Researchers at the University of Groningen have developed a reliable method to determine children’s interests with regard to their development. The method can be used in instances when placing a child in foster care is being considered, but also in asylum procedures. Orthopedagogy specialist Elianne Zijlstra: ‘The method clearly shows whether measures take children’s interests with regard to their development sufficiently into account. This is nearly always ignored in asylum procedures.’ Zijlstra will receive a PhD for her study on 14 May 2012.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that the interest of the child should be paramount in all measures that have consequences for children. This is the case for public institutions, businesses, governments, the judiciary, etc. However, professional parties tend to interpret the ‘best interest of the child’ in various manners. Zijlstra therefore developed a model that charts the primary rearing and developmental conditions. This is the first model able to establish so clearly whether or not decisions are in the ‘best interest of the child’.
The questionnaire – called BIC-Q – that Zijlstra developed outlines the conditions for the optimum development of children, which include adequate care, security, schooling, affection, stable living circumstances and future prospects. The quality and reliability of the questionnaire was tested on a group of refugee children. The outcome was that trained professionals independently arrived at the same conclusion about the children’s circumstances. This proves that the method can be reliably used with refugee children. The Child Care and Protection Board (Raad voor de Kinderbescherming) has already adopted the method for use in civil and criminal law proceedings.
The newly developed questionnaire has already been used in drawing up 150 reports concerning asylum procedures in the past few years. In these, advice was given on which decision would be in the ‘best interest’ of the child in question: returning to their country of origin or remaining in the Netherlands. Zijlstra: ‘Up until now, children’s rights have hardly played any role in Dutch immigration law. The Netherlands wilfully ignores the UNCRC. However, our reports were influential: in a number of cases, families were allowed to submit a new application for a residence permit based on our reports. It seems that children’s rights will finally begin to play a role in asylum procedures.’
The questionnaire showed that many refugee children have serious psychological problems. They are anxious, depressed, have mood disorders and physical problems. This is a result of their often traumatized parents not being able to care for them properly, by the families having to move from one refugee centre to another, the lack of adequate living space and not knowing what lies in store for years on end, according to Zijlstra. ‘A typical consequence is that children become withdrawn. It seems as if they don’t have many problems, but appearances can be deceptive. Their problems deserve to be taken seriously.’
An centre of expertise is in the process of being established at the University of Groningen with the aid of Stichting tot Steun Nederland (Dutch Support Foundation), which will draw up reports to serve in asylum procedures. One of Elianne Zijlstra’s PhD supervisors, Margrite Kalverboer, is in charge of the centre, where legal experts and behavioural scientists work together. ‘Drawing up the reports really isn’t a job for a university’, says Kalverboer. ‘In line with the way the Child Care and Protection Board safeguards children’s rights in civil and criminal proceedings, there should be an institution to safeguard those of refugee children. We want to ensure that such an institution is set up as quickly as possible. Our centre will then be able to concentrate on research and developing methodology. Immigration law must finally pay heed to children. Academia has ignored this issue much too long.’
Elianne Zijlstra (Amersfoort, 1979) studied orthopedagogy in Groningen will receive a PhD in Behavioural and Social Sciences; her supervisors were Prof. E.J. Knorth, Dr M.E. Kalverboer LLM and Dr W.J. Post. The study was funded in part by Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland (the Dutch Children’s Welfare Stamps Foundation) and the Ministry of Justice. Her thesis is entitled ‘In the best interest of the child? A study into a decision-support tool validating asylum-seeking children’s rights from a behavioural scientific perspective’.
Elianne Zijlstra, tel. 050-363 6541, e-mail: a.e.zijlstra rug.nl
Margrite Kalverboer, tel. 050-363 6571, e-mail: m.e.kalverboer rug.nl
Riekje Stokes (56) studied psychology and specialized herself in psychological interviewing. Now she has her own company, Stokes Interrogation Strategy, and she trains, coaches and advises professionals engaged in truth-finding communication.
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