More than 1,100 children whose parents were wrongly accused of child benefit fraud in the scandal that toppled the Mark Rutte-led coalition government in the Netherlands last January were taken into care by social services as their families faced financial ruin.
This latest revelation in what MPs have called “a saga of unbelievable suffering” emerged on Thursday in figures from the Central Statistics Bureau, collated for the Department of Justice at the insistence of angry opposition MPs.
The mistaken accusations against some 26,000 families between 2013 and 2019, and the enormous clawback bills that followed, led to a litany of social problems, including depression, alcoholism and marriage breakdown, and forced many couples to sell their homes and left children traumatised.
State agencies and the courts consistently turned a blind eye to the scandal, which was finally forced into the open by campaigning Christian Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt (47), whose persistence led to the fall of the coalition of which his own party was a member.
While the figure of 1,115 children now described by the statistics office as “accidentally” taken into care is shocking enough, it may be only the tip of the iceberg.
It covers just the period 2015-2020 because the statistics office did not collect data of that type until the introduction of a new childcare law in 2015.
The statistics office itself, in its report, said it believed more research was needed because of the seriousness of its findings.
Arina Kruithof, director of the Rotterdam Childcare Centre, said that apart from the failures that caused the scandal, the episode showed that when problems arose, parents and children needed to be helped at a much earlier stage.
“If we do not intervene early on, it will always be the children who suffer,” she said.
Mr Omtzigt said the report made clear that the government had at the time lost any understanding of the consequences of its own hardline policies. He also complained that the information had been handed over only after “repeated demands”.
The opposition piled in to criticise the government despite the fact that the Netherlands has had only a caretaker cabinet now for 280 days, the longest such period in postwar parliamentary history.
The Socialists’ leader, Lilian Marijnissen, called the figures “horrendous” and said the investigation should be extended immediately to see if there were other forgotten children.
Farid Azarkan, leader of pro-immigrant party, Denk (Think), said it “added insult to injury” that the same four parties in power during the scandal would probably also be part of Mr Rutte’s fourth coalition, currently being negotiated.
Mr Rutte described the revelations as “very worrying”. Each child placement order will now be reviewed.