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“UN Study on children deprived of their liberty makes us feel uncomfortable. As it should do.”

On December 18th, before an audience of 85 representatives of children's rights organizations, academics, local and national governments, judiciary and international organizations, MPs Lisa Westerveld (GroenLinks), Martin Wörsdörfer (VVD), Niels van den Berge (GroenLinks) and Marijke van Beukering - Huijbregts (D66) discussed online the recommendations  of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. During the launch UN Representatives and expert by experience Bodine gave their contributions. UN expert professor Manfred Nowak, stressed that 7 million children are deprived of their liberty every year worldwide. In the Netherlands, too, children are detained in police cells, in detention centers for children in conflict with the law, immigration detention or are deprived of their liberty in secured residential youth care. The MPs responded to the recommendations from the UN Study for the Netherlands. They have committed themselves to prevent the deprivation of liberty of children now and in the next cabinet term. Westerveld went a step further and no longer wants closed institutions for children in five years' time.

Deprived of Childhood

"During your childhood you develop your personality, your social emotional relationships and your talents. For this reason, children should grow up in a family setting surrounded by love, safety and security," says Nowak. "Placing children in a closed setting is counterproductive, is costly, not good for their health and development and it deprives them of the right to personal freedom. It leaves a deep wound in the lives of these children and in society." The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that children should only be deprived of their liberty as a measure of last resort, only when necessary, for the shortest possible time and in child-friendly conditions. Nevertheless, 7 million children worldwide are deprived of their liberty every year. This is a traumatic experience for children, as Bodine explains from her own experience, and this is also evident from the contributions of 274 children from 22 countries who participated in the UN Study.

Experience with living in secured care

"These are children, not clients or numbers, approach them as if they were your own children," says Bodine, now 29, who as a pregnant 16-year-old spent a total of 18 months in secured youth care. After  the birth of her daughter she went to another institution, more open, although the doors were often locked. She did not receive any support during her time in secured youth care. She was even told she was not allowed to keep her child. "Being deprived of my liberty, prevented me from having access to good education. This has had a major impact on my life and I still carry this with me today." Bodine continues, "not having a purpose nor perspective felt like my life came to an end." In handing over the UN Study to MP Lisa Westerveld (GroenLinks), she calls on her and the government to stop locking up children and to provide children with education, support and guidance for the problems that children and their families face.

"No more closed institutions in five years’ time"

Westerveld regretfully recognizes Bodine's story of conversations with children who are now in closed institutions. "I prefer to see that in five years’ time there will be no more closed institutions for children," says Westerveld. "When they are still there, it should feel like a second home. Investments must be made in guidance and education. And it's important to support families. In the event of domestic violence, for example, investments should be made in keeping the family together." Nowak adds: "it is up to society and not up to the children, but it is often felt that way." Westerveld continues: "children are not difficult, but they live in difficult circumstances." Bodine, who now works as an experience expert in closed institutions, confirms: "I recently saw a 12-year-old girl who imitated the older girls with make-up, but eventually she went to sleep with a stuffed animal. It shouldn't be like that. What if this girl would be your own child? That’s why I say: stop locking up children."

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Presentation UN Global Study

Got inspired? Watch the video with all the presentations, the story of expert Bodine and the conversations about the implementation of the recommendations of the UN Study with UN Expert Manfred Nowak and members of parliament.

Follow-up UN Study

The Global Campus of Human Rights plays an important role in the implementation of the UN Study and supporting national action plans, says program manager Manu Krishan. "Austria is now exploring alternatives to secured placements, for example. In South Africa, a pilot has been launched providing opportunities for young people in secured care. And in East Europa and Central Asia we are working on the de-institutionalisation of children with disabilities." "The Netherlands has to prioritize reducing the amount of children in secured care and has to take concrete steps towards this goal" says Ton Liefaard, endowed professor of children's rights at Leiden University. “The UN Study makes us feel uncomfortable. Like it should do. The UN Study is relevant for the Kingdom of the Netherlands and not only for foreign countries. Not being able to leave an open or closed institution freely, has an impact on children. Reintegration of young people who have been deprived of their liberty is ‘costly' for society, therefore investments must be made in prevention, supporting families for example. Locking up children is still used as a solution. This is very worrisome." Liefaard calls for the whole system to be reconsidered and to come up with creative solutions: "placing children in closed institutions is not the same as taking care of children."

Situation in the Netherlands

Eva Huls, in-house lawyer at Defence for Children continues: "Each year in the Netherlands thousands of children are deprived of their liberty. In 2019, for example, there were 1.680 placements in secured youth care. In addition, children are affected by the long waiting lists and the financial consequences of the decentralization. In 2019, in nearly 20.000 cases of children in conflict with the law, the child suspects were detained in a police cell. The vast majority of these children have not committed  a serious  crime  and/or have been arrested for the first time. Furthermore, in 2019 a total of 30 unaccompanied children and 170 children in families were placed in immigration detention. On average unaccompanied children have to stay there longer than children in families and often in poor conditions, although there are alternatives as we can see in other countries. Defence for Children urges the government to reduce the number of children in secured care or detention and address the root causes to prevent deprivation of liberty. Register more and better and prohibit the detention of children for purely migration related reasons. If deprivation of liberty cannot be prevented, then apply child-friendly conditions. But above all: create alternatives and invest in families."

Small-scale care facilities

The figures presented by Huls makes Wörsdörfer (VVD) feel uncomfortable. "Investments must be made in creating alternatives, such as 'family type settings'. The UN Study can certainly help us with this. And I support the call to register more and better."  Van den Berge(GroenLinks): "Secured youth care and detention of children in conflict with the law should be small-scale and placement should be avoided as much as possible. We do agree on that in parliament. I am particularly concerned about children in immigration detention: there is no consensus on this in parliament."  Nowak finds this very worrisome, Ireland has for example abolished immigration detention: "they do not run away, because they depend on the care that is being offered to them." Van Beukering - Huijbregts (D66):  "the large numbers are also caused by the fact that the ‘flow’ of children coming in and children leaving care facilities is not in order. More small-scale facilities have to be built. Multiple domains have to be involved. Not only representatives of youth policy, but representatives of e.g. housing and education policy as well."

Concrete directions to post-election coalition formation

"The deprivation of liberty of children is one of the most overlooked violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child," nowak says. Liefaard adds that the youth mental health care system needs to be included in this discussion as well, because children are often confronted with these different systems. Wörsdörfer agrees: "the current pilots in the youth mental health care system should be applied throughout the Netherlands, and the adult mental health care system should be included as well." Van den Berge: "we need concrete directions, including in the context of coalition-building after the elections."  Van Beukering - Huijbregts: "due to the decentralization municipalities are responsible for facilitating youth care. However, address at a national level the need for different type of treatment close to home and the need for prevention and reintegration." Nowak offers to support the MPs after the elections, this is wholeheartedly accepted. "The situation in the Netherlands must improve, based on Bodine's experience, the recommendations and the observations of the UN study and contributions today. Let's focus on what Westerveld said earlier and make sure that in five years’ time we have abolished closed institutions," stresses Carrie van de Kroon, host of the Global Study event.

Defence for Children International and Human Rights Watch chair the NGO panel, which is affiliated with 170 organisations, and they are now committed to implementing the recommendations of the  UN Study. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send us an e-mail: info@defenceforchildren.nl.

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