NEWS ANALYSIS: When child protective services get it right
By Tiina Rajamäki
A few years ago I met the two residents of a Helsinki children’s home who had been there the longest. The two brothers were aged 16 and 14. The same institution had been their home for eight years.
The mother was an alcoholic when the boys were born, and nobody knew who the boys’ father, or fathers might have been.
It was the week before Christmas. The two were eagerly waiting to spend Christmas with their mother. At that time all one could do was hope that the mother would have the understanding to be a mother for at least one day.
It was a heart-rendering experience, but at the same time it became clear that these boys were in the right place. I do not know how many reports to child welfare authorities it had taken to get them there, but they were nevertheless in a safe environment.
The boys trusted their caregivers. Their drinking mother and her companions who kept changing were incapable of raising the boys. Most of the residents of the children’s home were from families where substances were abused.
In Helsinki about one in ten children are clients of child welfare. A small proportion of them, about 2,500, have been placed outside the home.
The death of one of them, eight-year-old Eerika, is a topic of discussion at work places, in online chat rooms, and at schools. The discussion is a hot one. And that is all right. Child protection failed miserably in the case of this particular little girl.
The passage of information, the communication among officials, every single report to child welfare services and every single observation of the neighbours need to be clarified thoroughly.
However, at the same time there is reason to take a deep breath and to think about how child protective services operates when it functions well.
The worst that could happen would be for child welfare officials to lose their capacity to make judgements.
The consequence of something like that might be that an unreasonable amount of time would be spent on dealing with reports motivated, for instance, by revenge by an estranged parent against the former spouse, or a quarrel among neighbours.
Child welfare workers know of cases in which child welfare reports are used as weapons in custody disputes, for instance. In such cases the motivation for a report could be that an ex spouse is known to have consumed a bottle of strong cider.
In the Eerika case people have been urged to intervene in the bad treatment of children, even if the alarm turned out to be a false one. This could lead to a flood of reports.
How should the various reports be evaluated according to levels of seriousness? Naturally, it is better to intervene in time, and even erroneously – a visit to the home by social workers can be a wake-up call to parents when they might still be receptive to the idea.
In many municipalities the resources of the social workers, who are lacking in number or inadequately trained, are not sufficient for everything.
How are we to reach those families where things are really serious? Those where children are beaten, those where children really are left without food while the mother keeps drinking, or where the father is lying apathetically on a sofa for a third month?
There is nothing wrong Finnish legislation on child protection. Now the working group set up at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health should examine closely where the cities are where the child protective services function well in practice – both from the point of view of employees and families.
The problem could lie in the degree to which the workers of the social services department of the same city know each other or each other’s tasks, on which ones meet regularly, which ones work in the same office space. It could also depend on when the last time was that school nurses have paid a visit to the social services office.
The caregivers of the children’s home where the two Helsinki brothers whom I mentioned often meet with social workers. However, the caregivers were vexed with a problem that kept repeating itself: the social workers assigned to the boys constantly changed. Going through the background always had to be started again – within the child welfare system.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 9.9.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
homicide of 8-year-old sparks police investigation into possible negligence by child welfare officials (3.9.2012)
Help often comes too late for troubled families (30.4.2012)
Social workers often stressed by work load (7.9.2012)
Former foster child wants child welfare officials to listen more to what children say (5.9.2012)
TIINA RAJAMÄKI / Helsingin Sanomat