Annemieke is the Vice-Chair of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ), mediator  and a children’s rights consultant, working for Restorative Justice Netherlands and living in Utrecht with her family. We were interested to ask her about what difficulties the current crisis means for children and young people, as they are often even in a more vulnerable situation in times of social change. In our discussion Annemieke also reflected on what the EFRJ can during the crisis, and we asked her as well about the situation in the Netherlands. The interviews is a part of the #SolidarityOverDistance updates.

What is the effect of the crisis on ongoing cases involving minors? 

For minors who need care or are in the criminal justice system this is of course also an uncertain and isolated period. I worry about children in situations of domestic violence or in families that suffer from poverty. I am in contact with a police officer in Rotterdam about this to see if we can join efforts. He is paying special attention to certain families and would let me know if there are issues we can pick up together. Often at school the vulnerable children and youngsters have a safe(r) and healthy environment with caring teachers and other children to play with. Also food is often better arranged. That this is lacking for many now, and the longer the pandemic and the lock down policies stay, the more problematic this can become. Also children with mental disabilities, psychological problems and the ones in the closed facilities are affected in a sad way.

What are the special needs of children in this ongoing crisis?

That varies from basic needs to survive, like food and hygiene, to social support needs to be able to function without the normal network of school and sports facilities. We need to pay attention to their voices and involve them in finding solutions. I see that different experts and organisations, like Defence for Children, Terre des Hommes, or the children's ombudsman are already taking initiatives to lobby for support and making special information sheets for youngsters.

Our children’s ombudsman demanded in an online campaign that children who are in an unsafe situation at home, or are unable to make their schoolwork at home, can be also admitted to schools now. In the Netherlands this is still possible since the primary schools are still open for children of parents with so-called vital jobs, mainly those working in health care. I think these efforts should continue and be spread, so others can learn from it. Simple suggestions on working together and creating an alliance for children in need is a must. Colleagues from the departement responsible for victim support department and mediation in Estonia invited me to take part in a European group to see how we can join our efforts to help minors in our countries. On Monday we will have our first online meeting.

The child help line is doing important work these weeks by answering so many questions and worries that children have and proving advise and tips. In youth care confidential counsellors call children who are staying in youth facilities and who cannot not go home. The daily Dutch youth journal on tv makes sure children are also involved and interviewed in how corona affects their lives. Peer to peer information is useful. I heard several children saying that they are really missing school and class mates. It is indeed totally different than having holidays or weekend. You also see that children worry about the problems this virus creates and that they come up with their own initiatives, for example to help elderly people with grocery shopping or online talks for example. 

I am impressed by all friends and colleagues working in education, like my sister Simone, who is the director of a primary school. She and her colleagues all make sure that young children still get education. They managed in a very short time to make online classes, so children can see the teacher and their classmates for at least a part of the day. This new way of educating most children at home also demands a lot from the parents. And we need to pay attention to them too. My partner Luc, professor in math, is providing online teaching and exams for his university students. 

Annemieke Wolthuis

What is the impact of the crisis on your work?

It makes me think - with many others in the field - on how we can use restorative approaches in times of crises. How we can connect in different ways and provide support for vulnerable persons and those in need. And how can we cope with a pandemic crises this big, that takes so many people’s lives, something we have never experienced before.

Of course the new reality influences also our daily work. I was supposed to give some trainings these weeks to prison personnel on how they can make their work more restorative and victim friendly. It also makes me think of how the prisons and juvenile correctional centres are coping these days. Colleagues there say the detainees cannot receive visitors and the rehabilitative programmes have been reduced to the minimum, which implies more time alone in their own small cell. 

Many international events and meetings have been cancelled. I was supposed to give a lecture in Russia next week, and I was supposed to travel to Greece for one of the two European projects I am working on: all have been postponed or cancelled. Same for our internal meetings at Restorative Justice Nederland, but we continue the work and have meetings online.

In this period, I had planned to keep writing for a book on children rights and restorative justice. You would think that I have enough time for that now, but I must say that it is not so easy to find the right focus to write. First, with a friend who died, but also with what is happening around us. It does influence the mind and makes me also wonder how important is that book, are there other things I can do now for society and people around me? I do it now in simple things as taking a bit extra care for people who live on their own for example, check on them and share some tips for food, or book or films.  

"We need to add possibilities for members and others interested to share what they are going through and to see what restorative approaches can mean for them."

