Abused children left behind by Brussels youth justice system

Abused children left behind by Brussels youth justice system
Credit: Luke Pennystan

The Brussels youth justice system is raising the alarm. As far back as 2015, judges of the Brussels juvenile court had warned that they were chronically understaffed. Five years later, the situation was largely unchanged, with only temporary staff being hired to bridge the gap.

Michèle Meganck, judge at the juvenile court, has told Belgian broadcaster RTBF that the field of youth justice is still under immense stress. Little has changed, she says. There are now enough judges, but not enough supporting staff. There are currently only 14 judges and 14 clerks managing youth justice for the whole region. Not enough, juvenile judges complain.

Juvenile justice under stress

The understaffing issues felt across the whole Brussels legal system, Meganck complains, is putting immense pressure on judges and is deteriorating the situation of abused children who appear before the courts.

In cases of child abuse, the child and the abuser must appear in different courts, as the child cannot testify before an ordinary court. If there are delays in the adult justice system, which are all too common in the capital, which needs 16 new judges to keep up with demand, this can lead to big delays in the juvenile justice system.

“When a child arrives at the juvenile court because he is being abused by his parents, and the alleged abuser has not yet been tried before the criminal court, it places the whole system around the child in difficulty,” Meganck explained.

The judge gave an example of the type of problem this can cause for vulnerable children in the capital. If a young child has an abusive favour, he is placed into an institution and removed from his family.

“If we take months before giving a judicial answer, we cannot give an answer to the child. Put yourself in the place of a child who has reported a situation of abuse and to whom we say: ‘It is you who is being removed from your environment and not the perpetrator,’” the judge explained.

The government has previously asked juvenile judges to assess how much time they assign to each case, however Meganck has opposed this, saying that children’s cases require more time to assure quality rulings.

No safe home for abused children

Problems in the juvenile justice system have also spilled out into the temporary accommodation for children, which is managed by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation (FWB). This body is also critically lacking in places. Meganck states that some 474 children are waiting to receive a bed in one of the centres, some facing immediate danger of abuse.

“There are 747 children as of 1 June, to whom I or one of my colleagues said: ‘Don’t worry my little one, we will protect you, you will no longer have to stay with the family that mistreats you. We are going to take you away from your family environment,” the judges lamented.

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According to RTBF, the FWB is aware of the shortage of spaces. Valérie Glatigny, the minister for youth assistance for the Federation, says that she is working to alleviate the problem.

“We have strengthened several services and we will continue to strengthen youth support services between now and the end of the mandate. We have increased our means by 13% since the start of our structural mandate. Our priority is to strengthen the services that practice prevention because we believe this is the best way to avoid placements,” she said.

This response has done little to convince Meganck, who says that prevention can only prevent future abuse, not current cases.

“It’s a good thing for children who will not be abused in 10 years. But ask the 474 children who are abused today if they think it’s a good idea to let them be the sacrificial part of all children and you will get your answer,” the judge affirmed.

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