From an orphanage to a house for children

The former Weeshuis in LeidenAfter a long absence on my blog the walking historian has returned! Lately I visited Leiden, in particular for making pictures of several buildings in the old city. This post is about a very particular building, the former Weeshuis (orphanage) at the Hooglandse Kerkgracht. In this house orphans lived for many centuries. After extensive restoration between 2007 and 2010 this large building has not lost the historic connection with children. Law is the link between the old and the new use of the premises. Later this year I will write more about Leiden.

Protecting orphans

In 1403 the Our Lady’s Hospital in Leiden was founded. After the coming of the Reformation this hospital became in 1583 an orphanage, the Heilige Geestweeshuis [Holy Spirit Orphanage]. The buildings of the orphanage occupied a quite large spot in the heart of the city. In 1961 the last orphans left. Afterwards the Museum for Natural History, now Naturalis, found its home here until 1990. In that year a period of insecurity started. A number of plans was launched, but none of them was adopted by the city council. The orphanage had been owned by the national government. For the removal of the Naturalis it had been exchanged with the city for another building. In 2007 a foundation could buy the buildings for just € 13,000,- under the condition of starting large-scale restoration which costed € 14 million. It is interesting to note the regents of the former orphanage still exist and even hold the keys to the lavishly decorated board room.

The foundation buying the buildings in 2007 was the Stichting Utopa, a chartered foundation funded by a number of transport packaging companies. The name Utopa deliberately evokes Thomas More and his Utopia (1516). The foundation supports a number of cultural and social initiatives in the Netherlands. For the former orphanage it was decided to create space both for the archeological center of the city of Leiden, which actually had already used part of the buildings between 1990 and 2007, and for an initiative linked with children, the Kinderrechtenhuis [Children’s Rights House].

Children’s rights in a historical perspective

Do the rights of children find indeed a home in modern society? In 1989 the general assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This UN treaty stands out among modern international treaties for a number of reasons. Its preamble states that one should recognize “that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”. Probably no other treaty in vigor mentions love. The CRC was preceded by the Minimum Age Convention from 1973 in which member states are called upon to protect children from work, and followed by two optional protocols, on child traffic and abuse, and on child soldiers and the position of children during armed conflicts. In 1999 the general assembly voted for the Worst Forms of Labor Convention. A third optional protocol enabling children to file complaints with the UN Committee for the Rights of Children was adopted by the United Nations in December 2011, and ratified by twenty countries in Geneva on February 28, 2012.

The CRC has been signed by more than 190 countries. No other UN treaty has been ratified by so many countries, even when a number of them has done this with restrictions and interpretations.On totally different grounds two countries have not adopted the CRC. The United States of America has signed, but not ratified the CRC. Several explanations have been offered for this fact, among them a tradition of cautiousness in ratifying international treaties, but also the possibility in a number of U.S. states – at least until 2005 – to condemn youths to the death penalty. Somalia simply cannot yet ratify the treaty because of the lack of state institutions. A third country that has not yet signed or ratified the CRC is probably South Sudan.

Countries ratifying the CRC have to report regularly to the United Nations about the protection of children’s rights. Nongovernmental institutions accredited at new York or Geneva and civil society organizations, too, publish reports about the compliance of countries with the CRC.

The entrance to the former orphanage in Leiden

Civil society and children

When contemplating the former orphanage at Leiden and thinking about modern protection of children it struck me that in this context the word institution has very much changed in meaning. In Western Europe hospitals and orphanages were often already founded during the Middle Ages. Both city councils and religious institutions founded and governed them. In the field of medieval canon law one can point in particular to studies by Gisela Drossbach, her monograph Christliche caritas als Rechtsinstitut: Hospital und Orden von Santo Spirito in Sassia (1198-1378) (Paderborn 2005) and a volume of essays edited by her, Hospitäler in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Frankreich, Deutschland und Italien. Eine vergleichende Geschichte (Munich 2007). She prepares an edition of a number of statutes of medieval hospitals. The care for orphans in these institutions was institutional care which could vary very much depending on the persons actually charged with daily care for them. The facade of the Leiden orphanage show a relief with children looking up to a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Among the texts at the top of the facade are words from the Bible, “God is der weesen helper” [Thou art the helper of the fatherless] (Ps. 10,14) .