The last time we met in person was at the beginning of March. Back we were still considering different options on how to go on with our plans for this year. Since then, we obviously needed to postpone our conference. What do you see now, how does the crisis affect the work of the EFRJ? What implications do you recognise? 

The EFRJ turns out to be a really flexible organisation. I am proud of the staff, the board and the members in how we cope and share. We have to cancel joint meetings and postpone events, but since we have members in the whole world we were already used to online communication and sharing info via newsflashes, mails and our website. I think we need to continue doing that and adding possibilities for members and others interested to share what they are going through and to see what restorative approaches can mean for them. It makes people more aware of different ways of connecting. I also think that that keeping our community together, and restorative values in general help to develop a sense of solidarity and empower people. 

I read these days an essay by Yuval Noah Harari: The world after coronavirus. He talks about two important choices: the one between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment and the other between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. In short,  he argues that we need to trust scientific data and health care experts instead of unfounded conspiracy theories and we need a global plan based on  solidarity. Something we are able to contribute to with our restorative approaches and values.

When you mention Harari’s dichotomies, it makes me wonder about your own country’s response. The Netherlands was criticised for flirting with idea of ‘herd immunity’ (which seems to neglect the developments in Lombardy) and also by Italian mayors for a lack of solidarity.  Did you experience that public pressure has an effect on your governments’ decisions recently? 

Indeed. I saw that our prime minister, Mark Rutte reacted reluctant or even harsh in the beginning on the topic of so-called corona bonds. That did not show much solidarity, but I saw that he changed his message already and regretted his tone and added that he wants to help other countries that are affected by ways of giving donations or otherwise. Public pressure and just having discussions with other prime ministers, among others from Italy and Spain, on these issues is crucial and needs to continue.

"You see that solidarity increases, my hope is that it stays this way."

A bike tour along the Veght

The Netherlands is among the most affected countries at the moment. How is the country coping with the crisis?

It is indeed serious and not yet at its peak. The figures of April  8 we have 7735 people hospitalised with the Covid-19, and 2248 people died. It is also clear that we need more ICU beds in the coming period. The situation is monitored on a daily basis and scientific experts share their views. Our prime minister had to announce last week again that the date for social distancing, the closure of schools, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, physiotherapists continues until at least 28 April and that we better not make any travel plans for our May holiday. In general, I think, people are happy in the way our prime minister and the minister for health share the policy by involving the medical experts, by learning from abroad, by taking the time to explain and adapt to the changing situations. Also how compassionate our king Willem Alexander spoke to the whole nation last week, with paying additional attention to children, was valued widely. You see that solidarity increases, my hope is that it stays this way. At the same time it is difficult to be sure if our policy is the right thing, also when we see that some neighbouring countries have a more strict lock down. 

In and around health care people are working really hard to take care of patients. Some hotels and other big halls or places are now being made into additional hospital rooms. Many volunteers are helping. One of my friends who has less work now since all her trainings have been cancelled, started voluntarily shifts at the blood donor organisation. I am proud of her and of other friends; one of them provides continuous online consultations to girls who have suicide problems (and face to face sessions in case of very serious situations), and another friend is already preparing herself and her osteopathy colleagues for the period to come when people will get out of the hospital.

How did it affect you personally? 

In the weekend just before the social distancing policy became active in the Netherlands a good friend of mine died of cancer. She was ill for about a year, but the last phase went so fast. I was grieving and they had to do her funeral with a small group of family and close friends. We were able to follow it at home with livestream though. And of course it was not the same as being there, it still felt intimate to see the family and closest friends giving speeches and singing. It connected friends and family in a different way. The hardest part was that we were not able to hug her partner and the children. In that same week I heard that the brother of another good friend was in the hospital with corona and that they had to keep him asleep. That took more than a week and we were kept updated day by day. He is more awake now, but still needs artificial respiration. My parents are in their mid-seventies and were in their summer house in Dordogne, France, when also the lock down in France was shared. Luckily, they were able to travel home. In such times it feels better to have your family close. Since we have not a full lock down I was able to visit them last Saturday. Just for an hour sitting with them in their garden while keeping the 1,5 meters distance. I was happy that they said they manage and they go biking every day. At home we are okay, although the first week it was not so easy to manage our two teenage sons (17 and 15) to stay much more inside and to not gather with groups of friends. The good thing about being more at home together is that we started cleaning up rooms, that we do some games together or watch a movie and that the boys assist in cooking and other tasks. These days I also appreciate of having a small garden. To sit there in the sun for a moment can make me happy and stay positive. I wish you all positive moments today!