Barbara Muller

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2017
This description of Barbara Muller's work was prepared when Barbara Muller was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .


Barbara Muller is dedicated to the development bonding of primary caregivers to babies at risk, particularly during delivery and in the first few months of the newborn’s lives through two new ideas: Het Babyhuis (‘The Baby House’), offering a safe and supportive home to mother and newborn, and De Beschermde Wieg (‘The Protected Cradle’), a foundling room geared towards future reunification possibilities and support for mother and child.

The New Idea

Barbara believes that all mothers should be given the opportunity to care for their newborn and work towards a safe and independent future. Based on this conviction she founded ‘Het Babyhuis’ and De Beschermde Wieg, targeting heavily pregnant women and mothers with newborns at risk of being separated, or in circumstances which could lead to harm or even the death of their child. These are women who are not served by the public services due to a variety of reasons, such as illegality or waiting lists, or the women’s fear of being found due to the threat of honour killing, or the fear of being perceived unfit for parenthood.
Het Babyhuis gives mothers at risk, who cannot or do not dare to access the public youth care institutions, an opportunity to stay in a safe place and receive support in taking care of their baby. The women experience what it is like to raise a child in a warm, supportive family setting and are empowered by increased confidence, skills and opportunities, enabling them to take care of their lives. Het Babyhuis is the only place mothers can get support – without being ‘registered’ at the official Dutch Youth Institute- and a place to stay at no or very low cost. The second social enterprise set up by Barbara, De Beschermde Wieg, offers foundling rooms where mothers can anonymously leave their baby for adoption in a safe and warm cradle. Mothers can also forego the possibility to stay anonymous and request support, while still giving up their baby for adoption but with the possibility of reunification in the future.
These initiatives keep at-risk babies alive and physically well, invaluable support with the primary focus on creating a parent to baby attachment, fundamentally impacting the child’s development for the rest of its’s life. The innovation lies in the carefully navigating of the laws that forbid to ‘leave your child behind anonymously’ and the right of a child to ‘know it’s identity’. Eveline van Vugt, who researches the impact of the concepts, calls De Beschermde Wieg unique in its kind: using disobedience to achieve her goals, subsequently involving the media and stirring up the public debate. She considers Het Babyhuis a frontrunner in the engagement of parents. Public services maintain a professional, distant relationship and also do not have support for mothers and their children. There are some services for teen mums, but beyond that phase, there is no support or anywhere to turn too.

