It’s fun to be young, right? Maybe not so much in 2020. Children's Rights Commissioner Caroline Vrijens had a front row view of the harm that corona visited on children and young people. Today's youth find a loyal and vigilant ally in the former law student. “It’s difficult to say to children, ‘We’re working hard to get rid of poverty, please wait a few more years.’ No. It is our responsibility to provide solutions, here and now."
Building a better society: it’s what Caroline Vrijens is all about. Ever since high school it’s been clear that her life would be centred on others. Children and young people, more specifically. After her law studies, partly in Namur, partly in Leuven, she devoted herself to integrated youth care for ten years. This was followed by a stint at SOS Children's Villages, where she took care of the most vulnerable young people. Caroline Vrijens has now been Children's Rights Commissioner since 1 August 2019. After the havoc that was 2020, she joins us for a calm look back on a tumultuous year.
Commitment and care are a common thread throughout your career. Where does that drive come from?
“Let's say I have a highly developed sense of justice. I’m the oldest of three children and have always felt responsible. I also wanted to make a meaningful contribution to society. In high school I wasn’t sure whether I would study law or psychology. Then I dug into the brochure on rights: it stated that, in addition to being a lawyer or company lawyer, you could also opt for policy work. That seemed like something real. Not exactly a choice that my peers went for en masse, by the way (laughs)."
“Why did policy work appeal to me so much? Because you’re building a better society. A worthwhile job, no? I also wanted to work for children and young people. That also leans into two of my interests: wellbeing and psychology.”
You went to Namur for your candidacy years. You wanted a little adventure?
“Namur is a small town: you can hardly call that an adventure! (laughs) But as an eighteen-year-old I did want to break free, do things that no one else did. The fact that my mother brought me up in French also played a role. I have always lived in Flanders, but I spoke my first words in French."
"At the time, you were mainly tasked with general subjects during your candidacy years: political history, psychology, sociology ... I felt like a fish swimming in water."
For your licentiate degree you went to Leuven. How do you look back on that period?
"It was a great time. Leuven is a great city, although the adjustment was a bit difficult. Don't forget that Namur is much smaller: everyone knows everyone there, so to speak. Leuven was slightly more anonymous and much larger.”
“In the first licentiate I had to work hard: it was a large chunk of subject material and you were given typical law subjects such as contract law, business law, family and administrative law. That was tough to swallow. Those subjects weren't really my thing. I had chosen law because of the general subjects, and I very much wanted to keep a wider gaze.”
“But I set myself to it and I am proud that I succeeded. And did any professors from that time stick with me? Of course! Professor of employment law Roger Blanpain, for example. His lessons were extraordinarily fascinating. I also have fond memories of Professor Raf Verstraeten, from criminal law, as well as Professor Senaeve from family law.”
Once you obtained your law degree, you first went to work at the Red Cross and then at the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees. A few years later, you ended up in the Flemish government Welfare Department, then at the Youth Welfare Agency and at SOS Children's Villages. What experiences did you take with you from all of that?
“It was incredibly enriching. For ten years I helped develop integrated youth care. More concretely: ensuring that the different forms of support that young people can count on are better attuned to each other.”
“That was great, but I started to lose touch with practice a bit. Because I wanted to return to the field, I spent three years working for SOS Children's Villages starting in 2016. There I learned an incredible amount from conversations with young people. I was allowed to set up a project around family houses. Which, in short, is a kind of professional foster care, where children who cannot continue to live at home are cared for in the most family-friendly environment possible. The pilot project is still running today, and I’m very proud of that.”
“I also went to Senegal with SOS Children's Villages, which was a haunting experience. The problems facing children and young people there are of a completely different order than here. Children who live on the street, without shoes and in rags, who don’t go to school and are actually very dependent on themselves. Extremely inadequate health care for a large part of the population and a lack of decent housing. Those are things that stay with you for the rest of your life.”
You became children's rights commissioner in 2019. Did you immediately know “I want to do this” when you saw the vacancy?
“I thought they were an extension of the things I had done up until then. As a children's rights commissioner you’re active in many areas: health care, leisure, education, media .... Giving young people a voice in policy also really appealed to me. And look, here I am!”
“It’s a very public function, and I wasn’t fully aware of that beforehand. You’re constantly being questioned, also by the media. That took some getting used to; up to now I had always worked in a more sheltered environment.”
It’s a very public function, and I wasn’t fully aware of that beforehand. That took some getting used to; up to now I had always worked in a more sheltered environment.
What does a children's rights commissioner actually do?
“The general version is that I have to monitor compliance with the children's rights convention in Flanders. In concrete terms, that means two things. First, we deal with complaints from children and young people, but also from parents, grandparents and, for example, teachers. We receive about 1200 each year. We try to find a solution for every problem: at school, at home or in a facility – an asylum centre or boarding school, for example.”
“Second: all those complaints reveal structural problems. We raise this with the ministers and parliament. Actually, I translate this into policy, together with my advisers.”
Giving young people a voice, that's the goal. Why is that so important?
“We have to listen to them. What do they run up against? What are they struggling with? We can learn a lot from that. What do they mention the most? That they want to be young without having to worry. Fortunately, that’s the case for a large number of the children: they have a safe space and aren’t short of anything materially.”
“But many aren’t so lucky. In Flanders, 1 in 7 children grows up in poverty. These children have to miss out on so much, and their rights are often put under duress by their parents’ financial problems.”
