Dutch court orders yacht girl, 13, into state care

Report ordered into hazards of allowing teenager on circumnavigation
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The Independent Online

A court in Utrecht yesterday becalmed the plans of a 13-year-old Dutch girl to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world.

In a case which has generated worldwide debate about parental responsibility – and parental pushiness – the court placed Laura Dekker under the guardianship of childcare officials for two months.

She will continue to live with her father until psychologists report in October on the possible mental and physical hazards of allowing such a young person to sail the seas alone for two years in a 26ft boat.

Laura was not in court to hear the judgement. She was out sailing. Her father, Dick Dekker, was in court but declined to comment. The family's lawyer, Peter de Lange, said the ruling was "acceptable" because it allowed Laura to live at home and did not rule out the possibility that she could eventually make the voyage.

The three judges had decided that you are not necessarily "a bad parent if you try to help your child fulfil her dream", he said.

Richard Bakker, the spokesman for the Dutch Council for Child Protection, said he was "satisfied" with the judgement. Laura was born on a yacht in New Zealand while her now estranged parents were on a round-the-world tour. She spent the first four years of her life at sea and is generally recognised to be an accomplished sailor well beyond her years.

Her solo exploits have landed her in hot water before. She was held by police in Lowestoft last year after she arrived there alone in her yacht, Guppy. The British authorities telephoned her father who refused to come to get her until they threatened to place her in a children's home. He then allowed her to sail back to the Netherlands alone, ignoring a police request that he should sail with her.

Social workers had argued that Laura was too young to understand the dangers of sailing alone around the world and the isolation alone would be damaging at an important time in her mental and physical development.

Laura was to have "self-schooled" while aboard her yacht but the junior Dutch education minister, Marja van Bijsterveldt, had told the Dutch Parliament that she opposed this plan.

The family lawyer, Mr de Lange, rejected suggestions that her education would suffer. "Where do you learn more, on a two-year trip or at high school?" he said.

The judges said that they believed that Laura's "psychological development and her health could be endangered" if she was allowed to depart as scheduled next month. "She would be confronted with difficult situations that will challenge her mentally and physically," they said.

The court decided not to forbid the trip, or remove her from her father's home, until it heard the psychological reports in October. Laura's German mother is reported to have given her approval to the voyage.

Mr de Lange said that Laura would still go ahead with the trip if the court gave its go-ahead in October (when she will be aged 14). She would probably start her journey in Portugal to avoid autumn storms in the Bay of Biscay.

If she completes the round-the-world trip, Laura would break the youth record that was set on Thursday by the 17-year-old British yachtsman, Mike Perham who completed the 28,000-mile trip in nine months.

What would happen in Britain?

*It is critical to balance a young person's right to make choices with the need to protect them from harm. Young people mature at different rates but it is generally assumed under British law that once they have reached age 16 they are competent to make most decisions for themselves.

At age 13, the issue is more complex as at this age, the young person may not fully appreciate the dangers of his or her choices. Under British law, parents remain responsible for their child however competent and capable the child may be. There is, therefore, a duty on parents and on society as a whole to ensure that a young person does not suffer serious harm.

The judgement of the Dutch court in this case, to order temporary guardianship by the state until Laura Dekker's competence can be assessed, seems to be a sensible and balanced decision.

However capable and mature the young person may be, it is right to make as sure as possible that the task she wishes to undertake will not result in her suffering serious harm of whatever kind.

Julia Thomas, senior solicitor for the Children's Legal Centre