The Problem

The Dutch youth care system is based upon the right of children to grow up in a healthy and safe environment. This right can, however, not always be met: 16% of all children have parents with a psychological disease or a severe substance addiction, and 119.000 children are physically or mentally abused every year. By 2015, 6 of every 1000 children were placed under supervision, which means that although the child lives at home parental authority is limited and a guardian is appointed for supervision. Over the past ten years, the number of children placed in custodial care and therefore were removed from their home has almost doubled to 9.000 a year. These are children whose parents cannot take care of them, who are neglected or abused. Although placing a just born baby in custodial care is a decision rarely taken due to the right to family life of every child, the Raad van Kinderbescherming (Council for Child Protection) estimated that since 2008 an average of 100 children a year is placed under supervision even before they are born. Het Nederlands Jeugd Instituut (The Dutch Youth Institute) studied the consequences of supervised, custodial, foster and crisis care through an analysis of various academic fieldwork investigations, and concluded: “The effects on children placed in care are contradictory”. Some reports indicate positive results, whereas others indicate no or negative results. What is apparent, though, is that many children removed from their family home face enduring emotional and social behavioural issues.
Research shows that the relationship between primary caretaker and child is vital for an infant’s overall development. This relationship starts with bonding, which is the attachment a primary caregiver feels for the child. The mother usually develops feelings and a sense of connection with their baby before birth, and the weeks after birth. This feeling of love and security increases the healthy development of the baby. However, bonding does not come naturally to everyone. The bonding process can be affected due to life events, such as an unwanted pregnancy, homelessness, financial or relationship difficulties. This bond of love of the parent to their baby goes hand-in-hand with building a secure attachment later on with the baby: feeling a strong bond with a child facilitates the development of a secure attachment. Contrary to bonding, which is the connection the primary caregiver feels for the child, a secure attachment refers to the emotional connection that develops between them. Bonding is therefore a one-way-connection, whereas attachment is a two-way relationship that develops in due time. The impact of early life experiences is, however, larger than those acquired in later life. It’s the earlier life experience that imprints the brain and creates the foundations of feelings, thinking and therefore acting.
A lack of emotional safety affects the brain development of a child. In particular, the part of the brain associated with the capabilities of intimate and social relationships will develop fewer brain connections. Insecure attachment leads to incompetence in social interactions. Since the child does not understand social rules and does not sense what is and what is not acceptable, it shows deviating behaviour. There might be issues in trusting others and accepting authority or less self-esteem. Children can show impulsive behaviour, or quite the opposite, be passive with anti-social tendencies or depression. Furthermore, the child can develop a phobia for school, have behavioural problems, compulsive attempts to independence or suicide. In short, attachment is necessary for a healthy mental, physical and emotional development. Nevertheless, the current youth care system does not facilitate the development of a form of attachment between parents and children at risk. Children are increasingly placed into custody, often moving from one place to another, eventually ending up in an institution when there is no improvement in the home situation.
Barbara views the absence of bonding and attachment as the cause of many child related problems in the Netherlands. At the moment, there is a lack of support for pregnant women who cannot apply for help at the regular governmental services. They are scared to ask for help because they feel threatened or are afraid to lose their parenting right. This is often the case when faced with a possible honour killing, or when rape, psychological issues or substance abuse are at play. As argued by Barbara, many babies are taken away from their primary caretaker(s) before the opportunity is presented to prove that they are ready for parenthood. Previous assessments pointing towards ‘probably unfit’ will suffice for such a decision. With Het Babyhuis Barbara has found a way to prevent unnecessary separation and a nurturing space where caretakers are supported in bonding with their babies and are provided with a solid base (motivation, skills, resources, opportunities) to develop an emotional attachment between them and their baby.
However, sometimes it is too late for some. Every year 1 to 2 foundlings are found alive, whereas another 5 to 6 are found dead. Specialists assume these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, as these are just the known cases. The NIDAA, short for ‘Netherlands Institute for the Documentation of Anonymous Abandonment’, has made an estimated guess of the number of Neonaticides (that is, the murdering of a child by a parent during the first 24 hours of life). Based on field research in three French regions, they calculated that for the Netherlands it would be between 3,3 to 4,4 killings per year. Neonaticide can refer to both the act of killing as a lack of acting resulting in death. Exact statistics on baby killings are impossible to provide since these babies have often not been registered and there is hardly any other proof of their existence. Also, since the skeleton of a baby does not preserve well, hidden remains might never be found. NIDAA reports that in the period between 2006 and today, a definite number of 16 foundlings and 42 baby corpses could be definitely reported. This is the problem De Beschermde Wieg is tackling, preventing such life-threatening situations and standing up for mothers at risk and newborns without a voice. De Beschermde Wieg offers mothers the possibility to leave their just born baby in a safe room, often in a hospital.
In many European countries, such as France and Germany, mothers can give birth and leave their child anonymously. In the Netherlands, however, leaving your child in a place where it is likely to die or anonymously leaving your child are considered to be serious crimes. Depending on whether the baby was injured or died as a consequence of being placed as a foundling, the biological parents face punishment varying from 7 to 12 years’ imprisonment with a fine up to 82.000 euros. In case the mother placed her baby as a foundling in fear of others discovering her birth, the jail sentence will be decreased by half, and the fine will be a maximum of 20.500 euros.
At the De Beschermde Wieg a mother can enter a safe and warm environment where she can reflect upon her decision till the last moment, even request for support and consider to leave information behind for future reunification. The services of De Beschermde Wieg are perceived as not formally legal, but since Barbara is targeting underserved mothers for whom the system does not have an adequate solution, they are tolerated. The NIDAA (Dutch Institute for the Documentation of Anonymous Abandonment) contests that the activities of De Beschermde Wieg are illegal. According to them, it is illegal to place a child as a foundling, but it is not illegal to accept a foundling. Further, it is illegal to leave a child in a dangerous position. But, since the foundling rooms are safe and warm with a button to request help and a system alarming when a foundling is placed in the cradle, this is not the case. Another argument why it is perceived illegal is because the law states that everyone has the right to know who their parents are. But again, the NIDAA posits that studies have shown that extending contact between mother and child increases the chance for the mother to change her mind and leave her personal details or ask for help. Contrary to the baby hatches where the contact between mother and baby is abruptly terminated since the door is locked to prevent child theft, the foundling room is a place where mother and child are together. According to Kerstin van Tiggelen from the NIDAA, this makes De Beschermde Wieg unique in its kind and maybe even ingenious.

