Laura Dekker and Safeguarding

23 January 2012 — 8 Comments

On Saturday, 16 Year Old Laura Dekker completed her solo round-the-world sailing adventure. The Dutch teenager started her record breaking voyage at just 14 years old – but only after winning a court case that allowed her to go.

Arrival of 16-year-old, Dutch girl, Laura Dekker in St.Maarten Yacht Club, in the Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Maarten on January 21, 2012. She becomes the youngest sailor who ever sailed around the world solo. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-MICHEL ANDRE

Although Laura was born on a boat off the coast of New Zealand (and holds citizenship there), she lives in Holland where schooling is compulsory until 16. As a result when she made plans aged 13 to do a round the world solo voyage, the Dutch authorities stepped in with a court order and she was almost taken into care as it was felt she was too young to look after herself at sea. She eventually won the court battle on the conditions that she complete a first aid course and continue with her education via an internet-based distance learning scheme. The BBC have a good piece covering the full story surrounding her voyage.

However, the youth work aspect I’m interested in with this story is in finding the balance between encouraging young people to fulfil their dreams, and taking necessary precautions around their safety and wellbeing.

My initial reaction to hearing that Laura had completed the voyage was pride. Here was a young girl who has followed her dreams, achieved something amazing, and proved her critics wrong. But then I thought: what if I had been responsible for her? Would I have encouraged her to go, or maybe suggested she wait a year or two?

It’s actually the Social Workers in the story who I feel a bit sorry for. I understand their dilemma. As the BBC quotes:

“We have a duty to investigate. The law says you must stay in school until you are 16,” says Caroline Vink from the Netherlands Youth Institute.

“We also had to make sure that Laura was able to cope with the demands of such a massive challenge when she was so young; things like the lack of sleep and being on her own all the time.”

“It’s so difficult to judge a case like this and when you’re dealing with such a determined young woman.

“We never meant to make her life difficult, only to look out for her safety. I hope she doesn’t hold a grudge.

“In the end she has shown extreme strength of character both before and of course during her adventure.”

Apparently, Laura doesn’t think much of the Dutch authorities due to her experiences and is considering moving to New Zealand as a result!

Most of us aren’t involved in such a high profile scenario, but we do face similar dilemmas in our work. How do we best encourage young people to fulfil their potential while being realistic about their, and our, safety?

What do you think? Were the Dutch authorities right to try and stop the voyage initially? Should we allow young people to do risky and dangerous things, or do we have a duty to stop them? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

8 responses to Laura Dekker and Safeguarding

  1. Being Dutch and all, I couldn’t resist commenting of course 🙂 I think the authorities were right to investigate. The law is there for a reason and you can’t allow people to just disregard it. But I think it could have been done a bit more friendly and the whole court case was taking it too far. They could have just asked for the time to do a psych evaluation of Laura and declare her ‘fit’ for an undertaking like this. I myself am very proud of her for doing this, I think it’s a huge achievement for someone her age (well someone any age actually). I think we should encourage our young people to follow their dreams like this…

    • Thanks for commenting Rachel. It did seem a bit of a drawn-out battle with the authorities and the court – which I guess could have been simpler. I do think it’s good that someone was asking the right questions though!

  2. I think we forget just how artificial our current understanding of the transition from childhood to adulthood is and how arbitrarily ages are chosen to suit the prevailing fashion.

    The age of consent we know is 14 in some countries, 12 in others and was only raised to 16 in this country during victorian times – and that’s just for consensual heterosexual sex.

    When I left school at 16 I went straight into work having carried out Saturday jobs since I was 14. My older brother was able to start an apprenticeship at 14 with the railways. At 16 today you can pay tax, smoke cigarettes (but not buy them), join the army, have sex. You cannot vote until you are 18.

    There is a great danger in measuring the maturity and ability of any person simply by a line drawn in the shifting sands of physical age.

    • That’s a great point Chris. Until relatively recently, young adults would be out working and raising families. Just because Laura was 13 when she wanted to set-out on her voyage, it doesn’t automatically mean that she was too young!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. (@bobweasel) (@bobweasel) - 23 January 2012

    As a youth worker, would YOU encourage a 14 year old to sail round the world on their own?

  2. Ricky Rew (@RickyRew) - 23 January 2012

    ‘How do we encourage young people to fulfil their potential while being realistic about their safety?’ via @bobweasel

  3. (@bobweasel) (@bobweasel) - 23 January 2012

    Should youth workers encourage risk takers, or ensure safety? Where’s the balance?

  4. Steve Cheal (@stevecheal) - 28 January 2012

    RT @bobweasel: As a youth worker, would YOU encourage a 14 year old to sail round the world on their own?

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