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Insufficiently protected. Violence in youth care

Many children who were in youth care between 1945 and now have experienced or witnessed physical, sexual or psychological violence there. Supervisory authorities have not intervened sufficiently. This is the conclusion of the De Winter Committee in the investigation report Inadequate protection. Violence in Dutch youth care from 1945 to the present. The NSCR has carried out the sector study Violence in closed (judicial) youth institutions on behalf of the committee.

The sector study focused on three questions: What has happened in the closed (judicial) youth institutions since 1945? How did the violence take place? And how was the violence experienced by ex-pupils and what consequences did this have for their later life? Researchers Van der Laan, Eichelsheim, Dirkse, Bruggeman and Asscher conducted archival research, interviewed ex-pupils, analysed pupillary files, studied media reports and charted supervision and inspection. They have also listed developments and legislation since 1945. This resulted in a summary report and nine source studies.

Physical, psychological and sexual violence against young people

The researchers note that violence has often been committed in closed (judicial) youth institutions. It concerns physical, psychological and sexual violence, by employees against young people, but also between young people and by young people against employees.

The violence is very diverse:

  • Humiliation and intimidation: young people have to undress in front of employees, and were shaved, visited or isolated.
  • Brutal action: young people are pulled by the ears and hair by employees, are given a cold shower, are beaten with a belt, stick etc., resulting in injury.
  • Sexual abuse: young people face violence, sexual assault or rape.
  • Verbal violence: threats, name calling, bullying.
  • Keeping ignorant: young people are not or not informed in time about out-of-home placement, location and duration.
  • Loss of identity: young people have to hand in clothing and jewellery.
  • Contact with family is limited or completely absent.
  • Isolation or separation happens often and for a long time.
  • Carrying out heavy and (sometimes) pointless work, also in free time.
  • Mutual violence: bullying, fighting, abuse and sexual abuse.

What has happened in the closed (judicial) youth institutions since 1945?

In the first period after the war (1945 - 1965), strict and austere regimes with long and frequent isolation, long sentences, labour exploitation and a hard (physical) approach were characteristic of the youth institutions. In the period after that (1965 - 1990), long-term and frequent isolation was also common, but at the same time, the discussion about the (un)desirability of this started. Threats and intimidation by employees continued unabated. Institutions are also in the news because of sexual abuse. In the most recent period (1990 - now), the obligation to report and register with the inspectorate provides more insight into the violence. However, violence is still very common.

How did the violence take place?

Violence in closed (judicial) youth institutions is linked to a series of (risk) factors, some of which cannot be seen in isolation from the young people who are placed there, for example with serious behavioural problems and problematic family situations. Many young people have a long history of assistance and have already been removed from home several times. Other risk factors are related to the institution, such as the strong hierarchy, inequality of power and the living environment. The living environment was and is - in a different way - repressive in nature, whereby the use of violence has been legitimized. In addition, there were and are often personnel changes, partly because of the difficult working conditions. The training of employees was initially insufficient, it also took a while before treatments and methods were developed. Supervision of the institutions was limited in earlier periods, as were the laws and regulations. This has improved in recent decades, partly by strengthening the legal position of young people.

How have pupils experienced the violence and how has it marked their course of life?

Experiencing or witnessing violence in a youth institution is very drastic. The impact on the rest of life is great. Many ex-pupils have to deal with chronic physical and mental health problems, relationship problems (divorce, no contact with family and own children), addiction problems, behavioural problems and difficulties with income and daytime activities. This explains the feelings of resentment, suspicion and powerlessness towards society and authorities. The fact that supervisors must have seen the abuse but did not intervene, has bothered many former residents throughout their lives. They feel ignored and are angry and frustrated. 

Further prevention of violence requires reducing the repressive character

Over the years, the manifestations of violence in closed (judicial) youth institutions have changed, but have become no less drastic and invasive. The impact on the further life is as great as ever. Provisions have been modernized, but unequal power relations and restrictions on autonomy still exist. This offers scope for psychological and physical violence. The problems of young people and families also remain complex and serious, and are not very different from previous decades.

Violence has diminished in some ways through, among other things, better supervision, more openness within institutions, strengthening the legal position of young people, instructions for violence and the judiciary of the Council for the Application of Criminal Law and Youth Protection (RSJ). The professionalism of employees has increased due to better training, new treatment methods and the arrival of behavioural experts. The further prevention of violence requires refinement of the regulations, more intensive supervision, continuous (further) training of employees and, above all, reduction of the repressive nature of the institutions. 

Publication details and further reading (in Dutch)

Commissie Onderzoek naar Geweld in de Jeugdzorg (2019). Onvoldoende beschermd. Geweld in de Nederlandse jeugdzorg van 1945 tot heden.
Deel 1: eindrapport
Deel 2: sector- en themastudies
Deel 3: bronstudies

Prof. Veroni Eichelsheim

Senior Researcher

Prof. Peter van der Laan

Senior Research Fellow

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