By Maaike Borst, Dagblad van het Noorden

Does the Netherlands place the most children into care? This is a question that many people have asked since the national childcare benefits scandal and the resulting discussion about placing children into care. In these heated discussions, it is often said that the Netherlands places the most children into care, but there is no evidence for this, as there are no statistics. What is certain is that each year, thousands of children are placed into care.

However, this is not the most important question, according to keynote speaker Jana Knot-Dickscheit of the Centre of Expertise Families with Multiple and Complex Problems (FMCP) at the University of Groningen. ‘In the end, each child placed into care is one too many. The main issue is: how do we prevent this from happening?’

This week, research was published by Leiden University, conducted on the authority of the Ministry of Justice and Security, which shows that the government fails miserably in protecting the most vulnerable children in the Netherlands. The quality of child protection is insufficient, which means that interfering sometimes leads to more harm than protection. The researchers call on the Minister to take action immediately.

Jana Knot-Dickscheit
Jana Knot-Dickscheit

Ambulant support

Since the beginning of her career, remedial educationalist Knot-Dickscheit has been asking herself whether things should not be handled differently. During her internship in Germany, she once witnessed a child being taken into care. ‘It was tragic, especially for the parents and the children. But the social workers were also powerless. I thought: is there really no other way to solve this?’

During the past decades, some things have improved. ‘In the past, children were placed in institutions much sooner. Nowadays, the focus is on ambulant support, to help people at home. But this can and should be done much better.’

The majority of the children who are placed into care grow up in families with multiple problems. These families struggle with issues such as poverty, illness, mental health problems, parenting questions, addictions, and stress. At a rough estimate, there are about 100,000 families like this in the Netherlands. Research and experience show that it is specifically these families that need long-term support and follow-up care, because the constant stress makes it hard for them to deal with setbacks. ‘But our welfare system is based on short-term support. Families are often left to their own devices too soon, which means that they soon end up in another crisis if something goes wrong.’

In addition, help is mainly aimed at parents and their parenting skills, with too little focus on the children. ‘Which means the children still have problems when the support ends.’ Knot-Dickscheit observes that some social workers have not received the proper training or do not have enough experience to handle these types of families. There are numerous reports of too many social workers who are all working with the same family. ‘We know what is needed, but we do not do it often enough.’

Not heard enough

The consequence is that more children and teenagers are placed into care than would be necessary if the right support were to be available for families. And child welfare sometimes even mishandles decisions to place a child in care. The quality of the analyses and reports are insufficient due to lack of time, personnel, and experience, but judges have to make life-changing decisions based on these reports.

Knot-Dickscheit: ‘The fact that some people are advocating to offer families legal aid says enough about the balance of power. Parents and children are often simply not heard enough.’

Partly thanks to the childcare benefits scandal, there has been more focus in the last few years on placing children into care and what it means to these children. ‘It is a life-changing experience. Not only do you lose your parents, but often also your brothers, sisters, school, and friends. That can lead to additional trauma. Many of these children have behavioural problems or develop them, which means that, after being placed into care, they are moved again, which gives them the feeling that they don’t belong anywhere.’

Margrite Kalverboer
Margrite Kalverboer

Messed up

Ombudswoman for Children Margrite Kalverboer hears stories about things going wrong from the children themselves. She spoke to a girl who was placed into care because of self-mutilation, but this was at a time when things were actually going relatively well. As there was no place for her in the right care institution, she ended up among a group of teenagers with severe behavioural problems and aggression. She started self-mutilating again.

‘She told me: “That is when I messed things up for myself.” I told her: “No, we are the ones who messed things up for you.” If this is how we treat children, we should ask ourselves whether staying with their slightly unsafe family may actually be better than a stay in a very unsafe institution.’

There is another side as well, says Kalverboer. ‘I have also spoken to teenagers who say: “They should have placed me into care much sooner, I have sent so many messages, but nobody did anything.”’ She visited secure youth care wards where the teenagers did not understand why their predecessors were talking so negatively about their experiences. ‘Counsellors said: “Some of these experts by experience would not have survived without these secure youth care wards.”’

Sometimes placement into care is really necessary, both Kalverboer and Knot-Dickscheit agree. In cases of severe abuse or neglect, there is no other choice than to move the child to a safe environment. Kalverboer: ‘Some families are simply unable to offer a safe parenting environment, even with all the help and support in the world.’ She thinks that these cases should not be forgotten in the current heated debate.

Placing children

The interest of the child comes first

In the end, it is all about the interest of the child, says Kalverboer. It is not about the interest of the parents. ‘Regarding the childcare benefits scandal, for example, you hear people say that all these children should be returned to their families. But no matter the injustice their parents have suffered, you should first consider whether this is in the interest of the children who have sometimes lived elsewhere for years.’

This sounds simple, but in practice it can be really hard to make a decision like that. Is safety more important than the bond with their own family? How can you make a decision if you do not know where a child will end up? When do you offer parents a second chance and when is it too late for second chances?

This is why you need to prevent having to take such a decision in the first place, says Knot-Dickscheit. ‘I was recently part of a committee comprising all sorts of experts who were discussing solutions. One of them was an expert by experience. At one point, she said: “You are all right. But then why doesn’t anything happen?” This was followed by a deafening silence.

  • Jana Knot-Dickscheit is associate professor: Interventions for families with multiple and complex problems and so-called at-risk families. Also Head of the Expertise Center for Families with multiple and complex problems; Mental health psychologist and cognitive behavioural therapist at mental health institution Molendrift.
  • Margrite Kalverboer is associate professor Child(Ortho)pedagogics and Child- and foreign rights. She is also Ombudswoman for Children
Last modified:23 November 2022 1.48 p.m.
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