Extraordinary meeting of the Network of Contact Parliamentarians

‘’Taking the fight against sexual violence against children
to the world – sharing the European experience’’

Geneva (Switzerland), 13 November 2013

Speech of Johan van den HOUT Congress Thematic Spokesperson for Children

Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to thank the Parliamentary Assembly for again inviting the Congress to participate in the meetings of its Network of Contact Parliamentarians.  We very much appreciate this opportunity to strengthen cooperation between our 2 institutions on the ONE in FIVE Campaign. 

As you can see from the programme, I am the Congress’s new Thematic Spokesperson on Children and I would like to thank Dusica Davidovic, my predecessor, for the commitment she showed to the Campaign while she held this position.  I take this role very seriously and will do my utmost to further the Congress’s activities related to children, their protection and the promotion of their rights.

I should like to talk today about how, in my own country the Netherlands, we are working to break taboos on sexual violence against children in one particular area, that of reporting suspicions of abuse.  But first I will give you a quick update of how we are progressing in obtaining signatures for our Pact of Towns and Regions to Stop Sexual Violence against Children.

To date, twenty-two towns, regions and associations have committed to our Pact on our online platform, of which 4 Swiss towns.  For this, we must thank Liliane Maury-Pasquier who has been actively raising awareness of our Pact amongst Swiss towns and Cantons.  I would also like to thank Mme Maury-Pasquier for helping me to get an appointment with Mme Esther Alder, member of the Government of the Town of Geneva this afternoon after which I hope we will also be able to count Geneva amongst the Pact’s supporters.

Each time I travel in the frame of the Congress’s Campaign activities, I endeavor to get interviews with the towns’ political leaders to present the Campaign and the Pact.  For example last month, following the meeting of the Steering Group of the Parliamentary Assembly’s project with the Leventis Foundation to prepare Cyprus for ratification of the Lanzarote Convention, I met with the mayors of Nicosia and Limassol and I’m pleased to say that both of them gave their full commitment to the Pact.

I have also started a round of visibility-raising trips to different countries.  I started with my own country not only because it was one of the first to sign and ratify the Lanzarote Convention but also because a few scandals have broken recently which have brought the issue of sexual violence and abuse of children very much into the spotlight.  I’m pleased to announce that the mayor of Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, and the mayor of Diemen, both committed to signing the Pact, as did all of the other stakeholders we met, mainly associations working with children and young people and dealing with cases of sexual violence and abuse.  Since then, most of the mayors who are members of the Dutch delegation to the Congress have also given their commitment to the Pact, as have the 5 major towns in my own Province of Brabant and the Province itself.

Next month, I will visit the United Kingdom and Belgium where I will meet the political leaders of 10 UK and 6 Belgian cities and regions.  It would be a big boost to our Campaign if all committed to the Pact.

Now I would like to move on to the situation in the Netherlands and in particular to the new “Meldcode”, or Reporting Code, which came into force last July.

According to Unicef’s report card number 11 on child well-being in rich countries, released earlier this year, the Netherlands retained its position as the clear leader, being the only country ranked among the top 5 countries in all dimensions of child well-being.  It is also in the lead when children assess their own well-being.  Even so, every year in the Netherlands, about 170,000[1] children are victims of child abuse.  Professionals who come into contact with children during the course of their work have a duty of care for them and play an important role in identifying victims of abuse.  Research shows, however, that sometimes they recognise signs but don’t know what to do.  Are the signs serious?  Do they justify an outside intervention?  At what stage should fears be reported and what help is available afterwards to deal with cases?  Some professionals such as family doctors may wonder how they will be able to maintain as positive a relationship as possible with the family after having reported their fears.

The new Reporting Code aims to help professionals to address these issues by providing clear steps to be taken to ensure a swift intervention in suspected cases of domestic violence and child abuse.  It lays down a concrete roadmap, describing precisely what professionals should do when they suspect violence or abuse.  The Code combines both domestic violence and child abuse because often the two occur in conjunction with each other, and witnessing domestic violence is seen as a form of child abuse.

There is no obligation to report suspicions of violence in the Netherlands because it is felt that mandatory reporting can lead to a high number of unfounded cases, professionals fearing liability if they fail to report.  The Reporting Code, however, lays down the obligation to set up a protocol to follow where there are suspicions of abuse and any institution which does not implement the Reporting Code may be fined.  Since the entry into force of the Reporting Code, professionals may break client confidentiality if there is a suspicion of abuse. 

All sectors working with or welcoming children – healthcare, education, childcare, social care, youth and justice sectors, etc – must set up a reporting system.  The new rules also apply to self-employed professionals such as general practitioners, however voluntary organisations are not required to adopt a Reporting Code, but they are encouraged to do so.  The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport has drawn up a model protocol in cooperation with the Ministries of Security and Justice, and of Education, Culture and Science, as well as with various agencies from the field, including the Royal Dutch Medical Association. 

The minimum requirements of a Reporting Code must be that: any signs of abuse and violence are mapped out; a multi-stakeholder expert consultation is held, for example with one of the several Advice and Reporting Centres which are part of the provincial child and youth social care agencies; a dialogue is started with the child victim; an assessment is made of the extent of the abuse; and a decision taken on the assistance which is to be offered.  Institutions must also ensure that the division of responsibilities between the various stakeholders is clear and that precise guidelines are issued as to what to do with confidential data.  Training in working with the Reporting Code is provided by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.

The Municipality of Rotterdam implemented the Reporting Code on a pilot basis from 2008 to 2009 with good results.  85% of care, welfare and educational institutions in the City adopted the Reporting Code and the number of consultations referred to the Advice and Reporting Centres increased by about 200%, the number of opinions issued by the Advice and Reporting Centres rose by about 40%.

Mandatory tools such as the “Meldcode” can help to create a culture which is more child-centred.  They help professionals to develop their awareness of cases of child abuse and provide them with a concrete framework within which to report cases.  The evaluation of the Rotterdam trial period clearly shows that professionals who actively work with the Reporting Code contribute to the early detection and treatment of domestic violence and child abuse, which we can but applaud.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention.

[1] Wet meldcode huiselijk geweld en kindermishandeling, Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport, Vraag & Antwoord, Augustus 2013.