Probation organisations focus on offenders. That is how it was, that is how it is and that is how it will be. But what about the victims? Probation in the Netherlands tried a new approach. “We now discuss with the offender whether he realises what harm he has done to the victim. If it was his own grandmother, would he have done the same?”

It all started in 2011, when the Act on Strengthening the Position of Victims came into force in the Netherlands. The act was the direct result of the European Victims’ Rights Directive. “It was clear from the beginning that the Ministry of Justice expected us to take this subject very seriously”, says Ciska de Ridder, policy advisor at SVG, one of the three probation organisations in the Netherlands. 1) “The Ministry also made project funding available to work on it in our organisations. We started with a kickoff conference in 2012. The aim of that conference was to introduce the theme victim awareness to probation workers in our organisations, as well as the Victims’ Rights Directive itself. As probation organisations we focused on offenders, not on victims. The main question during the kickoff conference was how we thought we could contribute to the victims’ rights in our work with offenders.”


The discussions at the kickoff conference were very vivid and the response of the probation workers was positive. “We therefore organised three countrywide workshops in 2013, so we could involve more colleagues. In those workshops many probation workers concluded that they could do more for victims in their regular work with offenders than they thought they could. We also set up a pilot project in the east of the Netherlands with case managers from Slachtofferhulp Nederland (Victim Support the Netherlands). The goal was to find out how the two organisations could work together in order to be able to meet the needs of victims of violent crime and sexuel offences.”


The first step was getting to know each other’s organisations better. “In both organisations there were quite a lot of prejudices and false assumptions about the other organisation. Among probation workers the idea lived that victim support was cherishing the ‘victimhood’ of victims too much, in stead of helping victims to get on with their lives. Victim support workers on the other hand tended to think that probation workers were not interested in the victim at all and that they were very soft on the ‘poor offender’.”


Reality turfoto Ciska de Ridderned out to be very different. Ciska de Ridder: “The case managers from Victim Support were amazed that our probation workers were supervising ‘their’ offenders really strict. They could not have imagined probation workers simply referring offenders back to the prosecutor because these offenders didn’t keep their promises. For a probation worker supervising an offender or carrying out a community sentence is carrying out a punishment. Realising this was a real eye-opener for Victim Support. Probation workers also try to guide and support offenders in order to prevent recidivism. For a probation worker this is a logical approach. For the case managers from Victim Support it was an insight to see that we work on this while rictly supervising the offender.”


Lack of knowledge

After establishing that the probation workers were certainly interested and willing to take the needs of victims more into account, the next question came up: how to do so? “There was a real lack of knowledge on how to integrate victim awareness in our daily practice”, Ciska de Ridder explains. “We therefore asked the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht to develop a methodical guideline for probation workers, to be used as a supplement to the current probation methodology in the Netherlands. To develop this, the researchers investigated best practices in Europe and had interviews with early adopters and other probation workers in the Netherlands that already had taken initiatives concerning victims’ rights. The guideline was eventually delivered in 2014.”


In order to reach out to more probation workers the three probation organisations organised eight workshops throughout the Netherlands in 2014. Ciska de Ridder: “We reached some hundred and fifty employees, 17% of all probation workers. We offered them a structured 2,5 hour programme. In the first place we gave them information about our victim awareness project and the European Victims’ Rights Directive. Secondly we explained the methodical guideline and how it could be used in practice. Last but not least, we invited a probation worker that some eighteen years ago already started to experiment with victim aware probation.”


This ‘early adopter’ probation worker honestly told her colleagues about the mistakes she has made, the struggles she has had and the results she has achieved. Ciska de Ridder: “An example. When this colleage has to write an advisory report for the court she sees her client only once or twice. That is not much. Many clients downplay the crime they have committed and state that it is not so serious. Is that a sign of a lack of conscience that the probation worker has te report to the court? Or does he feel ashamed about what he has done and is he unwilling to admit the seriousness? This probation worker has learned to recognise signals about that. If she notices these signals, she can have a discussion with her client about what the crime meant or can mean for the victim. Does he realises what harm he has done to the victim? If it was his own grandmother, would he have done the same? The presentation of this probation worker at the workshops always led to a lot of discussion. Many of the trained probation workers decided to try this approach themselves with their own clients.”

All stages

Victim aware probation involves that probation workers look at the position and needs of the victim during all stages of their pre- and after-trial work. “For example: a probation worker wants to advise the court that the offender must be forbidden to come near the house of the victim. But maybe the victim has moved, out of fear for the offender. And maybe the victim is not happy at all that as a result of this advise the offender will know in which area he or she now lives. I don’t think there should be direct contact between the probation worker and the victim. But I do think that there should be much more contact between probation workers and Victim Support. We are now discussing with Victim Support how this cooperation should be set up and when we should share what kind of information. In a few years time, I think it is standard procedure for probation workers to have regular contact with Victim Support workers. I also think that this will make some kind of reconciliation or normalisation between victim and offender easier to organise and achieve.”


All probation workers that followed the workshop got the question whether they want to be ‘ambassador victim awareness’ in their own region. “We now have fifteen of them. They organise local expert groups of knowledge on victims’ rights issues, support probation teams with matters that concern victim awareness and try to improve cooperation with local partners, such as victim support. They have four hours a week to do all this, next to their regular tasks. Last year has proved that this system works. Our own probation education centre  developed an e-learning module for all employees. It gives concrete examples on how probation workers can ‘introduce’ the victim in their contacts with the offender. I have the feeling we have taken quite a few steps the last three years. 2016 will be the year in which we can and will ‘harvest’. I expect we can move from victim aware probation on paper to victim aware probation organisations in practice.”

Read more about the rights of victims in the different EU countries:

Read the Victims’ Rights Directive:

1) In the Netherlands probation is carried out by three organisations. Leger des Heils (Salvation Army) deals with the homeless clients, SVG with addicted clients and Reclassering Nederland with all others. The three organisations cooperate on many levels, including victim awareness. The three organisations together call themselves ‘Probation in the Netherlands’.


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