“Young people who stay in a youth care facility also need support from adults who are there for them unconditionally. They, too, just want to be young and be allowed to make mistakes. Our youth care facilities and the counsellors who work there do a good job, let’s make that clear. I have a lot of respect for them. But it’s not easy for the young people who grow up there. You often see that they get into trouble as soon as they turn 18 and have to stand on their own two feet."
Poverty in a prosperous region like Flanders – some people can barely imagine it.
“It does exist. In fact, the number of children and young people living in poverty is on the rise. We're not doing something right, that's for certain.”
“To be clear: we don't get any calls for financial help. But many of the questions that end up with us arise from financial problems. A safe and comfortable roof over your head is crucial, otherwise things like learning and leisure disappear into the background.”
“Poverty is a problem that you have to combat on several fronts. Belgium is a complex country, and the different levels have to work together. Raising the minimum benefits, for example, is a federal issue. At the Flemish level, we need to provide sufficient social housing. Locally we need decent childcare that also reaches the most vulnerable people. Again: poverty is very complex, which is why it’s so important to keep very concrete objectives in mind.”
“The fight against poverty has also evolved. The government argues that it’s not the intention to offer charity. I agree with that. But having to leave for school with an empty sandwich box, or not being able to afford sanitary towels: that is inhumane. Those are basic needs. That is why I call for action. It’s difficult to say to children, ‘We’re working hard to get rid of poverty, just a few more years of patience.’ No. It is our responsibility to also provide solutions, here and now.”
We also have to talk about corona. In a crisis like this, a children's rights commissioner was needed more than ever …
“I’m delighted to hear you say that! (laughs exuberantly) But it is indeed true. In May, we surveyed 44,000 children about corona. The virus hit them especially hard. We even linked it to the message of our annual report: never let children go into lockdown again.”
“Corona has made a lot clear to us. Many young people from primary and secondary schools do not have a laptop or internet and therefore cannot keep up. The worst thing is that that was also the case before corona. We’re only now realising that the situation is so dramatic. Also striking: Antwerp primary schools said they were missing 30% of their children in the first lockdown. One in three!”
“After the survey, a number of young people were invited to the Flemish Parliament to speak. One of them put it very simply: he argued for offering a laptop to anyone who cannot afford it. Otherwise you risk falling behind in school. He thought that was a better investment than buying expensive books every year.”
We’ve underestimated the impact of the corona crisis on young people for too long. They are in full evolution, literally: their brains are still developing.
Young people are sometimes called the biggest victims of the corona crisis. They run the least risk, but have to make the biggest sacrifices. Do you agree with that?
“(hesitates) I find it difficult to weigh the different age groups. The elderly have also had a hard time. The fact is that we have underestimated the impact on young people for too long. They are in full evolution, literally: their brains are still developing.”
“Loneliness, stress and fear rose dangerously. It was really not easy for children. One in five children under the age of 12 had no one to play with; sorry, but that's not healthy. Young people were not able to do many fun things and there is still little prospect of improvement. My message to virologists, doctors and the consultation committee is to be mindful of the young. Make sure they get perspective and can meet up again soon, because it’s starting to weigh heavily on them.”
“The importance of the school is absolutely clear. It’s more than a place where you learn things. You also find support there for when you’re in trouble, with peers, with friends, with the teacher .... A lot of children have fallen behind in learning. That’s why we ask schools to carefully evaluate their students. We have to be careful with our judgment.”
You make it a point to listen to young people, but are you also listened to?
“(laughs) It’s difficult to say that for yourself, but I do think the corona survey set a lot in motion. It received a lot of media attention. We’ve also received feedback from parents and academics. The latter thanked us for the amount of data we’ve collected. We’re not a scientific institute, but we have succeeded in gathering a lot of data about school work, about the family situation.”
“There are also reverberations on the political side. On 13 March, I pleaded with the education department to keep schools open for children and young people in precarious home situations. That same evening it was part of the guidelines. Sometimes we have a quick impact, sometimes it goes slower. Even more attention is certainly needed regarding the perspective of children and young people.”
2020 has been a strange and challenging year for everyone. I imagine that was certainly the case for you in your current position. How did you experience this year?
“I had only been working for six months and ended up on a real rollercoaster. Fortunately there was a strong team behind me. But all the plans we made pre-corona were put on hold. Everything was turned upside down: schools, youth care, leisure .... ”
“It was also not easy in private. I have a 10-year-old daughter, a 14-year-old son and another 16-year-old daughter. They’ve also struggled with sitting at home and having a digital education. Fortunately my 10-year-old daughter occasionally had a Zoom session with her teacher and friends from her class; that was the bright spot of the day. It wasn’t always about lesson content, but also basic chitchat. She was very pleased with that. I saw then how valuable it is that the teacher seeks contact and shows that they care about the children. The stories we heard showed that many teachers tried to do that.””
In your position you sometimes hear some truly distressing stories. What struck you the most?
“Children who don't have a safe place, I think that's terribly unjust. I cannot and do not want to accept it.”
“But I certainly also see reasons for optimism. For example, look at social media. Yes, there is fake news and yes, there is cyberbullying, but social media also has positive sides. They give young people a voice and empower them. Young people find each other and help each other get back on track by making the taboo discussable. Which is a wonderful thing, no?"