The Strategy

Having witnessed the inability of the youth care system to ensure safe family settings in which children are treated rightfully, Barbara Muller founded Het Babyhuis and De Beschermde Wieg. The core problems Barbara is tackling are the unnecessary separation of mother and child with babies ending up in foster homes, a lack of bonding between parent and child in one of the most formative phases of a child’s life, and at worst: infant deaths.
The strategy of both De Beschermde Wieg and Het Babyhuis is to convince the Netherlands and those in charge of the legal and political policies, to adapt their policies and amend the current flaws of the youth care system. As mentioned by Ashoka Fellow and early child development expert, Terri Rose: “By focusing on a population that was unrecognized by the government, she may have a unique opportunity to shift public policies and funding. By working outside of the system, she has an opportunity for proof of concept that would have been more difficult if she was working directly with the Council for Child Protection”. Meanwhile, the concepts offer effective support in improving/-saving options for foundlings, securing a loving parent to child bond and provide a basis for the creation of an attachment between parent and child and offering life improving/-saving options for foundlings.

The components
Het Babyhuis was founded in 2013 and targets parents who are (temporarily) unable to take care of their newborn, but are not served by the Dutch youth care system. Alternatives for these mothers are foster care or adoption, which means no (or very limited) relationship building between the baby and mother, or staying in the situation they are in, risking their wellbeing. Het Babyhuis is the only place in the Netherlands offering babies and mothers a place to stay and the opportunity to connect and take care of their child and build a sense of attachment during this critical phase, anonymously (without being registered at Dutch Youth Institute) and at low/no costs (hence accessible). Great emphasis was placed on creating a non-judgemental, warm and homely environment, where (expecting) mothers feel safe and can take a breather, while they are empowered to take care of the essentials in their lives.
Het Babyhuis is a home run 24/7 by volunteers and one full-time employee acting as the constant figure in the mothers and babies lives. There are mother-baby units and a common room where all mothers can come together and experience a safe family setting. The internal mother-baby units are for mothers with a just born baby and expecting women who are offered a place where they can safely deliver their baby. Mothers with a baby are expected to take care of their baby and participate in a support programme consisting of courses, training, and personal meetings. The programme is run by a care team of professionals and has various aims: 1) personal development of the mother, 2) working towards a daily routine (a job or an education), 3) bonding with the baby and providing the foundation for attachment with the baby, 4) getting a new home, and 5) developing a solid financial situation. Additionally, there is 24/7 support for women in need of it. There are also external mother units for mothers who have a home and are able to take care of themselves, but not of their baby. In those cases, the baby stays at Het Babyhuis while the mother visits on agreed times to take care of her child. The women also participate in the support programme and like the rest of the women, receive a personal plan based on their specific needs and issues that need to be resolved. Although the main communication focuses on caretaker and baby, Het Babyhuis always includes other children the women might have. They are also welcome at Het Babyhuis and are offered shelter and support.
Since its foundation, Het Babyhuis has helped 62 pregnant women and mothers. 60% of these women were not eligible for any form of help offered by the Dutch youth care system; 30% came to Het Babyhuis due to a shortage of capacity at the public youth care institutions. These women were all referred to Het Babyhuis by the regular institutions. The remaining 10% are women who come directly to Het Babyhuis, mostly because they fear having their baby taken away or because of fear of an honour killing.
De Beschermde Wieg is an organisation that runs foundling rooms. Barbara opened the first foundling room on the second of September in 2014. Different from a baby hatch, Barbara’s foundling rooms are physical rooms with an inviting cradle. The mother can place her child in the cradle and take the time to say goodbye in a private setting. There are (multi-lingual) brochures in the room with information about the various possibilities she has: she can hand over the care of her child, change her mind and keep her child, or stay at Het Babyhuis with her child. Because of the safe environment of the foundling rooms and the brochures with information, the mother is stimulated to leave her personal information (which is deposited at a notary office) so that later, reconnecting the mother and child remains possible. The foundling rooms have phones to enable the mother to call anonymously and tell her story or ask questions. Mothers can also call the organisation to gather information or to have someone to listen to them. When the mother leaves the foundling room, she leaves with a puzzle piece that perfectly matches the puzzle piece that is left with her baby. With this piece, the first step to identify the biological mother is safeguarded in case the mother changes her mind and wants to take care of her baby. The time frame in which mothers can change their mind is much longer than usual, namely up to 6 months. Youth care services only allow a time frame of 3 months, and even if the mother changes her mind, it is often hard to convince youth care services that she is emotionally stable and capable of taking care of her child. Once the baby is left in the foundling room, he or she will be placed in a foster home where there is an opportunity for the baby to be adopted. With this, the constant - as traumatic experienced - moves from one foster home to another are avoided. In cases of siblings, Barbara will ensure that they stay together wherever they go, what rarely can be guaranteed by youth care services. One of Barbara’s Beschermde Wiegen, is hosted and located in a hospital. The conditions offered by De Beschermde Wieg thus greatly differ from regular baby hatches and youth care services and increases the chance of the mother and baby ultimately to remain or get united.
The Organisation and its Business Model
Het Babyhuis and De Beschermde Wieg are not-for-profit organisations. They aim to welcome all, and offer their services free to those who cannot afford to pay. Mothers who receive social benefits from the state, contribute an average amount of € 350 a month to stay at Het Babyhuis. The average costs for mother and child at Het Babyhuis in Dordrecht is €22.170, 67% cheaper than expenses made by similar organisations which are around €67.500. Het Babyhuis started out with the municipality paying for 10% of the costs. The goal is to gradually increase their contribution up to 50% to make it easier to integrate it into regular youth care. Besides the contribution of the municipality, the costs are covered by funds received from sponsors and donors and revenues generated by books written by Barbara are fully donated to the organisations. The books are primarily written to touch and inspire the readers, to share Barbara’s mission and passion. Books she has written so far are: Het Orkest van de Engelen (The Orchestra of the Angels), Liefs van Keet (With love, from Keet), Omarm me (Embrace me), De Babyplanner (The Baby planner) and Kind Zonder Stem (Child without a Voice). Barbara herself does not make any money out of any of her initiatives, her husband is the primary source of her family income. All the revenues of the organisations and books are reinvested into the cause. As for human resources, the organisations work with a care team (f.e. psychologist, baby physiotherapist, legal-financial advisor), volunteers (mostly with a professional background) and one full-time employee who lives in Het Babyhuis and runs the organisations. The ambassadors of De Beschermde Wieg are people who were foundlings. Het Babyhuis and De Beschermde Wieg collaborate with several organisations in the regular youth care sector, who refer clients to them. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) also offers support through interns who engage in a 4-year commitment.

