Children in high conflict divorce situations are often in need of support. Their strong loyalty towards both divorced or separated parents in combination with ongoing parental conflict often leads to stress and hardship. However, without the consent or willingness of parents to cooperate, professional support remains unfeasible. Indeed, when a parent decides to move abroad with his children without the other parent’s consent, or goes even further and decides to end his children’s lives, professionals are left empty-handed.
Two young brothers, Ruben and Julian, 9 and 7 years of age, were missing in the Netherlands for about 2 weeks in May 2013 after their father had been found dead having committed suicide in a forest. After many days of intense police investigations and actions by volunteer civilians searching for the boys, they were found dead in the proximity of the place where their father had been found. Everything points to the father ending the lives of his two sons. Could this national tragedy have been avoided? Did child protection authorities fail in their duties to protect these children?
Media coverage has informed us about the ongoing conflict since the parents' divorce five years ago. Both parents retained parental responsibility after their separation which is common practice in the Netherlands, unless there is such a serious threat to the children involved that only the primary carer of the child is granted parental responsibility by court order. The parents agreed to a 50%-50% care arrangement for their sons. The mother had filed several reports about her suspicions of child abuse and the neglect of her sons while in their fathers’ care with the Youth Care Office and the police. This led to an investigation and risk assessment by the Child Protection Board of the boys' situation, which subsequently led to a formal request to the court for a child protection order. Both parents were offered the opportunity to give their reaction before the petition would be sent to court. The (re)scheduled meeting of the Child Protection officer with the father was meant to take place on the day of his disappearance with his sons.
In the media, the question was immediately raised whether the child protection authorities had failed. As much as we would like to believe that child homicide tragedies can always be prevented, nothing is further from the truth. Parents who want to harm their children will always find an occasion to do so, even when the children are in out-of-home or alternative care. What would have happened if a supervision order had been granted by the court for Ruben and Julian? The Youth Care Office – responsible for the supervision of the two boys – would then have embarked on a difficult and inoperable mission of mediating between two parents involved in an ongoing conflict and not open to supporting contact between their sons and the other parent. As long as parents have shared parental responsibility and remain legally responsible for their children after divorce or separation, conflicts will remain conflicts unless parents are willing to receive and consent to help, and no Youth Care Office ordered by the court to supervise children can change this. We therefore need a discussion about (legal) instruments for professionals to protect and support children in high conflict situations whose healthy development is in jeopardy. Although Ruben and Julian could not be saved, many other children can be helped. But efficient support cannot become a reality without fundamental legal changes for parents and children after separation or divorce.