In the last five years the Dutch Children’s Ombudsman has developed into a fully-fledged supervisory body monitoring compliance with children’s rights in the Netherlands. A fuller engagement with its statutory tasks, greater involvement of children and strengthening the autonomous position of the Children’s Ombudsman will help this national human rights institution to further establish itself.
These conclusions are drawn from the evaluation of the Children’s Ombudsman Act (Wet Kinderombudsman), conducted by a multidisciplinary team from Leiden University (Department of Child Law, Institute of Private Law, Institute of Public Administration and Leiden Institute of Education and Child Studies), with support from ZonMw and commissioned by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.
This study consists of three subsections: 1) a legal analysis of the statutory framework, 2) a public administrative analysis of the organisation and a comparative analysis of European children’s ombudspersons, and 3) an overview of practical experiences with the Children’s Ombudsman. The multidisciplinary research team was formed by legal experts, public administration experts and social scientists with specific knowledge of international children’s rights within the context of the Netherlands, national human rights institutions, complex administrational organisations and the perceptions of children. A broad spectrum of research methods has been used, such as legal desk research, document analysis, interviews and surveys. In total interviews were held with 48 people.
The Children’s Ombudsman’s statutory tasks
The main task of the Children’s Ombudsman is to promote compliance with children’s rights. The Children’s Ombudsman Act sets out the following specific tasks: providing adequate information and awareness raising, providing advice on policy and legislation, conducting research – on its own initiative or in response to complaints – on compliance with children’s rights and monitoring the way other relevant organisations deal with complaints of children. In his work, the Children’s Ombudsman needs to take into account the views of children as much as possible.
Since its establishment in 2011, the Dutch Children’s Ombudsman has given priority to some specific aspects of these tasks, such as conducting research, providing information to professionals and policymakers on children’s rights and the ombudswork itself. This means that other tasks received less priority, such as providing information and awareness raising about children’s rights among children and supervising complaint bodies of other institutions. In exercising its statutory tasks, the Children’s Ombudsman has collaborated with other stakeholders in the field of children’s rights. One of the recommendations made in the evaluation report is to extend the exercise of statutory tasks to the Caribbean part of the Netherlands, in order to enhance the compliance with children’s rights in this part of the Kingdom.
Children and the Children’s Ombudsman
As part of this study a survey has been conducted among 975 children. The results show that 48% of younger children (10-12 years) and 72% of older children (12-18 years) have heard of the Children’s Ombudsman. The majority of children learned about the Children’s Ombudsman from television. They know that the institute strives for children’s rights and they appreciate the subject matters that are addressed. Children acknowledge that an ombudsman for children is needed for many children in the Netherlands, because their rights are being violated. Children indicate that they particularly value the right to sport and leisure, protection against bullying and the right to vote for young people.
Nonetheless, the Children’s Ombudsman could focus more on making the institute even more widely known among children. Moreover, providing information and awareness raising about children’s rights, specifically to vulnerable groups of children, should receive more attention in the future. The Children’s Ombudsman has the obligation to take into account the opinions, interests and perceptions of children, in accordance with Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This can be achieved by having children participate in research or in determining priorities.
Strengthening the autonomous position of the Children’s Ombudsman
The Children’s Ombudsman is a deputy ombudsman; it has its own statutory tasks and it is accommodated at the institute of the National Ombudsman. Therefore, the Children’s Ombudsman can benefit from the status of a High Council of State. Moreover, the synergy between both institutes yields positive results regarding the exercise of the Children’s Ombudsman’s statutory tasks, especially the ‘ombudswork’. The presented study looked into ways of enhancing the autonomy of the Children’s Ombudsman, without impairing the synergy between the Children’s Ombudsman and the National Ombudsman. It is recommended to separate the Children’s Ombudsman’s term of appointment from the appointment term of the National Ombudsman. When the terms of appointment are separated, the Children’s Ombudsman is given the guarantee that he can complete the six-year term and that his term does not depend upon the personal management vision and style of the (new) National Ombudsman. For the same reasons, the authors recommend providing the Children’s Ombudsman with a separate budget from Parliament, to ensure greater autonomy. In this way, Parliament can ensure that the Children’s Ombudsman has sufficient financial resources. These measures will improve the autonomous position of the Children’s Ombudsman in exercising its statutory tasks regarding the monitoring of compliance with children’s rights.
The Children Ombudsman in a European perspective
In the study a comparison was made between the institutions of children’s ombudsmen in five European countries or regions: Flanders, England, Norway, Greece and the Netherlands. This comparison shows that the mandate of children’s ombudsmen in Europe differs among the countries studied. For example, it appears that in Flanders, Greece and the Netherlands, the Children’s Ombudsman has the task of handling individual complaints from children and parents. It also appeared that – unlike in Flanders, England and Norway – the allocation of budget of the Dutch and the Greek Children’s Ombudsman depends on the National Ombudsman. Moreover, the term of appointment – as mentioned earlier – is linked to the term of the National Ombudsman. The Dutch Children’s Ombudsman’s budget is the lowest compared to the other children’s ombudsmen and has not been raised since the introduction of the office, unlike the budget of the other children’s ombudsmen. Regarding the determination of policy and research direction all five children’s ombudsmen are relatively autonomous from other parties.
Five years ago, when the first Dutch Children’s Ombudsman was installed, children’s rights stakeholders and advocates raised the flag, but some critical voices were heard as well. The question was asked whether a Children’s Ombudsman would have added value in the field of children’s rights? This study shows that the Children’s Ombudsman has put children’s rights and the institute on the map. The legal tasks performed by the Children’s Ombudsman have contributed to the promotion of respect for children’s rights by governmental bodies and private organisations. In the years to come, the Dutch Children’s Ombudsman could prioritise more participation of children and further develop the complaints procedure in relation to complaints filed at the National Ombudsman level and the level of local children’s ombudspersons. A stronger autonomous position within the National Ombudsman organisation would further strengthen the possibilities to promote children’s rights implementation.