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Social Science Matters: Out-of-home placement

It was recently revealed that an estimated 1115 children of parents who are victims of the childcare benefits scandal were forcibly taken into out-of-home care over a 5-year period. Although it is not known to what extent the childcare benefits issue played a role in these out-of-home placements, the media do make the link. But when is out-of-home placement in a child’s best interest? After all, examples of terrible scenes also loom if the authorities are too slow to act. This is a delicate balancing act that can have far-reaching consequences for children, and where the wagging finger of societal outrage points in different directions each time. What does seem clear, though, is that there is a great deal of room for improvement in the process of out-of-home placement. The FSW's social and behavioural scientists give their views.

Wiebe Ruijtenberg

‘The parents were left behind with their debts and their feelings of guilt, and without their children.’

- Wiebe Ruijtenberg, Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

In the course of my research with Egyptians in Amsterdam in 2017, I spoke with some parents whose children had been taken into out-of-home care and with some whose children were at risk of being taken into care. In some cases, this did indeed occur.

Of course, every situation is different, but the out-of-home placements I heard about and observed showed a number of similarities. First, all the parents were financially challenged and many had debts, including to the tax authorities. Second, all the parents suspected that the out-of-home placements were partly motivated by ideas about them being "different" parents, but did not feel there was space for them to share these suspicions. Finally, for both the parents and the children involved, the situation was extremely harrowing. The children were moved from an insecure, but not necessarily unsafe, environment with their parents to a situation elsewhere that was equally insecure, if not more so. The parents were left behind with their debts and their feelings of guilt, and without their children.

In my dissertation, I examine the Dutch state from the perspective of these and other harrowing situations. What does it mean that judges can decide in the name of the Dutch state that it is better for some children to be taken into out-of-home care, and that employees of government agencies are then charged with putting this into practice? How can it be that the children taken into care by these judges and employees are primarily the children of parents who are racially and economically marginalized? And what is it like for those parents? These questions lead to the insight that out-of-home care placements are one of the practices in which the idea of a sovereign state takes shape in a form in which pre-existing inequalities are magnified and are also experienced as such.

Lenneke Alink

'The subject of out-of-home care placement is pre-eminently a multidisciplinary one'

- Lenneke Alink & Sabine van der Asdonk, Education and Child Studies

We recently released our report on the placement of children in care, which we wrote at the request of the Dutch House of Representatives' Standing Committee on Health, Welfare, and Sport. We – together with our colleagues Mariëlle Bruning and Kartica van der Zon of the Leiden Law School – were asked to produce a fact sheet summarizing the research findings about the placement of children in care (in Dutch). The subject of out-of-home care placement is pre-eminently a multidisciplinary one, in which the approaches of Education and Child Studies and Law complement each other. It is no coincidence that our report came out at a time when there was also a lot of attention for the victims of the childcare benefits scandal.

It is clear that there is enormous room for improvement, though the decision that a child may no longer live with their parents – temporarily or for a longer period of time – remains one of the most difficult decisions ever faced by a professional. On average, being taken into care does not have a positive effect on children's development – being separated from their biological parents and having to adapt to a new environment and new caregivers (often several times over) obviously has a major impact. On the other hand, growing up in a threatened and unsafe home environment can lead to serious developmental problems. So deciding on taking a child into out-of-home care is almost never black and white; factors must always be weighed up scrupulously, with the child's best interests the highest concern.

Sabine van der Asdonk

Of course, it is even better if out-of-home placements can be avoided altogether. Taking a child into care must always be a last resort, and must be used only if no lighter form of help is possible. This reinforces how important it is to provide appropriate and effective assistance, including parenting assistance, at an early stage. Apart from the fact that much more needs to be invested in research on this topic, many families are currently not getting the right help (at the right time) due to the well-known problems in the current youth care system: long waiting lists, limited availability of evidence-based interventions, and professionals burdened with overfull caseloads.

These issues are obviously also important for those parents who are the victims of the childcare benefits scandal. It is good that the issue is high on the political agenda. We hope it will stay there as long as is needed.

Anika Bexkens

Tolerance for uncertainty?

- Anika Bexkens, Psychology 

You only have to open a newspaper, the social media, or your favourite podcast app to find yourself confronted with many items about the problems in youth care and the child protection services. Investigative journalism and the stories of the experiences of the families and children affected reveal major problems in how we care for the most vulnerable children in our society. The central question of this Pieters Corner seems at first glance to have an easy answer: when the advantages of the child growing up with their own parents no longer outweigh the disadvantages for their development, and when out-of-home placement will provide the child with a living situation that benefits positive development. The problem with this seemingly easy answer, however, is that to objectively weigh up all the information for this decision, professionals need to quantify the information on the advantages and disadvantages both of growing up at home and of growing up in the new living arrangements.

The question of whether out-of-home placement will have a positive effect on the child’s development requires professionals to predict the future, to a certain extent. Scientific research can provide some guidance about which factors to take into account. Certain risk and protective factors are known to generally predict whether children will develop positively or not. However, we are still talking about probabilities. The chance of a child developing positively is higher the more protective factors there are, and lower the more risk factors there are. This means that each decision will entail a certain amount of uncertainty that has to be tolerated.

In a society that is increasingly focused on safeguarding security and minimizing risk, this tolerance for uncertainty will probably be low. This results in a tendency to play it safe: a child is taken into care because ‘just imagine if something happened’. Because if things do go wrong, often the first comment in the media is ‘the child protection services were involved – how could this happen?’. This question reflects our low tolerance for uncertainty. It should be a given that when caregiving professionals are working with the most complex problems and family situations, they cannot remove all risks. So an important question to move the discussion along is how we can learn to tolerate uncertainty in these type of decisions as a society. This might create more space for innovations in youth care that will probably entail greater uncertainty and risk, but may also lead to positive consequences for children and their families.

Social Science Matters– a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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