Photo: Marvin Zilm / 13 Photo
Children’s rights are being violated? Even in a democratic, progressive country governed by the rule of law like Switzerland? We truly wish that it wasn’t the case.
Yet attempts to consistently implement children’s rights are often frustrated by misguided notions of protection on the part of the individuals and authorities responsible for child welfare.
Our Managing Director Irène Inderbitzin spoke to ElternMagazin Fritz+Fränzi, the Swiss magazine for parents, about the concerns that children continue to report to us at the national Ombuds Office for Children’s Rights. Among other things, Irène sheds light on how we offer advice and consultation, the tasks that the Ombuds Office performs and the root causes of these types of violations of children’s rights.
Acrimonious divorces and the placement of children in foster care within the context of child protection proceedings are some of the more common reasons for calls to the Ombuds Office for Children’s Rights. The children involved aren’t being listened to or kept adequately informed, and feel both ignored and not taken seriously in what is a highly stressful situation.
Irène Inderbitzin provides the following example: “We were contacted by a teenage girl after she’d endured a long, difficult journey through several different foster homes. She’d been taken into care as her mother, who was struggling with mental illness, could no longer care for her as a single parent. But no one had ever taken the time to listen to or work with her to come up with a solution. The situation escalated to the point that she became suicidal, and was transferred to a secure children’s home. The most important thing to her was being close to her mother again.” The Ombuds Office intervened, which resulted in the Bernese Child and Adult Protection Authority reopening the case and arranging for the girl to be placed with a foster family not far from her mother.
Making hearings the norm rather than the exception
It's a sad truth that in Switzerland, just 10 per cent of children are heard by the court as part of divorce proceedings. The decisions made during these cases have significant implications for children in terms of their future place of residence and contact with their primary caregivers.
Even if their parents agree on the divorce and separate amicably, children still need to have the chance to have their wishes heard. Furthermore, it’s vital for children to feel like they’re both involved and taken seriously. Only then can they experience self-agency and develop the resilience they’ll need to face challenges and adversity in later life.
Oversights in the legal system
In addition to their rights to information and to be heard being overlooked, children often aren’t given access to suitable legal representation to adequately communicate their wishes during the process. This access is extremely important when the child is placed in care so that they don’t feel powerless and shunted to the side. As the Ombuds Office Children’s Rights Switzerland, we ensure that oversights such as these are remedied when children contact us to report them. However, the long-term goal must be to prevent these situations from occurring in the first place.
What we do – and what we don’t do
When a child contacts the Ombuds Office, the first thing we do is listen to them and take their concerns seriously. We speak to them in a child-friendly setting and try to understand the situation. What is it all about? Who is involved? What is causing the child to worry? After we’ve analysed the situation, we show the child what they can do themselves and explain how we can support them. The Ombuds Office only ever contacts the relevant professionals and passes on its recommendations to them if the child would like us to do so.
As the Ombuds Office, however, we do not conduct any proceedings ourselves. We simply ensure that the child has access to the legal system; in other words, we make sure that the relevant professionals adequately implement the child’s rights.
Root causes of oversights
But why are children’s rights not adequately implemented – or at all – in the first place? On the one hand, factors such as a lack of human resources and time on the part of authorities certainly results in oversights. On the other hand, the conviction stubbornly persists that adults always know best when it comes to children:
“In most cases, it stems from the desire to protect the child. We instinctively want to shield them from conflict, but children are quick to notice when something isn’t right. As adults, we owe it to them to provide age-appropriate information, and not just leave them to worry,” Inderbitzin explains.
Children are full human beings. They want to be informed and to know what’s going to happen to them next, and every child needs to have the opportunity to express themselves and share their thoughts and wishes if they choose to do so.
Children’s rights affect us all!
You don’t need to be a professional to empower children to exercise their rights. Even as members of the general public, we can still encourage children to get involved, say what’s on their mind and stand up for what they want. And it’s important to pay attention to them as neighbours, teachers, childminders and heads of associations. Offer children your support instead of looking the other way when they find themselves in a difficult situation! After all, family isn’t a private matter when it comes to the well-being of children.
To read the full interview with Irène Inderbitzin, as published in the latest edition of ElternMagazin Fritz+Fränzi, please click here.