Since “De Beschermde Wieg” was founded in 2014, it saved the lives of seven babies. Het Babyhuis has supported 62 mothers, of which 58 have been successful, allowing the mother to establish a relationship with her child, and providing her with the necessary motivation, skills and opportunities to move on independently, while holding on to the care of her child. The duration of the intake process at Het Babyhuis, in comparison to that of regular aid services, is on average six months shorter. Het Babyhuis has been able to prevent the definite separation of mother and child in 94% of all cases so far, and with this, the negative consequences of a lack of attachment between parents and children as mentioned in research.
In 2016 The University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Het Babyhuis partnered up to research the content of the support programmes and their effects. Both the short (3 moments during the stay) and long term effects (6 and 12 months after the intervention) are studied. The measurements in time are particularly relevant, since although parent to child bonding shows early enough, the quality of attachment can be measured most readily between 9 to 18 months. Therefore, the main aim of the research is to gather further proof as to why Het Babyhuis and De Beschermde Wieg are better alternatives to contemporary practices, to convince the policy makers in charge that things need to change.
Scaling strategy
Within 1,5 years after opening Het Babyhuis it became apparent that it fulfilled a large need: the number of requests exceeded the available spots in the house in Dordrecht, one of the smaller cities in the Netherlands. More municipalities expressed their interest in a baby house. Therefore, plans are currently being made to open two more houses. Barbara envisions to scale nationally in a slow, but steady pace. The policy plan, processes, protocols and manuals are all thought out and written down, making the concepts easy to replicate. Since the start of De Beschermde Wieg in 2014, a total of 7 foundling rooms were opened in the Netherlands. The 7th one, opened December 2016, was the first foundling room ever to be opened in a Dutch hospital (the Isala Ziekenhuis in Groningen).
Barbara’s scaling strategy lies in establishing more baby houses and foundling rooms across the Netherlands so that each and every parent in need can access the services and stay united with their child. She has a strong business case, showing she can deliver services much more efficient than Youth Care Institutions’. Barbara believes it’s only a matter of time that municipalities will cover the majority of the costs, after she’s able to demonstrate the impact and cost efficiency. Although Barbara has set up an effective business model at a considerable lower cost level, there are several obstacles for public youth services to replicate it or take it over. First of all, there is legislation and law prohibiting the provision of services to illegals or leaving your baby anonymously. But there is also the inability to guarantee the safety of women who fear an honour killing.
Hence Barbara’s relentless advocacy to abolish laws and open services for these underserved mothers. She is vigorously spreading her message by appearances in television programmes, coverage in large newspapers and well-known magazines, and writing books. She has become a public figure and is seen as an authority in her field. Barbara’s ability to bring many stakeholders together to discuss and solve very complex issues regarding support (considered illegal by some) to mother and baby in distress, is acknowledged by many. Barbara encourages others to copy her concepts, as long as she convinces others of the urgency of the problem and the need to embrace the idea.
The institutional climate is already showing signs of change. Even though the practice of leaving your child anonymously in the Netherlands is defined as a severe crime, De Beschermde Wieg has been tolerated up to this day. Moreover, The Dutch Children’s Ombudsman (an official appointed to investigate individuals' complaints against a company or organization, a public authority),
Margrite Kalverboer outlined their point of view regarding foundling rooms. What is acknowledged is that according to the UN Children’s right commission, foundling rooms are at odds with the UN convention on the right of a child to know who his parents are (genetic ancestry). Therefore, the UN Children’s right commission urged that the state would take actions against the emergence of baby hatches where babies are left anonymously. After visiting Het Babyhuis and discussing the foundling rooms, the Children’s Ombudsman declared that leaving a child anonymously in a foundling room should not be seen as an acceptable solution to an unwanted pregnancy. The foundling rooms of De Beschermde Wieg stimulate mothers to leave their contact details, which are saved in a safe at a notary office and can be provided to the child as from age 16 if it wants to. Since the Children’s Ombudsman believes that this is a matter of the state and not of a private organisation and a notary firm, they are formally against it. Nevertheless, they state that while the regular system does not reach the women at risk and cannot guarantee their safety, and the consequences of closing down the foundling rooms can also not be predicted, the concept has a function and its existence is justified.
Since Het Babyhuis started as a practice that was merely tolerated, by some considered illegal. In less than 3 years, Het Babyhuis was not considered illegal anymore. The issue has gained widespread attention over the years as Barbara has told her story and explained her mission in various journals, broadcasts, and books. Barbara’s advocacy is leading to a gradual change of the political climate, and an increased awareness that keeping parent and child together with support to develop an attachment outrivals family separation.

