Meet Reinhilde Goossens, a lawyer with her heart in the right place
Lawyers are committed to helping people with a legal problem but often they also do much more than is expected of them. Reinhilde Goossens is one such lawyer, she is a juvenile law lawyer and she has taken a child or young person into her home on more than one occasion because no juvenile institution had a place for her young client. An interview.
There was a situation that was high on your mind last week, can you briefly outline that situation again?
Due to a difficult home situation, an 11-year-old boy, along with his two sisters, was placed in an OOOC by the juvenile court, an orientation, observation and parenting centre placed. The intention was to judge after a two-month observation whether they could return home, possibly with counselling, or whether it was better to accommodate them in an OBC, an observation and treatment centre. But after two months, they still did not find a suitable place for them. The boy behaved increasingly difficult until he even exhibited aggressive behaviour towards his guidance.
The youth facility had had enough, but precisely because the boy had been behaving aggressively, it was not easy to find him a place in an observation and treatment centre.
While waiting for a suitable place to be found for him, he was given a place in the closed juvenile institution De Zande in Ruiselede, which is sometimes popularly called a youth prison but which, of course, is not a prison.
He was told it was for a month but it turned into two. The boy often called me to ask if I already knew where he could go and then I had to ask him to be patient every time.
I know, and all youth advocates know: the spots are not up for grabs and I explain that to the boy. He was disappointed, of course; he indicated that he is really well looked after in Ruiselede but also that he hardly sees his family there. His father lives in the Antwerp region, so it wasn't easy for him to drive to Ruiselede every time he wanted to visit or to pick up and return the boy for a weekend.
Why did you go to the media with this story in the first place?
On 17 April, in other words, after three months in Ruiselede, we were again told: there is still no place, we are extending his stay in Ruiselede for another three months. Then I said: this is unacceptable! This is a boy, now just 12 years old, who belongs in a facility where work is being done to restore his troubled parenting situation. A boy who I cannot call a juvenile criminal, but who in the meantime has been locked up for three months among young thugs aged 16-17 who already have a lot of offences on their juvenile record. Moreover, without any prospect of transfer to a more suitable shelter. After consulting with the juvenile court judge, I then decided: I will take him home but I really want to address this sick system in the media now. So I wrote an opinion piece for the newspaper De Standaard. From the realisation: if I do this silently, everyone thinks: it's solved after all, we no longer have to look for a place for that boy because his lawyer has taken him in.
I am well aware that I have not made it easy for social services by raising the alarm in this way, but I hope they realise that I am doing this to make it easier for them in the future when it will hopefully result in more facilities.
Reinhilde Goossens in the media
It started on 17 April 2023 with an opinion piece by Mr Goossens in the newspaper De Standaard, then VRT's Journaal paid her a visit at home for a report in the Laat Journaal of 18 April, after which the lawyer was also allowed to elaborate the next day in De Afspraak on Canvas, VRT.
It's not the first time you have, as a stopgap measure, taken in a client for a while, is it?
It is certainly the sixth or seventh time, I have actually lost count. The first time was back in 2009, that was also a 12-year-old boy then, for whom no suitable shelter in a youth facility was found.
Whence your social engagement?
What I always try to do in my youth files is to look at a youth measure through the eyes of a child: how must this feel for a child? And then, of course, I am completely outraged.
I do not want to make an appeal here to all my confreres, youth advocates to do the same, I would also prefer to do this as anonymously as possible but I turned to the media to raise the alarm in the hope that the government will do something about the shortage of suitable places in youth facilities. By suitable places, I mean places that offer the necessary structure and clarity because that is what the boy I have now taken into my home needs.
I recently read in an article about a study within youth services and it showed that children have to wait an average of 425 days for a suitable place in a facility. I couldn't say to that boy: 425 more nights and then there will be a good place for you, that's unacceptable! You don't do something like that to an adult and certainly not to a child.
"What I always try to do in my juvenile files is to look at a juvenile measure through a child's eyes: How must this feel for a child? And then, of course, I am completely outraged. I don't want to make an appeal here to all my confreres."
When I was talking just now about the young person I took into my home in 2009, that was also then because of a shortage of places in a suitable facility. Those facilities do a good job but once someone is labelled a "difficult young person", you can't easily get rid of a young person in a facility. Due to a structural staff shortage, facilities cannot always add such a difficult young person. If there were enough suitable facilities, things would not get so out of hand.
How is the boy himself doing now?
The days he is with me I commit to him. So I homeschool him, I made him practise tail division and fractions this week, I make him write an essay every day, yesterday I taught him how to bake bread, he also made pizza, he gets success experiences through that. When he was able to go to his daddy for a few days and he said goodbye to us here, he thanked me because he had had a very good time. That does give me a lot of satisfaction then.
Unfortunately, this week I had another consultation with the Agency Growing Up, it is already certain that there will be no suitable place for him before the end of May.
"Investing in more suitable places in youth facilities is one thing. But I think it is at least as interesting to invest in supporting parents, whether they are still living together or separated."
Do you have a message for young people or their parents who find themselves in this situation?
Investing in more suitable places in youth facilities is one thing. But I think it is at least as interesting to invest in supporting parents, whether they are still living together or separated.
After all, a warm nuclear family is so important for a child and it can prevent children from ending up in a troubled parenting situation and thus ultimately having to be placed in a youth facility.