Watching from the Wings

A few days before Christmas one of my professors at the University in Vienna asked me to help a friend “with English”. This was in 1973 and the friend was Othmar Roden, the newly elected Secretary General of FICE International. As a young student I was thrilled at the opportunity to get involved in the work of an international NGO though I had not the slightest idea what the International Federation of Children’s Communities was.

I soon learned that ‘children’s communities’ meant children’s homes, or children’s villages, that the children in question were not – as I had assumed – orphans, but didn’t live with their parents “for social or other reasons”.

After translating several documents and letters I first interpreted at a Federal Council (FC) meeting in February 1974 in Vienna. The Council members were, with rare exceptions, men. They wore dark suits and ties, were either government officials or directors of institutions, or both, and appeared to be a small circle of friends reaching out to each other across borders.

We were in the middle of the Cold War and as Othmar Roden relentlessly pointed out, FICE’s greatest asset was that it – as opposed to many other organisations – had among its members several Eastern Bloc countries. They were East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Yugoslavia, a non-aligned country, was also a member. For many of these delegates taking part at FC meetings was their only opportunity to travel to the West, but for many westerners it was also a rare occasion to talk to someone from the other side or to travel to Eastern Europe and see what the situation was like.

Statements made by representatives from Eastern Europe at the meetings and for the record were totally in line with official policy, pointing out repeatedly that all children in their respective countries lived in sheer paradise and were perfectly cared for by the state. At meals, after meetings and at social events things were different. Both sides openly talked about their problems, lack of qualified staff, overcrowded huge homes, old buildings, children in care stigmatised at school, no information on the further lives of care leavers – the list was endless. It seemed to me that – leaving aside the political situation in the member countries – the professional problems at home were similar for all members.

Back then FICE had four Special Commissions, working groups that dedicated themselves to a particular topic. One of these Commissions consisted of care workers and architects trying to work out together the perfect building plans and layouts for residential institutions.

Big institutions, in some cases with several hundred children, were still the standard. In some member countries empty castles, hospital wings, and even barracks were used for this purpose. FICE tried to come up with models for improvement.

One effect of having big children’s homes (with many FC members being directors of such homes) was that FC meetings were for many years held in residential care institutions, with delegates staying in staff rooms given up for the guests, sometimes even in the children’s rooms when they were away on camps or exchange programmes. Children usually welcomed the international guests with songs and gave them small gifts they had prepared. This was not only the case in Eastern Europe, but also, for instance, in Switzerland. There was an ongoing discussion, though, whether this was correct and whether FC members shouldn’t stay somewhere else and “not walk through the homes like walking through a zoo.”

But a new trend had already begun. In 1975 at the Congress in Amsterdam “small living units” and their advantages for children and staff were described and discussed. The concept of simply providing an apartment somewhere in town and have staff and a handful of children live there ‘anonymously’ was widely discussed for its general feasibility. As we know from current care systems the idea has been successful.

For years there had been, sometimes highly emotional, discussions, usually sparked by the French, as to whether children with disabilities would also come under the remit of FICE. In 1978 FICE took the risk of putting the topic of working with disabled children on the agenda of a symposium at Graz. Although the conference was later on often quoted as having been extremely successful, FICE’s chief clientele remained “social orphans” as they were often referred to. There were sometimes children with disabilities among them, but their disability was not the chief reason for their being in care.

The three working languages of FICE, English, French, and German, were taken very seriously. There was interpretation at every meeting, at all social events and during excursions. Representatives of East European countries usually spoke German. With francophone Presidents, Louis François and Raoul Wetzburger, in the seventies and early eighties, French played a leading role. As many delegates spoke only one of the official languages interpretation was crucial. My colleague, Christine, who translated and interpreted from and into French, and I thoroughly enjoyed working at FICE meetings and also between meetings. We felt that our work permitted people to communicate who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to share their thoughts and ideas.

In the International Year of the Child, 1979, FICE held its first Conference in the Republic of Ireland. FICE Ireland mainly consisted of members of religious orders and the international delegates had an opportunity to get a first hand picture of the social situation in Dublin. Visits to residential institutions completed the picture and left a deep impression on the visitors.

