Childcare benefit victims criticise slow pace of redress

Jurgen and Gerda Deceuninck giving evidence at the inquiry in September last year. Photo: ANP/Ramon van Flymen

Many parents caught up in the childcare benefits scandal, in which families were torn apart and financially ruined by an inflexible anti-fraud strategy, are still waiting for effective compensation.

Victims of the scandal told Dutch media that while they welcomed the hard-hitting report by a parliamentary committee, published on Wednesday, they had yet to see any tangible benefit in their own lives.

Jurgen Deceuninck and his wife Gerda, who were the first witnesses to give evidence to the inquiry last September, said they were still fighting to have their children returned home, after they were placed in a foster home as their parents struggled with debt and severe stress.

“Last Christmas was the first Christmas in nine years that we were able to celebrate with the four of us,” Jurgen Deceuninck told “But the children still aren’t home. It’s dragging on. The way the authorities are dealing with this makes a mockery of the situation.”

The Deceunincks’ problems began in 2010, before they even met, when Gerda declared 30 minutes extra childcare allowance to make up for an earlier week when she declared too little.

The tax office ruled she had committed fraud, stopped all her benefits and ordered the couple to repay all the childcare costs they had received from the state, at a rate of €1,500 a month, more than Gerda was earning.

Penalties mounted up

When they fell behind on their payments the fines mounted up, from €30,000 to €170,000, and their two daughters, still both under 11, were taken into care.

The courts removed a total of 3,104 children from families where the parents were affected by the benefits scandal, but legal protection minister Franc Weerwind said last month that just 30 families out of 722 who had requested help had been granted extended visiting rights. In 23 cases the children were back in the family home.

The break-up of families was one aspect of a wider systemic failure that was laid bare in the committee’s report, titled Blind voor mens en recht (“Blind to people and law”). It concluded that MPs, the legal system, government agencies handling benefits and the media all contributed to the climate of suspicion around suspected fraudsters.

Hardened climate

“In a hardened political and social climate, people’s constitutional rights were violated and the rule of law pushed aside. As a result people’s lives were destroyed,” the report stated.

“The very people who needed the government most were the ones who were hit hardest.”

Other victims welcomed the report’s findings but said they were yet to see any impact in their own lives.

Janet Ramesar, who became a Socialist party (SP) councillor in The Hague as a result of her experiences, told NRC: “I’m a bit cynical after more than four years. I’ve still barely started with the financial redress.

“At first I hoped for a quick solution. Now I’m wondering how long people will stay outraged. Complaints have been filed against government officials and civil servants, but in the end nothing happened.”

“Could happen again”

Lawyer Sébas Diekstra, who brought a case against the tax office on behalf of victims, said: “The crucial question is still when the actual fundamental changes will be implemented to make sure this doesn’t happen again tomorrow.”

The committee, chaired by SP MP Michiel van Nispen, also expressed concern that a similar scandal could happen again unless systemic problems, such as heavy dependence on algorithms and an overly rigid application of the rules, were addressed.

Jurgen Deceuninck, who now works with Menucha, a community organisation set up to help victims of the scandal, said: “Whether it’s the tax office or youth care: when something happens they come with a questionnaire with tick boxes. And then you’re in a system you can never get out of.”

Simpler system needed

The CNV trade union also said the report showed that the system needed to be simplified and made more responsive to people’s situations, so that it supported working families properly.

“People who put a comma in the wrong place were dealt with in a disproportionately hard manner,” chairman Piet Fortuin said. “People with non-Dutch names were also severely affected.

“A simplification of the system is needed. Work should pay. But the most important thing is that the government trusts its citizens again, instead of seeing them as potential fraudsters.”

The UWV, the organisation that administers work-based benefits, told NOS that it had changed its practices in the wake of the inquiries “with more regard for applying the human aspect and focusing on prevention,” but more work was needed.

“Research has shown that the strict rules on fraud had exceptionally hard consequences in practice and led to unwanted and very distressing situations,” UWV said in a statement.

“It is important that legislation offers our staff more scope to operate in the spirit of the law. UWV is holding intensive discussions with the ministry of social affairs and work opportunities about the scope and complexity of our laws and regulations.”




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