The Person

Barbara Muller has been engaged with the topic of children and child suffering as long as she can remember. As a small girl, she could not stand the injustice inflicted on powerless and innocent children and wanted to do something about it. As a teenager, she explicitly remembers saying “When I am older, I will found an orphanage for children in Africa who have nobody anymore in their life”. However, after obtaining a college degree in Tourism and a Masters of Science in business administration, she stepped into the commercial world, leaving her with a feeling of emptiness and the desire to find something with meaning that stood close to her heart. At the age of 27, Barbara wanted to move to Australia but became pregnant and stayed in the Netherlands. Her pregnancy was difficult and heavy as she struggled with low blood pressure and experienced difficulties finding work she was passionate about.
With the arrival of her first daughter, Sophie, all of this changed and Barbara pursued her desire for purpose. As the suffering of children was still too hard for her to deal with, she worked in elderly care in Rotterdam. After some time, a job application in a newspaper caught her eye, and she applied for a position at the Raad van Kinderbescherming (Council of Child Protection). Here, she often witnessed the separation of children, as children were being transferred to foster homes and youth institutions instead of remaining in the safe environment of a family home. As stated by Barbara, brothers and sisters belong together and need to be kept together. Driven by this commitment Barbara moved on. She stumbled upon a news article about “het Dushihuis”, visited this organisation and decided to open her own “Dushihuis” in Dordrecht. A Dushihuis provides a long-term home to children who cannot live at home, and have seen too many foster families already. It is a home where life is celebrated and where brothers and sisters can come together, and biological parents are embraced. A new phase started for her. One that proved to her that if you want something to happen, you just have to do it.
Again, Barbara found herself reading a news article. It was a story about a baby named Cheyenne, a baby who died as a result of abuse inflicted by her (non-biological) mother. The judge sentenced the mother to six months in jail and stated the woman to be: “pedagogically incapable”. These two words have stuck with Barbara ever since: pedagogically incapable. As said by Barbara: “This is the problem, this is the issue that needs to be solved, we need to make more mothers pedagogically capable, pedagogically powerful”. And with this the seed of the idea was planted. A year later Barbara opened Het Babyhuis and the first foundling room.
Barbara is a hands-on person with courage and faith that her ideas will be supported by others with the right intentions. As stated by Barbara, “many sparks lead to a great fire”. She is described as the authority in the field and the person who not only has exposed some serious flaws in the system but has made it a political issue and rippled a social debate on the theme. She has the courage to battle against the established order and show that things can be done differently. Barbara eats and breathes the cause, is intrinsically motivated to continue her crusade until she has achieved her mission to keep parents and children together in a healthy relationship. She has proven to break through barriers and does not give up.