One of the key publications of FICE The Socialpedagogue in Europe was compiled and published during those years. The terms ‘social pedagogue’ – or ‘Sozialpädagoge’ in German – were chosen (not to say invented) as neutral terms to solve the terminological chaos prevailing in the field.

FICE Press, based at Zurich, was founded to facilitate the issuing of publications.

The early 1980s brought a change at the top. A newly elected Swiss President, Heinrich Tuggener, was soon joined by a Swiss Secretary General, Franz Züsli, who was employed and paid by the Pestalozzi Foundation.

As a very active and highly professional Secretary General Franz Züsli attempted to recruit new member countries for FICE and invited observers to FC meetings coming from, among others, the United States, the USSR, Jamaica and Norway. Lost sections, such as the UK, were brought back into the fold.

He also sent out quarterly circular letters in the three languages to all members. Considering that these were real letters on paper, typing, copying and mailing them was a significant cost factor, but it was considered worthwhile as it helped to make FICE a tightly-knit network of professionals (both front-line-workers and academics) who strove to move the profession forward.

These were the years of reforms in the child care sector in many countries. There was general agreement in the profession that big institutions with hundreds of children were a thing of the past and should be replaced. Still, the process was a slow one; bureaucracy and a lack of funds worked against speedy change. It also became clear that smaller, specialised units required better trained staff – again a matter of money and also goodwill on the part of providers.

Among the new trends was that parents should be included in working with their children in care. Children’s homes with guest rooms where parents could spend the weekend with their children, as in Denmark or the Netherlands, were viewed with great interest but also with doubt by some FICE members. Some doubted whether such contacts were in the best interest of the child, while others considered such methods too demanding on the staff as the parents would also require support.

There were heated debates at FC meetings trying to define FICE’s role in a changing market. On the one hand it was proudly pointed out that FICE was “the only organisation in the world speaking up for children and workers in homes”; on the other hand homes became fewer and their reputation dwindled (though it had been fairly low to begin with). Should FICE venture into non-residential forms of care?
What effect would this have on the training of care workers? Where would funding come from?

In the early 1980s the FC had decided to change the English name to ‘Federation of Educative Communities’, following a change of the French name, a move that aggravated the identity crisis.

An attempt to come to terms with all the uncertainties was made at the Congress in Malmö and the Malmö Declaration was passed, laying down FICE’s position.
In 1988 a history of the first 40 years of FICE was published and FICE tried to define its identity and the way forward at the Jubilee Congress in Switzerland in the same year. The conference proceedings were presented as a showcase of FICE’s work. Soon afterwards Residential Child Care” – An International Reader, edited by Meir Gottesmann from Israel was issued by FICE in association with the British Social Care Association as an attempt to size up the professional situation in twenty-two countries.

Training was seen as the key concept for the future and several meetings, in particular one in Hadassah Neurim in Israel, were devoted to this topic. David Lane from the UK recognized the importance of a code of ethics for the profession and among other documents worked out such a code which is still in use.

The times of inner uncertainty were paralleled by unimagined political changes in Europe. The fall of the Iron Curtain came widely unexpected and its effects touched FICE like so many people, organisations, and institutions, not only in central and eastern Europe but in fact throughout the world. In autumn 1989 the FC met in Budapest. While we were there streets were renamed and we watched the names of Communist leaders being taken down and replaced by new names.

Prague had been chosen as the venue for the 1990 FICE Congress several years before. Now participants came to see the ‘new’ Prague, to openly exchange views and experience with colleagues from Eastern Europe for the first time, and to discuss with other professionals what the role and standing of (residential) care would be in this new world. Representatives of the FC were invited to a personal meeting with Vaclav Havel, the legendary president – a most memorable experience for the participants and an act of recognition for FICE.

