Parenting in Belgium: expats share their stories

US expat Shadae Talebi moved to Belgium in 2006 to marry her Flemish partner, Dimitri Bottelbergs. They live in Leuven with their six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. Despite some initial hurdles, Belgium has become a permanent home for the young family.

“There were times when I considered moving back to America,” Talebi says. “I missed the rest of my family and the culture felt so different. But over time, I realised, Belgium is just a much better and safer place to raise children.”

At the beginning of 2015, Talebi was elected president of the Brussels Childbirth Trust, an organisation that helps expat parents. “I only found out about the BCT when I was pregnant with my son in 2011,” she says. “I wish I’d joined them earlier.”

BCT offers prenatal and postnatal courses as well as a variety of social events such as playgroups, coffee mornings and family get-togethers as well as sales of used items. There’s also a support group for expats who have adopted or are considering adoption, one for those going through divorce or separation, and one for people going through IVF. Although its services are in English, the trust has 1,200 members of 70 nationalities. “We’re all like a big family,” Talebi says. “We share experiences and help each other out.”

Talebi’s goals as president are to reach as many expats as possible and increase the value of the services they offer. “It’s really hard to raise children when you don’t know where to go or who to ask for help,” she says. “BCT is here to assist you, so as parents you don’t have to feel lost in Belgium.”

Adoption

Fellow American Sheryl Krasnow and her Belgian husband, Kris Verhelst, adopted a girl from Ethiopia in 2010, following a series of unsuccessful in-vitro procedures. “Race and origin were of no importance to us,” she says. “We just wanted the experience of being parents.”

In Belgium, couples and single people in heterosexual and same-sex relationships can adopt a child. Domestic adoptions are rare, because relatively few Belgian children are put up for adoption every year – only 20 to 30 in the 6.5 million-population Flemish region, for example. Despite strict regulations, international adoptions remain a popular alternative among prospective parents.

Krasnow and her husband began by visiting the office of the Flemish Centre for Adoption (VCA) in Brussels. In Belgium, each adoption is administered both federally and regionally. As such, if you live in Flanders, you must go through the Flemish system, and in Wallonia, you have to stick to the services offered by the French-speaking community.

The only time you have a choice is if you live in Brussels. “That was the case for us,” Krasnow says. “We speak both French and Dutch so the language wasn’t an issue. We decided to adopt through the Flemish system as they were quicker to get back to us.”

Over the next three months, the couple attended six half-day sessions of a mandatory preparatory course. “Both partners are required to attend the class,” Krasnow says. “We learned about the different development stages of a child and about some of the issues related to adoption, including attachment disorders.”

After the course, the couple had interviews with social workers and psychologists who wrote up lengthy reports that eventually found their way to the juvenile judge who issued the final opinion.  Krasner and her husband were fit to adopt. “It took nine months for all the interviews to take place,” she says. “And then another year before we were called back to the juvenile court to hear the judge’s opinion.”

After the judge gave them the green light, Krasnow and her husband could finally contact an adoption agency. In Belgium, international adoptions are strictly regulated so it’s very uncommon for parents to go through the process on their own. “Since we decided to go with the Flemish system,” Krasnow says, “we could only hire a Flemish agency.”

Applicants are likely to choose an adoption agency that works with the countries that they are suitable for. Some countries require parents to be of the same nationality; others have restrictions on age and religious beliefs. In the case of same-sex couples the available list is shorter still. The process can also get expensive, with some agencies charging between €10 and €15,000, not including travel costs

After making the decision, Krasnow and her husband created a file that proved they would be able to raise a child. They included residence and birth certificates, as well as proof of sufficient income and personal recommendations. Because of a high number of applicants, the file sat at the agency for nearly six months before it was sent to an orphanage in Ethiopia.  All the couple could do was wait.

But then, “one day, you’ll get a phone call from your adoption agency to tell you you’ve been matched with a child,” Krasnow says. “And you will magically forget all the long years of waiting.”

The couple had to appear in court in Ethiopia and returned several months later to finally pick up their daughter. By then, she had been issued a Belgian visa and was able to enter the country on her Ethiopian passport.

Five years on, the family still lives in Brussels. Through Krasnow’s husband, the girl was entitled to Belgian citizenship immediately following the adoption procedure. Two years later, she also became eligible for American citizenship. Once they were together, the Belgian government provided the family with a one-time financial supplement of €1,280 known as prime d’adoption, equal to the prime de naissance offered to all parents who’ve had a child in Belgium.

The girl’s name is Misale, which means ‘example’ in Amharic. She is now seven years old, goes to school and is a happy child. “We’re very lucky and have had a wonderful experience with our daughter,” Krasnow says. But adoptions are always long and complicated, she adds. “And prospective adoptive parents should keep in mind that adoptionsy exist to serve the best interest of the child, and not the parents.”