In the field of children’s history the role of law has not always received due attention. Among studies which take into account the differences between England and continental Europe, between cities and rural surroundings, and do take notice of the impact of law are the fine books by Barbara Hanawalt,The Ties that Bound. Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford, etc., 1986) and Growing Up in Medieval London. The Experience of Childhood in History (Oxford, etc, 1993). For The Ties that Bound Hanawalt used medieval coroner’s inquests as a major source. In her book on children in London she is well aware of the typical situation of this city. Hanawalt does not close her eyes for example for abuses of guardianship. She dispels the myth that ordinary medieval people did not care for children. Institutional care for children does not get much space in these studies, because in medieval England orphanages were exceptional.

Let’s return briefly to the Leiden orphanage. Its archive is kept at the Regional Archives Leiden. Two years ago a book about the history of the orphanage appeared, Dit kint hiet Willem : de Heilige Geest in Leiden, 700 jaar vondelingen, wezen en jeugdzorg [This child is called Willem: the Holy Spirit in Leiden, 700 years foundlings, orphans and youth care], edited by Kees van der Wiel and others (Leiden 2010). Antoinette Frijns has published a series of articles in several historical journals, which can be tracked using the online bibliography for Dutch history.

Applying children’s rights

The presence of a Children’s Rights House in the Netherlands might cause some amazement. After all this country is already blessed with a plethora of organizations for the protection of children, such as Defence for Children, now also located at the Kinderrechtenhuis, and the Kinderrechtencollectief [Children’s Rights Collective], not to mention the host of supporting organizations behind this collective. Alas it is common knowledge that for instance for children who need to be protected against their parents the very large number of institutions, agencies and ministries involved with child care can cause much delay in deciding and applying the right solution. Often it is not clear which institution, not even the judge deciding a case at court, is responsible for creating and holding an overview of all necessary actions and steps. The central role of the Bureau Jeugdzorg (Youth Work) can be a blessing, but also a bane when this office fails to do proper research and to take real responsibility for the welfare of children. Instead of ensuring institutional care this situation is first and foremost a bureaucracy, the main obstacle to the purpose for which it is meant to work.

More fundamental at the level of the rule of law is the question in the Netherlands and elsewhere about the desirability of the superior position of international treaties to national law. Some politicians see this as an infringement upon sovereignty. One has to take into account here the possibility of judicial review in the sense of comparison with a constitution. Under Dutch law this not possible (article 120 of the Dutch constitution). Since 2002 a proposal accepted by the Dutch parliament for making some exceptions to this rule awaits the long route necessary for any change of the Dutch constitution. In a situation of economic crisis in which countries are affected by forces coming from beyond their borders a tendency to close off from external pressure might seem natural, yet the same economic forces are working to unify economic life and the organization of society. Reports on the actual appliance of and compliance of the CRC, the earlier treaties and the optional protocols will continue to show that these rights do not descend automatically from a heaven of law and justice upon those most entitled to it. When you pass the entrance of the former Leiden orphanage you can read an inscription with a text by Janusz Korczak (1872-1942): “Children are not the humanity of the future, but today’s people”.

Bridging the gap between lofty aspirations of law, be it international or national law, and day-to-day reality will remain a perennial task, a duty and a challenge. Even when not actually actively supporting this aim historians can at the very least ask the right questions about law, its blessings and pitfalls, and document its manifold history. Surely this post does not more than just bring together some matters from past and present. A blog might be just the place to offer a look on the long road between some more or less casual observations and a more substantial treatment of issues and questions. No doubt others can tell you more about the history of orphanages and the history of children’s rights, and I hope to have made at least some of my readers more curious about these themes.

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