It is said that the Nordic countries are world leaders in child welfare. Still, the number of Finnish children who are clients of child protection services has trebled over the past fifteen years. Likewise, during the same period of time, the number of children and young people placed outside the home has increased year after year. In the early 1990s, the Finnish economy went through a particularly deep economic recession (Harrikari & Satka 2008) and, because of this, basic social services for families with children were cut in all areas of social welfare, from maternity clinics to home-help service to youth work. Although Finland still is a welfare state and among the richest countries in the world, the relative number of children living under the poverty line has trebled between 1990 and 2004. These are some of the background facts for the total reform of child welfare legislation.
The New Act
In February last year the Parliament of Finland passed a new Child Welfare Act and it came into force 1 January 2008. The earlier Act from 1983 was more or less a skeleton law – it gave no precise instructions to the authorities on when or how to intervene. There was a strong and publicly expressed wish to have a law that would tell local authorities how to engineer child welfare services, tell child protection workers how to carry out child protection and tell the clients and the officials more precisely what their respective rights and duties are on child protection issues. The Act was reformed as a part of an extensive Development Programme for Child Welfare that was carried out by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.
The new Act is, indeed, much more exact and detailed than its predecessor. There are several new obligations for the authorities and the Act also introduces new statutory duties and new measures and practices for child protection work. The main principles of Finnish child welfare and child protection work that the Act emphasises (which are some kind of beacons for the actual work with families and children) are:
– effective early intervention,
– the systematic nature of the work, i.e. plans for everything and for every level of the work,
– a target-oriented way of working,
– equality for all clients regardless of their sex, age, origin, language, religion etc., and
– the right timing for all interventions and measures, whether small or big.
The co-operation of all the municipal authorities in child welfare and protection issues – in preventive work as well as the actual child protection – is also strongly emphasised. The responsibilities of the local authorities are clarified in the Act. Furthermore, improving the rights of the child as well as the parents, particularly in the decision-making processes, is an important principle.
The core values of the Act are, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best interests of the child and respect for the responsibilities, duties and rights of the parents or other legal guardians of the child. Along with the protection of the child, participation is being strongly emphasised. There is one whole chapter and several new sections that define how the child must be heard in child protection procedures and how the child must be allowed to influence matters concerning him/herself. There is an overall obligation for child protection staff to work directly with the child and to find out his/her views and interests during the whole child protection process.
This is not a new duty; the 1983 Act also had a strong emphasis on child-centeredness. Nevertheless, and despite the known benefits of direct social work with children, it is a real challenge to ensure the child’s participation and involvement in planning and conducting the work processes. In Finland there has been a strong tendency to frame social problems associated with children as family problems, with interventions to support the parents or the family as a whole rather than the child alone (Hearn et al. 2004). Although this mode of action is slowly breaking down, the ways of working (or not working) with and engaging children still vary greatly across the country.
Access for Social Workers
The new Act enables social workers and other child protection workers to work independently with the child regardless of the permission or consent of the parent. Naturally, the main rule is to work in agreement and in collaboration with the family as long as possible, but there are precisely defined exceptions.
It is possible for child protection workers to meet the child personally in order to find out how the child is doing even if the parent explicitly forbids this. If professionals are extremely concerned about the child’s behaviour and well-being but the parents refuse to see that something might be wrong, social work authorities can make an application to the regional administrative court to get permission to examine the child without parental consent.
It has been possible to apply for a guardian in child protection cases in Finland since 2001 when the Act on the Status and Rights of Social Welfare Clients entered into force. It has, however, been a rarely used possibility, and only after several child welfare organisations started their project on Guardianship in Child Protection in 2005, run by Save the Children Finland, has the role of guardians increased.
According to Section 22 of the new law, a guardian must be appointed for a child, so that the child’s right to be heard is ensured and to protect his/her interests, but on special grounds only. First, there must always be an apparent conflict of interest between the parent and child (for example when the parent is suspected of abusing or sexually abusing the child) and, secondly, there must be grounds to assume that the parent will not be able to act in the best interests of the child in the matter.
A completely new obligation is the assessment of the child’s needs at the very beginning of the work process. The Finnish model is loosely based on the English Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families and the somewhat similar Swedish Barns behov i centrum, which also has its roots in the English model but is adjusted to the Swedish child protection system.
Actually, some local authorities and some child welfare organisations in Finland have been developing their own assessment models and the model that was included in the Act is a synthesis of all the above-mentioned. For the first time the Finnish authorities now have deadlines for non-judicial child protection procedures. Social workers have to do the initial assessment of the child’s situation and needs during seven working days after receiving a notification of the child. The actual assessment (the “core assessment”) must be done within three months.
The new Act aims to improve the support needed by children and their families by ensuring the availability of local services in what we call non-residential or community care (open care), for example providing financial support to the child and the family, providing housing, hobby activities, guidance and counselling etc. The Act requires the municipal councils to make a detailed plan about how to organise, monitor and develop child welfare and child protection support and services. The plan has to be revised at least every four years.
The Act also lays down provisions for urgent placement, taking children into care, substitute care, restriction measures and after-care. Likewise, the Act includes provisions on supervision, judicial processes and appeal. In the Finnish child protection system, taking a child into care can be voluntary or involuntary. If taking a child into care is based on consent, the decision can be made by local child protection officials.
The decision-making concerning taking children into care involuntarily was complicated under the old Act: the decisions were first made in the municipal board of social affairs and were then submitted to the regional administrative courts. Now the decisions are made directly in the administrative courts. This reform is supposed to strengthen the rights and legal protection of all parties concerned.
As we all know, legislation by itself is usually not enough to make a difference. We have to be willing to revise our attitudes and values as well in order to make significant changes in policy and practice. Finnish local authorities enjoy a strong, self-governing status and thus their role is crucial in the implementation of the law. Child welfare (and even less child protection) has seldom been the primary concern for local councils. Because of this the level and quality of child protection services has been very uneven in different municipalities and regions in Finland.
The new Act with its more precise duties, definitions and time limits will probably strengthen the goal of equality and help the local and regional authorities all over the country to standardise their services. Moreover, it will, hopefully, give children and families a better idea of what child protection is all about and help them understand what is likely to happen (and why and how it is supposed to happen) if you become a client of the child protection services.
Päivi Sinko is a child welfare instructor at the Palmenia Centre for Continuing Education, University of Helsinki.
Jeff Hearn, Tarja Pösö, Carole Smith, Sue White & Johanna Korpinen: What is child protection? Historical and methodological issues in comparative research on lastensuojelu/child protection. International Journal of Social Welfare, January 2004 – Vol. 13 Issue 1 pages 28–41
Mirja Satka & Timo Harrikari: The Present Finnish Formation of Child Welfare and History. BJSW Advance Access published online on April 15, 2008. British Journal of Social Work, doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcn037
 About the difficulty of translating the Finnish concept lastensuojelu into either child welfare or child protection in English, see Hearn et al. 2004