In 1988 Steen Lasson, from Denmark, was elected President and in 1992 Franz Züsli stepped down as Secretary General and was succeeded by Thomas Mächler, a dynamic, young professional on the staff of the Pestalozzi Foundation. The congresses in Luxembourg in 1992 and in Milwaukee in 1994 drew a number of participants from the new countries who enjoyed their freedom to travel but also the freedom to mingle with colleagues and share ideas and visions.

Interest in FICE grew in what used to be called “the East”. Some of the former elderly government employees disappeared and were replaced by young ambitious people who often saw FICE as a launch pad for an international career. This meant that suddenly there were people in FICE who were not necessarily child care workers but lawyers, psychologists, or others trying to fill the vacuum in a field which after the end of communism needed to completely reinvent itself. They contributed important impulses, e.g. relating to children’s rights following the passing of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But they soon moved on, realising that FICE couldn’t do for them what they had expected.

What FICE could and did do was to provide know-how and support to colleagues and decision-makers in the newly emerging child care systems. Staff training seminars were held, children and staff exchange programmes launched; some members engaged in direct advice-giving to ministries, others helped with professional literature and by simply ‘being there’. In my eyes this extremely valuable work went largely unreported – people were too busy working and had no time to write or talk about what they were doing.

Much of it took place on the bilateral level and remained something seen as the work of national sections or individual professionals rather than of FICE International. The approach in most cases was to be careful not to superimpose ‘our’ system on ‘theirs’, but to make sure that something new was created in true partnership and cooperation.

In parallel to these developments a new President, Robert Soisson, from Luxembourg, was dedicated to making FICE a truly international, as opposed to European, organisation. ‘Platforms’ were to be established on other continents using the support and networks of the non-European members. FICE-Europe was launched in 1997 as the first of these platforms but despite continuous outreach work on other continents for years FICE today still has only a few, though quite active and reliable, non-European members, e.g. South Africa, Israel, India, or North America.

Another attempt to increase FICE’s visibility on the international scene was the project ‘Educateurs sans frontières’, or ‘care workers without borders’, aiming at developing a global intervention network to help children after natural disasters or armed conflicts. Although the French section in particular invested a lot of energy and know-how in this project, it couldn’t be implemented.

Amidst these efforts to reposition the organisation in a world where residential care was often considered a thing of the past, FICE was suddenly reminded of its roots. It had been founded after the Second World War to help war orphans and children traumatised by war. In the mid-nineties the war in former Yugoslavia, in particular in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, left the rest of Europe overwhelmed with the problems in the aftermath of the fighting. FICE realised that education for tolerance and peace was a crucial factor in caring for these children and giving them a future and that this was something it could provide.

The Swiss und Dutch sections took the lead and first held Peace Camps outside Yugoslavia, but in the following years in different parts of the former Yugoslavia that had meanwhile become independent countries. The peace camps, accompanied by expert seminars, were renamed ‘friendship camps’ and the newly founded sections in south east Europe took over the organisation of these highly successful events. Finally, FICE held its Congress 2006 in Sarajevo; it was devoted to helping children overcome trauma and prepared the ground for professional help for many children in that part of the world.

These years of great professional challenges were paralleled by challenges to FICE as an organisation. The Pestalozzi Foundation withdrew its financial support at two years’ notice and no longer provided the Secretariat. Thomas Mächler left office in 1998 following the 50th anniversary congress in Paris. His successors each stayed in office only briefly, and for several years, under the Presidency of Theo Binnendijk, from the Netherlands, the office of Secretary General was even vacant. This may have been the reason why – at least in my opinion – the team spirit within the organisation faded and activities were often carried out by national sections or individuals rather than by FICE International. Finally, in 2006 a new Secretary General, the Scotsman Andrew Hosie, was found.

In 2003 ANCE-France, which had played a leading role in FICE for decades, unexpectedly left FICE because of grave internal problems. This marked a dramatic change in FICE’s identity. Suddenly a vast treasure of know-how and experience in the residential sector was lost, as were contacts with francophone countries in Africa, and to international organisations headquartered in Paris and Strasbourg. Some of the lost terrain was made up for by members from French-speaking Switzerland, in particular Rolf Widmer, representing FICE at UNESCO and UNICEF meetings and establishing contacts in Africa.

