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7 AUGUST 1999
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Children's rights in residential settings

Kees Waaldijk

The Polish-Jewish pedagogue Janusz Korczak (1878-1942) was an outstanding pioneer who as early as in 1919 had pleaded for a “Magna Carta” of the rights of children. Kees Waaldijk, child care educator from the Netherlands, offers some thoughts on Korczak's impact on our work with children today.

Children's institutions are often places where the discussion on children's rights has a late start. Why? Sometimes there is the feeling that a residential facility, at least a good one, by definition provides the children with the good things which they should receive and which are helpful to them in overcoming the problems that brought them into residential care. Why make a separate item of children's rights in a place which tries and professes to be the fulfilment of the basic needs and rights of the child?

Sometimes another reasoning is offered: Our youngsters are so disturbed, or even psychologically ill, that it would not make sense to offer them (formal) rights. Only when they are mentally healthy again will they be able to enjoy and use their rights, but then of course they will leave the institution.

But we don't agree with these two excuses for not taking children's rights in residential life seriously. On the contrary, we think that in institutional life there are extra reasons to take children's rights seriously, although it is self-evident that in concrete situations the age, and eventually the mental handicaps or the emotional disturbances, of the youngsters involved have to be taken into account. We mention what we consider the most important reasons for developing practical ways of implementing children's rights in residential care.

Children in care are dependent on the adults around them, not only because they are young and inexperienced, but also because in general they are children in trouble and therefore vulnerable – and usually with a sad or even traumatic recent history. There is, so to speak, an additional imbalance in their relationship with the adults. Being in residential care means also being in contact with people who are your helpers, who are experts, who are authorities. After all, they are in charge, responsible. This adds extra momentum to the imbalance in the relationship.
Unlike psychotherapy and social work, residential care is often offered in a large, often quite complex organisation in which the staff were there before the clients. These staff members have their meetings, their files and their status in the organisation. The client or youngster is dependent on their policy, their decisions – sometimes even on their moods. We don't agree with Goffman that every residential institution tends to become a total institution and therefore a totalitarian institution. But there is an element of truth in his warnings that in every residential setting there is potentially a lot of power on the adults' side, and a lot of dependency on the clients' side, and that this easily leads to an inequality or power imbalance in the relationship between them.

And history teaches us that institutions for youngsters don't have built-in safeguards against this danger – which is reason enough for asking how the explicit formulation and implementation of children's rights can avoid or reduce this risk.

Sharing of responsibility
And in the context of our study of Janusz Korczak, this leads us to ask what was his specific contribution of to our thinking about children's rights in the different residential settings for youngsters? When reading about the orphanage in Krochmalna Street, one is struck first of all by the high degree of democracy. The children, for example, voted in a kind of plebiscite on the admission of new children after a trial period. There was also a kind of parliament which decided on internal matters such as money for leisure activities and special festive days. The ultimate was perhaps the court in which the children took turns as judges while a staff member was the secretary. Not only children but also adults could be summoned to appear before this court. Every child and every worker had the right to make a formal complaint against somebody.

Would it be wise to imitate these forms by having parliaments, plebiscites,and courts in all our residential settings? We don't think so. It took Korczak a long time to develop these forms into effective instruments. And we shouldn't forget that he generally worked with normal children, most of whom stayed for several years. The shorter stay and the more troubled youngsters in many modern residential settings would make the simple imitation of these forms difficult. But nevertheless the underlying principle is highly relevant to our residential work today. This principle might be phrased in another way.

The predominant and the permanent message to the young inmates could be: You, too, are responsible for our way of living together here. And the message for modern residential workers in charge of one group or of a whole centre could be: Are you set on developing creative forums in which the youngsters can participate in their responsibility for their individual lives and for the life of this residential community? Korczak's philosophy (and practice) implies the severe idea: Without this persistent sharing of responsibility, the pretence that we are raising children to be independent adults is a lie.

Rules and regulations
A second characteristic which strikes one in the description of Korczak's orphanage is the large number of formal, often very detailed rules and regulations. Why so many rules, when the intentions and the atmosphere are good? Isn't there a risk of bureaucracy and of cold, mechanical procedures? Korczak's opinion seems to have been that without clear, written rules, the danger of arbitrariness becomes too great. The power of the staff members' whims, or of the strong or charming inmate or of other accidental circumstances can be too strong when too much depends on informal agreements.

Should we then, eighty years later, imitate this large body of rules and procedures? We don't think so. Korczak himself was very creative in putting rules into perspective. Rules were not sacrosanct. For example, the strict bedtimes were suspended twice a year – on mid-summer day no one was obliged to go to bed at all, and on the shortest day of the year everybody was permitted to stay in bed the whole day!

The message is: have your rules, but don't forget to laugh at them from time to time. But the more serious underlying principle seems to be: let there be no vagueness or ambiguity concerning everybody's rights and obligations. Otherwise we will see again the imbalance between the power of the strong and the dependency of the weak. And with regard to the risk of bureaucracy it is our impression that Korczak's orphanage was an outstanding example of a good balance, a good mutual complement of rules and atmosphere. These seem to be the two most inspiring principles of Janusz Korczak when considering the application of children's rights in residential care:

  1. Respect for the child, also for the disturbed child and the child in residential care, as a responsible partner, not only as an object of care;

  2. The balance of clear, formal rules and a warm, helping atmosphere.

Korczak on residential care today
Apart from these two general principles we will now briefly deal with the question whether the above-mentioned specific rights, derived from Korczak's works, have significance for residential work today.

A few examples:

Korczak's most important contributions
We have referred to Korczak's ideas about children's rights in the residential work of our time. We will now attempt to summarize the most important contributions he has made to the children's rights movement:

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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