Making a Difference by Making Connections – 2016 Dutch Gathering

Over 600 people came together in Zwolle, The Netherlands for the very first Signs of Safety Gathering to be organised by and for Dutch child protection workers. To date, this is the biggest Signs of Safety event ever held and was full of strong presentations from Dutch and Belgian workers showcasing their practice.

Take the time to view the video recap below and to read the summary from Bernadette Snippe and Annemieke Quinn who were participants at this Gathering.

Click the links below to see further information as well as video from all the sessions.



Signs of Safety Gathering Netherlands: Good Showing!

Bernadette Snippe and Annemieke Quinn

“For everyone who works with families and children where the child’s safety is key” was the phrase that brought us all to the Signs of Safety Gathering theatre De Spiegel in Zwolle.

The first Dutch organized Signs of Safety Gathering was, right from the start, a day of inspiration. It was a day full of acknowledgement of what has been done and new ideas. Included were presentations for social workers who deal with domestic violence and child abuse, where the safety of the child is central and foremost. A varied collection of successful styles, techniques and ideas for finding creative solutions to approaching and staying connected with all family members were brought forward.

Multiple organizations from the Netherlands and Flanders presented their experiences passionately. These included the successes and also the difficulties which were very well demonstrated through images and words. At stake: betterment of all involved.

There were 600 in attendance colleagues which was a surprisingly large Gathering. The organizers should be proud. This fact that wasn’t lost on founder Andrew Turnell who commented in his opening speech: “When you Dutch do something, you do it well!”

Signs of Safety is gaining ground with their goal-oriented approach. The great appetite for a method which goal is for a child to continue living in a safe environment after domestic violence and child abuse is apparent.

In his opening speech, the Dutch Ombudsman for Children, Marc Dullaert, emphasized our obligation to and utmost commitment in stopping child abuse. These children will carry the effects of child abuse with them for the rest of their lives. The Dutch people get worked up about all kinds of affairs, but as of yet have not found solutions to the problems surrounding child abuse. Poignant is the fact that 118,000 children in the Netherlands were victims of domestic violence. However, Mr. Dullaert understands it to be a difficult subject to tackle; he compares it to the analogy: “How do you eat an elephant”: the only way you can eat an elephant is “piece by piece”

Organization STUK (A center where young people fight violation of their rights) simply lets the youth speak for themselves. A remark by an Antillean boy was striking: “Children aren’t stupid, only naïve. We don’t know everything but don’t treat us as if we are dumb. Talk to me as a human being, and take note of my cultural background. I need you to validate my presence and words”.

Impressive was the presentation by Raad voor de Kinderbescherming (The Board for Child Protection) with their compelling story about the apprehension of a young girl. They described the difficult task the social workers faced when they establish contact with a girl’s mother who wasn’t able to provide a safe home environment for her daughter. The powerful moment when the mother gave her daughter permission to live elsewhere, despite her own pain was heartfelt. The daughter was able to leave with her doll clutched under her arm but had the opportunity to say goodbye to her mother. Although this story was successful, it was followed by a similar one on the same day where the outcome was totally different. It took guts from caseworkers to admit this. From progress to failing in the span of a day makes one realize the continuing hard work, even when a successful approach has been readily available.

Our Flemish colleagues from MFC Traject (vzw Sporen; Center for Integrated Youth Services) clearly showed us that this material could be adapted to suit the child by showing a timeline of two brothers illustrated by the family’s photographs. They also demonstrated that dialog with the children is possibly by using words and pictures, especially incorporating characters from Cartoon Network into their own network seem to pay off. This method resulted in naming all the people that were important to the child and including them in the network, making sure no one was omitted. The professional from CANO de Pas (CANO de Pas offers intensive guidance to adolescent boys 14-18 years old) illustrated this “network” concept by telling the story and showing the interview of a mother who was pleased by this presentation. The combined efforts of social workers made her feel she had been taken seriously and she didn`t realized so many were people involved.

Jeugdbescherming Noord (Youth Protection North) presented a fascinating case, clearly showcasing their extensive experience with Signs of Safety. They outlined how important it is in guaranteeing the safety of the child (illustrated by sometimes unorthodox methods), while simultaneously approaching the parents from a parenting perspective and not from a possible mental health disorder they might be suffering from. As in all situations, engaging with the other partners (in this case GGZ; Mental Health and Addiction Care) is essential. The benefits were threefold:

  1. The professionals from GGZ were monitoring the health of the parent(s) to make sure they were able to make a decision (assisted if necessary) regarding contact with their child.
  2. The co-operators from Jeugdbescherming Noord didn’t have to be called upon for assistance which provided the children the opportunity to express their own concerns.
  3. Emphasis on the importance of an active network to support both children and their parents.

Foster care also greatly benefitted from Signs of Safety approach, demonstrated by Kompaan and de Bocht (Organization for children, women and families dealing with the problems of child-rearing) by presenting the case of a young boy in foster care. The audience was captivated by the enthralling narrative on the lack of collaboration between aid workers and the foster family which only resulted in the same problems the boy had experienced before. In the end his safety had to be re-established. When the methods established in the Signs of Safety were used this greatly helped the biological parents and the foster parents though the problem.

The collaborators from The Hague (CJG; Centre for Youth and Family) highlighted the procedures and effects of the Signs of Safety method by sharing a complicated case within the voluntary framework. The safety of both the children and the parents were central. The focus was on affiliation with the family, using goal-oriented techniques, such as asking rhetorical questions on such topics as drug use. In an intervision setting, the collaborators proudly showed their peers this brainstorming process whereby open-mindedness is essential. To take a chance by implementing the Signs of Safety method in a time of transformation is a courageous act. They were quoted as saying: “Evolution happened in The Hague”.

Signs of Safety appears to be an important method by/in specialized treatment of people dealing with any type of abusive and psychological problems. De Waag (Centre for outpatient forensic psychiatry) dared to broach the topics of pedophilia and domestic sexual abuse. Not only is it important in keeping the network alert, it offers the perpetrator treatment by teaching them to understand early warning signs. It is imperative to focus on the whole family to find a way to deal with these types of traumatic incidents. This will give way to a safe environment for optimum personal growth (development). During the treatment, the statement “never alone with children” changes from a question to an exclamation. Safety applies to everyone.

Finally the William Schrikker Groep (supports special target groups: children and/or parents of children with disabilities and serious upbringing problems) proudly presented their own way of working with Signs of Safety. Their own version, Signs of Success, was developed in direct cooperation with the founder Andrew Turnell. An ascending series of well-defined questions was developed and rated on a scale from 0–10. These questions were presented to a young man with probation problems. Suddenly it was clear what he had to do to be in control of his own life and opportunities. He was permitted to build his own network with the people he chose. This made him realize to use probation as an ally and not as an adversary. He took charge of his own life and successfully continued with the help of his informal network (family and friends whom he needed most). This left the social workers from his formal network to observe from the sidelines as he took control of his life.

There was no doubt in the value we all received in the interaction between the different professional groups working with children and families from the Netherlands and Flanders. The diverse presentations with their own emphasis and importance were valuable tools for us all.

At the end of the day, the six hundred attendants return home with renewed enthusiasm for the Signs of Safety continuing focus on the relationships between child and family. As stated by families in dealing with violence and abuse: “The most important influence in making a difference in the life of a vulnerable child … is making connections”.

Bernadette Snippe and Annemieke Quinn, February 2016