A growing divide in children’s contentment

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    Two kids with phones in their hand laying and sitting on the couch

    Every other year, the Ombudsman for Children asks as many young people as possible about their lives. What is going well for them and what is not? The aim is to encourage organisations to work on improvements. The 2020 survey reveals that corona restrictions have affected vulnerable children more than most.

    If you ask us

    The Ombudsman for Children’s biannual survey ‘If you ask us’ was conducted for the third time in 2020. Children and young people were asked to complete an extensive questionnaire which remained on Ombudsman’s website for a period of six months. It was brought to their attention through social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and through various youth organisations and institutions. The survey was completed by a total of almost two thousand respondents.

    Children’s Rights Tour: ‘At home in 2020’

    A recurring component of this ongoing research is the Children’s Rights Tour, which sees the Ombudsman for Children and her team visiting various parts of the country to talk to young people face-to-face. Each tour has a different theme. In the year of coronavirus lockdowns, the theme was ‘At home in 2020’. The Ombudsman for Children opted to devote particular attention to children and young people who are growing up in a difficult home situation, or who do not live at home at all. What do these young people consider important for the future? How do they differ from other children in this respect?

    As researcher Alexandra de Jong explains, “The Children’s Rights Tour was devised in 2016 as a way of talking with as many children as possible about their lives and how things are going for them. Since then, the focus has gradually shifted. We now focus on vulnerable children who are at greater risk of experiencing problems.”

    Corona

    The Children’s Rights Tour 2020 could not take the same form as the earlier events due to the corona restrictions. “In previous years, we visited at least ten separate locations,” states researcher Marit Hopman. “This year we were reduced to only four. In two cases, we conducted the entire ‘visit’ online. Fortunately, we were able to visit a young offenders’ institution and a centre for asylum seekers, where children live with their families, in person.”

    A growing divide

    Given the corona restrictions, the home situation is perhaps the most important aspect of young people’s lives. The research concludes that the restrictions have had the greatest negative impact on the more vulnerable children. The corona crisis has served to widen the divide between those who are happy and those who are not, bringing it even more sharply into focus.

    The vast majority of children in the Netherlands report a high level of contentment, even in the current situation. They give their lives an average rating of 7.8 (out of 10), which is actually 0.1 higher than in 2018 and 0.5 higher than in 2016. This is, however, only an average. Unfortunately, not all children are so satisfied. Among those living in a secure institution, the average rating is 5.6. Children who live at home but must contend with quarrelsome and/or violent parents report an average rating of 6.6.

    Feeling at home

    Overall, the research shows that children who are not living at home and those in a problematic home setting experience a lower quality of life than those in a more stable family environment. This is hardly surprising in view of the problems they face. However, the differences between the two groups are perhaps surprising.

    It is the children living in a home beset by arguments and/or domestic violence who report the lowest contentment rating of all respondents in some sort of ’problematic’ home environment. Among those who are not living in the parental home, children living in a foster family report the highest level of contentment. This in itself is not surprising, since children prefer to grow up in a setting which is as close to ‘a real home’ as possible.

    The research also reveals that the corona restrictions have had a greater negative impact on the vulnerable children than on those in a more stable family setting. The young people living in an institution have been cut off from their families altogether. Moreover, they are more likely to suffer from boredom because educational activities and outdoor recreation have been curtailed or cancelled.

    Recommendations

    The Ombudsman for Children concludes that specific attention should be devoted to some groups of vulnerable children in order to ensure that the problems they are experiencing do not have a disproportionate effect on their welfare and perceived quality of life.

    “The low ‘life contentment score’ reported by young people living in a secure institution is particularly worrisome,” says Marit Hopman. “We urge the staff of those institutions to talk to the young people about their situation and concerns. They should be given the opportunity to suggest ways in which to improve their physical surroundings and make life less onerous.”

    “The impact of an insecure home environment is also worrisome,” adds Alexandra de Jong. “More must be done to identify families at risk. Not only the official organisations but everyone who has contact with children, such as teachers, school doctors and social workers, must be alert to signs of domestic abuse or violence.”

    Children’s comments from the survey

    “I think it is important that all children are well cared and have a comfortable place to call their own. There must also be enough food, drink and money for all children.”
    - A child in a foster family

    “Home is where you feel most content. You can stay there, it is not temporary. I can never feel 100% at home here.”
    A child in residential care

    “I have been in residential care almost all my life. I’m fed up of it. I also have been moved from place to place several times.”
    A child in an open institution

    “I find it very difficult to be locked up like this when I haven’t done anything wrong, and that I can’t go back to my own school after the summer holiday, and that I rarely see my mother, sisters or friends, and that I can never just take a walk on my own to let off a bit of steam.”
    - A child in a secure institution

    “There are always arguments at home. During the lockdown I was at home most often because my school was closed but my sister’s school stayed open. I was therefore in the middle of all the rows.”
    - A child in a problematic family situation

    “The people I care about care about me, and that’s what makes me really happy.”
    - A child living in a stable family environment.