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Parents under pressure to cooperate 'voluntarily' in youth support

Staff at Dutch youth care services sometimes put parents under pressure to cooperate 'voluntarily'. There are instances when children are removed from the home without the approval of the court. This may have some benefits from the perspective of the support services, but in legal circles there are grave concerns about this phenomenon, often referred to as 'coercion'. Denise Verkroost studied the grey area within which coercion plays a part. PhD defence 27 October.

Dutch law only regulates voluntary and compulsory aspects of youth care services. But sometimes parents are put under pressure to accept help 'voluntarily'. This help is somewhere between voluntary and forced, and is referred to as 'coercion' in youth services. Verkroost: 'This use of coercion is not legislated for in the law, and the rights of the parents and children involved are therefore not properly defined.' Professionals working in this sector are also unclear what they are or are not allowed to do.

For her dissertation Verkroost examined the legal history of youth support services and youth protection in the Netherlands and the international human and children's rights framework. She also conducted an extensive study of the context of coercion and investigated the use of coercion in practice.

Lack of legislation

As there is no proper legislation, parents often do not know how they can arrange for an independent party to look at their situation. Verkroost: 'In the case of compulsory orders, a court is definitely involved. But with coercion that isn't the case.' 

In practice, the support provided in a 'voluntary' coercion case is similar to that given in a compulsory supervision order. There have also been cases of coercion where children have been removed from the home against their parents' wishes, without the intervention of a court. Verkroost says that there are serious concerns surrounding this: 'This form of coercion is similar to compulsory orders but without the legal safeguards.'  

With coercion, sometimes with the best intentions, parents are put under pressure to follow the instructions of care workers. If parents fail to cooperate, further steps can be taken, which can lead to a child protection order. There have also been cases where children have been removed from the home on the basis of agreements made, or where parents have failed to comply with these agreements. Verkroost: 'Parents were told in these cases that if they didn't cooperate, they would be subject to an investigation by the Council for Child Protection.' This kind of investigation can lead to a child protection order. Parents are anxious about being referred to a children's court, while in fact they have a stronger legal position within this court.

What's the catch?

If parents dispute the agreements or the support offered, it can be difficult for them to resist, Verkroost observes. This has to do with the position of dependence that parents are in. 'The support workers always have the option of excalating matters. I seriously question whether as a parent you can give your permission for help voluntarily if you are in a dependent relationship with the support workers.' 

'What happens if I don't cooperate?'

During her research, Verkroost saw how some parents struggle with giving this permission. 'During a discussion with support workers, a father said: ''What's the catch? What happens if I don't cooperate?'' He was then told that the Council for Child Protection would be informed if a father refuses to cooperate. ''So, actually I'm forced to cooperate,'' the father replied. This really shows that in such a situation you can't give permission freely.' 

The borderline between voluntary and compulsory in the context of youth support currently lies at the point where a children's judge makes a pronouncement on a child protection measure. Verkroost advocates clearly defining the voluntary framework, namely up to the point where parents are able to freely give well-informed permission ('informed consent') for the support being offered. There has to be a legal basis for support without informed consent. Verkroost also concludes that the term 'coercion' should be dropped. In its place 'case management' would better reflect what actually happens in practice. She also recommends that parents and children should be better informed and more involved within youth care services. She has herself provided a child-friendly summary of her dissertation, which you can read here.

Benefits affair

The investigation into the benefits affair is looking into how many children of victimised parents were removed from their homes. Some of these removal orders fall within the context of coercion, but it is not clear how many of these  cases there are. Verkroost: ‘This means that there may have been a lot more removals than we know so far. As yet, there are no firm numbers. Another issue is that there are big differences between municipalities and there are no standard definitions.' This underlines the importance of scientific research on the coercion context. 

Text: Tom Janssen
Photo: Unsplash

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