Child protection saves lives, but there are still shortcomings in the implementation of children’s rights.
Training organised by the University of Tampere brings child protection professionals together to create new work methods.
Is it important to listen to a small child when adults are making decisions concerning him or her?
This question was posed to Helena Inkinen from the child welfare organisation Pesäpuu when she talked to judges, lawyers, social workers, trustees and other child welfare practitioners at the University of Tampere in March.
The question was already familiar to Inkinen.
“Involving the child in decisions that concern him or her does not mean that the child decides everything. However, when an adult makes decisions about the child, those decisions are made based on who the child is and what he or she needs,” Inkinen says.
“One must listen to the child in order to know what they need,” Inkinen continues.
In her talk, Inkinen wanted to remind her audience that every child lives his or her unique childhood, even when placed into care. For example, long processing times in the Administrative Court leave children and teens feeling vulnerable and insecure due to the long wait for a decision about their future.
Children who are taken into care often find themselves being displaced when their affairs are dealt with. They feel that they are not heard or consulted with during the various stages of their custody case.
“There is still much to do in Finland to implement the rights of the child. We need more co-operation between different professional groups so that the child does not disappear in the structures and adult working practices,” Inkinen explains.
A major problem in the custody process is the lack of co-operation between professional groups; more specifically, professional groups often do not know what each other are doing. For example, one professional may erroneously assume that another professional has explained certain things to the child.
This means that children may face several adults who give apparently conflicting information, as the adults all speak from their own point of view.
Such unorganised practices inevitably affect the child.
“It eats away at the child’s confidence in a system that he or she must trust,” says Laura Kalliomaa-Puha, associate professor of social law at the University of Tampere.
“I personally believe that it also undermines their confidence in society, and this can have very bad consequences,” Kalliomaa-Puha says.
A social worker plays a key role in the life of a child placed into care. Inkinen says that a change of social worker is a problem for the child.
The daily lives of children in care are supported by many different adults, but the social worker is the one person who can make decisions about where the child is placed. The social worker must ensure that the child is placed in a suitable, safe environment.
“How does this happen if the employee does not necessarily even meet the child?” Inkinen asks.
“Building trust is difficult if the social worker assigned to the case changes. In the worst case, this can happen many times a year,” Inkinen says.
There are often natural causes for employee turnover. The social and health sector is female-dominated, which means that many employees temporarily leave their jobs when they have children. Job descriptions may also change.
Social workers are also under great pressure. Last autumn, a thousand social workers and students signed a petition calling on municipalities and cities to intervene in under-funded child protection services and create conditions for high-quality social work.
In the words of the petition, “Having forty, sixty, or even up to eighty children per social worker is unsustainable when the clients are children whose situations are seriously compromised and unsafe.”
Change can arise when the different professional groups gather to design new work practices.
This year, Tarja Pösö, professor of social work, and Laura Kalliomaa-Puha are organising unique, multidisciplinary training in order to bring together child welfare actors to consider how to improve the position of children in care.
The training is based on the European Union-funded IDEA project (Improving Decisions through Empowerment and Advocacy), which investigates the implementation of children’s rights. A survey was conducted to investigate the views and knowledge of child welfare professionals on the rights of the child.
Children have the legal right to express their opinions on matters that concern themselves. They have the choice of a means of expression and the right to receive information upon which to form their opinions.
“The rights of the child are part of the legislation and recognised principles in all participating countries, but their application in some difficult contradictory situations in child protection is so demanding that there was a clear need for further training,” says Professor Pösö.
The IDEA study showed that there is room for improvement in Finland in hearing the child. In other countries, the participation of the child was also challenging, especially in custody cases processed in court.
“Even small babies can be observed in order to find out what they want. Lawyers who had not received training in this found it challenging. They said that they did not know how to do it or that the court environment is particularly unsuitable and stressful for the child. Such aspects could be improved with the correct tools,” Kalliomaa-Puha says.
The realisation of the rights of the child may require amending legal practices and changing professional language. In May, the topic of the training is to see whether major child protection decisions should be written differently for children than for adults.
Not only children, but even adults find administrative documents hard to understand. A child who re-reads such documents as an adult and wonders why they could not grow up with their parents needs a clear answer.
“It is really important that the grounds for being placed into care are apparent, understandable and sustainable,” Pösö says.
Both in Finland and elsewhere around the world, people are interested in developing ways of expressing rights. Some of the solutions that have been proposed include telling the child a story in pictures or giving the child a letter written by the judge.
“In order to avoid damaging people, the documents must be made as understandable and as easy to read as possible. These questions should be considered in new ways,” Pösö says.
Placing a child into care is difficult even in clear cases, and the situation is even more difficult when the decision is not unanimously agreed by all members of the family. Administrative courts deal with cases where one or both of the parents or the child do not agree with the custody decision. The decisions often have to be made in contentious circumstances with contradictory information.
In addition to the rights of the child, parental rights are also at stake. Placing a child into care is a heavy blow to the autonomy of the family.
“Even if it seems that the decision to place the child into care is clearly better, making the decision is still quite difficult. The fact that the decision is justified does not help the matter. That’s how deep these decisions go,” Pösö points out.
According to Pösö, the difficulty and demands of such decisions have been largely underestimated. Public debate often maintains that child protection decisions are wrong.
“When you assume the point of view of the judge, the matter looks different. They cannot not make the decisions,” Pösö explains.
She emphasises that care placements are often a matter of life and death, even in Finland.
“Child protection saves lives. Many people who have been placed into care say that they would not have survived without child protection. However, they also say that things could have been done differently in their custody cases,” Pösö adds.
Child custody as the last resort
* In 2016, a total of 10,424 children were placed into care in Finland, a 2.5 per cent decrease on the previous year (Child Protection Statistics 2016 of the National Institute for Health and Welfare).
* Placing a child into care is the last resort that will only be taken when other means of child protection do not help and the child’s development and health are considered to be in serious danger.
* The European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child form the basis for the legislation that children must be heard in matters concerning them.
* An international research project aiming at improving the rights of the child and the integration of the child into child protection decisions.
* Five countries are involved: Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland and Sweden. Social work research at the University of Tampere is the Finnish partner.
* The project is funded by the European Union.
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Pictures: Jonne Renvall