French, the third official language of FICE – as laid down in the Statutes – ceased to be used at meetings and for most documents. The 2008 Congress was the first FICE Congress with only English and German as Conference languages. Delegates from countries such as Romania, Israel or Luxembourg, had often used French for communication. They had to adapt to the new situation, although in particular the Romanian Section still continues to draw attention to the Statutes and the fact that FICE has three official languages.

During the first decade of the new millennium efforts were again made to make FICE more visible and distinct at the international level. David Lane suggested and founded an Editorial Board to help FICE issue professional publications. Residential Child Care and Its Alternatives was published, which met with broad interest internationally, showing that there is a vast professional potential among the members of FICE.

David Lane also arranged for the publication of Families and Care: reflections on the first sixty years of FICE covering the time from FICE’s founding in 1948 up to the 60th anniversary Congress in Helsinki in 2008.

The congress in 2010 in Cape Town opened up many new perspectives to participants, and brought contacts with courageous, inspired colleagues from Africa, and with new networks based on innovative methods and strong beliefs.

In all its efforts, involving projects, publishing or training, FICE appears to be constantly searching for its identity, for its place in the concert of international organisations. When reference is made to children’s homes in the media today it’s tragically almost only with reference to the cases of abuse that have recently become public, the claims for damages, and the search for the culprits. The public image of children’s homes has never been good, but in my eyes it has deteriorated even further over the past few years.

Another factor depreciating the work with children in institutions is the ongoing economic crisis. It’s definitely cheaper for governments to place children with foster families or leave them with their original families and provide some outside support, than to place them in residential homes. Considering the public opinion on the matter, politicians can only win, if on the one hand they save money and on the other save children from a life in residential care.

It will probably take some time for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction and make us realise that traumatised children, survivors of sometimes unimaginable violence and neglect, need help from well-trained, professional care workers if they are to come to terms with their past, no matter how caring and well-meaning some foster parents may be. But, as already mentioned, it’s also a financial question and sadly enough, children in need aren’t society’s highest priority when it comes to spending money.

But FICE is constantly reinventing itself. With new member organisations, recently e.g. from Spain or Kenya, or with a change of generations in long-standing member countries there will always be new impulses and fresh ideas. And the fact that the current Secretary General, Bettina Terp, is from Austria, just as Othmar Roden was, under whom I started my life in the organisation, makes me look into the future of the organisation with a smile, with confidence and with immense personal gratitude for the years that FICE shared with me.

Helga Stefanov has worked as an interpreter for FICE since 1973 and she has therefore had an unparalleled view of the discussions and developments in international child care, but especially in Europe, over nearly forty years. Until her recent retirement she was a Professor in the Department of Social Work at FH Campus Wien – University of Applied Sciences, in Vienna, where she taught on Intercultural Communication, Comparative Social Work, Social Work as a Human Rights Profession and the Language of Social Work (German/English). She was also co-coordinator and evaluator of several European projects.

Courtioux, M., Jones, H.D. et al. (1981). Leben mit andern als Beruf – der Sozialpädagoge in Europa,
FICE-Inter. Vienna.
Courtioux, M., Jones, H.D. et al. (1984). The Socialpedagogue in Europe – Living with others as a profession,
FICE-Inter. Zurich.
ISBN 3-905607-01-8

FICE-Inter. (1988). Children’s Communities – Residential Child Care – Community Care 1948 – 1988. Zurich.
ISBN 3-905607-05-0

Gottesmann, M. (Ed). (1991). Residential Child Care – An International Reader, Whiting & Birch Ltd in association with FICE. London.
ISBN 1-871177-17-0

Peters, F. (Ed). (2007). Residential Child Care and Its Alternatives: International Perspectives, Trentham Books in Partnership with FICE. Stoke-on-Trent.
ISBN 978-1-85856-409-8

Shaw, R. (Ed). (2008). Children, Families and Care: reflections on the first sixty years of FICE, Trentham Books in Partnership with FICE. Stoke-on-Trent.
ISBN 978-1-85856-445-6

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