On March 15, 2011, the Netherlands Parliament voted unanimously to amend the Child Protection Act. The Act now grants parents or guardians of a child the right to meet with family and other involved friends or close family supporters to make their own plan regarding how to care for a child of concern. The right to meet and make a plan for a child comes as a first recourse before the state and courts are permitted to intervene.
Rob van Pagée, director of Eigen Kracht Centrale, a nonprofit organization that led lobbying efforts for the law said, “We see this as a validation for the rights of citizens.”
Eigen Kracht Centrale’s family group conference (FGC) model is based on the New Zealand model, which was encoded in law as a first resort for Maori and Pakeha children in 1989. Eigen Kracht, meaning “our strength” or “our power,” introduced family group conferencing to the Netherlands in 2001 and has since trained over 500 paid part-time coordinators who have run over 4000 Eigen Kracht conferences. Family group conferencing (FGC) is known as family group decision making (FGDM) in the US.
Eigen Kracht conference coordinators are people in the community, not social-work professionals, who hold regular jobs but also have the skills (following three days of training) and interest in conducting conferences. Coordinators have no stake in the outcome of the conference. Since the Netherlands is very much a multicultural country, the coordinators take care to match the culture and language of the family concerned. Each coordinator conducts only one conference at a time, which takes several weeks to organize.
After preparation, the conference itself contains three parts. First, professionals including social workers and court officials present an outline of the problem, legal constraints, availability of resources and any other relevant information that might be useful to the family. Second, professionals leave the room, and families and supporters meet privately to make a plan. Finally, the professionals return and the family presents the plan, which is always accepted if it is safe for the child.
“The underlying idea is very simple,” states Eigen Kracht’s web site. “If you have problems in your life that cannot be easily solved, you ask your social network to think things over with you. Everyone has a social network — large or small, close or less close. ... Most people solve their problems or concerns this way. But when people have become isolated and think that no one cares about them anymore, or when they are too ashamed to turn to their own people, an Eigen Kracht conference may be the answer” (www.eigen-kracht.nl/en/home).
Under the new law, citizens are entitled “to construe an action plan, or to adapt an existing plan, within six weeks” of a case going to court. An exception is made only if “there are concrete threats to the development of the child, or if the interests of the child are otherwise at risk.” While the Eigen Kracht conference model itself could not be written directly into the law, it is mentioned in the “Elucidation” of the amendment and will likely be the primary mode for families who choose to make their own plans. (You can download the amendment at: www.iirp.org/pdf/Amendement-32015-ENG.pdf.)
IIRP President Ted Wachtel noted that this law appeals both to conservatives — who seek to constrict the role of government and allow people to be more self-reliant — and to liberals — who seek to reform social services to make them less top-down and more “from the people.”
Wachtel said that this type of law “guarantees families the right to come up with their own solutions before the government imposes its will,” while the government retains its responsibility to protect children and handle individuals who have violated the law. He noted that Eigen Kracht’s approach had helped spread information about FGC throughout the Netherlands. On one trip to Europe, Wachtel was pleased to discover that a man from the Netherlands who was seated next to him on the plane had learned about FGC from an Eigen Kracht conference coordinator he’d heard speak at a town meeting.
According to van Pagée, the Netherlands follows New Zealand, Northern Ireland and several Australian states and Canadian provinces in ensuring families the right to such a proceeding. Added Wachtel, “To my knowledge, not since New Zealand defined its Children, Youth And Families Act of 1989 has anything so ‘radical’ been accomplished on behalf of the rights of families — insisting that families have the right to offer a plan to solve a problem first — which in the past would have been solely the jurisdiction of the government and its social workers.”
Said van Pagée, “This is the beginning of the end of a 200-year-old interventionist state. Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been a dream that all citizens be happy, equal, educated and able to take care of themselves.” He believes that communities are now in an excellent position to care for themselves first. Only when this fails (in 1 out of 10 cases, according to research) is state intervention necessary. Concluded van Pagée, “Eigen Kracht Centrale is striving for a society based on participation and mutual self-reliance of citizens, where citizens remain in charge of their own lives, especially when dealing with organizations and government bodies.”
Eigen Kracht Centrale, in cooperation with Hogeschool Utrecht (University of Applied Sciences Utrecht), is organizing an international conference, “Democratizing Help and Welfare,” in Utrecht, Netherlands, from October 19 to 21, 2011 (www.familygroupconference2011.eu).
For more about van Pagée and Eigen Kracht, see the article: “The Netherlands’ Eigen Kracht Holds 1000th Family Group Conference".