Lessons from Abroad: Dutch Juvenile Justice System Shifting to Family-Oriented Approach

by Henk Rigter

For years, the capacity to detain delinquent juveniles – from 12 to 23 years of age – has been expanded in the Netherlands. However, the tide is changing. In 2007, the Netherlands had 16 active Juvenile Justice Detention Institute (JJI) sites for a population of 16 million. Today, there are just 11 JJI sites in operation and this number will drop further in the next few years.

More important than the number of sites are the number of detention slots: this number decreased from 1,300 in 2007 to 800 today. The decline is expected to continue to just 635 in 2017. One reason for this change may be the tendency for crime rates among youth to drop in the past few years. Moreover, juvenile judges increasingly prefer to impose alternative sanctions like community work assignments and referral to mandated treatment programs.

At the same time, Dutch juvenile detention institutes are reinventing themselves. A major group working on this process is Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) Academy, based in Oegstgeest, the Netherlands. At the recent Linking Systemic Practice and Systemic Research conference in Heidelberg, Germany, Henk Rigter and Kees Mos from MDFT Academy outlined the steps taken by JJIs to accept the family of detainees as being important for achieving good detention and treatment outcomes.

The key message for JJI professionals – guards, social workers running groups of detained youth, psychiatrists and psychologists doing assessments and making treatment decisions, and so on – is to work in a family-friendly way, accepting that family involvement helps the youth to change his or her ways. In what eventually will be a national JJI-staff training program, carried out by MDFT Academy in collaboration with the Academic Workplace Forensic Care for Youth, JJI professionals are tought to motivate family members, win their trust, to establish alliances with family members, to inform them regularly, and to invite parents to key JJI meetings where it is decided how their son or daughter is going to be treated. In every step, the parent is acknowledged. Parents are encouraged to join evenings where special themes are being discussed or when their kids prepare meals or sit together to watch movies.

In this panorama of changing interactions between the institute and family members, JJI’s offer the additional advantage of family (systemic) treatment intended to improve the behavior of the youth, family interactions, and work and school prospects for the youth upon release. This treatment is to be continued on an outpatient basis for a few months after release. One such treatment program is Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT). The therapist uses every feasible moment (parents’ visits, furloughs) to hold sessions and increase a youth’s motivation to change. The positive Dutch experience with MDFT matches the outcomes of U.S. trials of MDFT, carried out by the Miami developers of this treatment program (H. Liddle; G. Dakof), as regards to Juvenile Drug Courts and Detention to Community approaches.


Henk Rigter is associated with the Erasmus University (Department of Public Health) and also with Curium (Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Leiden University Medical Centre), where he is in charge of national and international (Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, USA) research and implementation projects in the field of treating adolescents with (multiple) problem behaviour. One of the transnational research projects has been INCANT, a randomized trial comparing MDFT (Multidimensional Family Therapy) with active comparison treatment in adolescents with cannabis use disorder. Rigter has served as a member or chair on numerous national and international (advisory) committees devoted to science and social policy, ethics, technology assessment, neuroscience, and mental health.