Separation

Another member of the BCT who prefers to remain anonymous, had lived in Brussels for nearly five years when her husband moved back to their native UK. He left her with their children. “For months he would go back and forth,” she says. “I thought we would work it out for the sake of the children. But in September 2013, when I was in the hospital undergoing medical treatment, my husband filed for separation in the UK.”

While the process was unfolding, the Belgian court took on the issue of assigning custody of their children. In the European Union, a signatory to the Hague Convention, the question of parental responsibility is addressed by the court of the member state in which the children are living at the time of the proceedings. “My husband has tried to appeal against this notion, but I know I’m in the right,” she says. “My children have gone to school in Belgium, and all their friends live here. Yes they were born in the UK, but they don’t even have social security numbers there.”

The court ruled that both she and her husband would retain shared custody. Known as equal responsibility, the ruling has become standard in Belgium since the introduction of a law in 2006 that helps mediate custody disputes. Courts typically only deviate from this joint custody if they have strong reasons to believe it is not in the best interest of the children, or if the parents agree on a different arrangement between themselves. “Both of us can still make decisions about our children,” she says. “It’s just that my husband has never done so. In the past two years, he’s turned up to see the children only once.”

Because all four of her children were declared habitual residents of Belgium, the Belgian court also had jurisdiction over child support. In an effort to make child support more objective, the Belgian Civil Code was amended in 2010 with a list of specific guidelines. “The court essentially adds up how much each parent earns and how much each child costs to determine the most appropriate amount,” she says.

The court asked her to provide a complete breakdown of all the expenses related to the children, such as school fees and the cost of food. “Then the court decided, OK, there are five people in the household now, so the rent should be divided by five,” she says. “The judge worked out how much the children cost me. I didn’t have to do that bit.”

The court ruled that she needed €3,000 a month to raise her four children in a comfortable environment. “After that, the judge added up our incomes,” she says. “At the time my husband earned seventy percent of our total income and I earned thirty. The court simply said that of that €3,000 I would have to pay €900 and €2,100 would have to be paid by my husband.”

Though she has found the entire process “very logical”, it hasn’t quite worked out in her favour. “My husband has already appealed eight times because he doesn’t want to pay any maintenance,” she says. In Belgium, if one of the parents refuses to pay court-ordered child support, the other party has two ways to claim unpaid maintenance. They can either apply to the federal department of maintenance claims, known as Secal in French or DAVO in Dutch, or go to the bailiff. “Secal is a well worked out system,” she says. “Their success rate is high and they also pay you in advance while they go around chasing the husband.”

She says she opted for the bailiff system on the advice of her lawyer. She’s already paid the commission fee and is now waiting for her husband’s final appeals to go through. “In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t gone to the bailiff,” she says. “My lawyer at the time told me that it’s a lot harder for Secal to recuperate money in international cases, but now I know that’s not true. So far my children have received only a fraction of my husband’s share of maintenance.”

To support her children, she works as an educational assistant and takes care of her neighbour’s children for extra cash. Now she is about to take on another job at weekends . “That’s the way you have to survive,” she says. “When you don’t receive maintenance from your husband, you have to think, how am I going to feed my children?”

Child allowance

In Belgium, all children of salaried workers, irrespective of their income, are eligible for child allowance. The amounts paid each month depend on the number of children, their ages, and any disabilities they may have. Altogether, her four children receive about €1,000 a month. One of her children was also given a school supplement known as allocation secondaire, and another will continue to receive the benefits until he turns 25, so long as he remains in education.

Even though her husband retains shared custody, all of the allowance is deposited in her bank account. In Belgium, the father has to apply for child benefits, but it’s the mother who typically receives them, even after a couple separates.

Almost as soon as the separation went through, she received a letter from the social security services in Belgium. “It said that as a separated parent I could potentially receive increased benefits on top of the standard ones my children get every month,” she says. “I didn’t have to seek this out, the government already knew about my family situation and reached out to me.”

For about a year she received the income-based supplement as a single parent. Eventually, she was offered a small pay rise at one of her jobs  that put her above the income threshold, making her ineligible for the extra supplement. “I contacted the social security services and told them that I’m probably not allowed to have it any more,” she says. “It wasn’t a lot of money but it made a difference.”

As a parent on limited income, she also qualifies for Omnio status on her health insurance. This reimburses up to 90% of her family’s health expenses and allows her to buy reduced bus and train tickets. The financial support her children receive is the main reason she’s not thinking about going back to the UK, despite her difficult situation. “As a parent, the first thing I think is what is best for my children,” she says. “Maybe for me it would have been better to move back, but for them, certainly not.”

This article was first published in The Bulletin magazine

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