Heading to Helsinki to take the leap of co-working
This is a post by Sarah Phillimore. You may also be interested in this post about child protection in Finland.
From 9 – 13 June I went to Helsinki to be part of the conference #Nordic2015. The theme was Courage in Social Work. Wearing my CPR hat, I gave a presentation about ‘The Courage to Communicate’ and heard presentations from Finnish groups who worked with families to support them in the community.
I also took the opportunity to have a look round Helskinki. It was interesting to note that at the cafes you would often find jugs of water and glasses. The thirsty traveller can refresh himself without cost. In England – at least in my experience – water is rarely freely offered and when requested often brought grudgingly or not at all. It struck me that this little thing was actually emblematic of a much wider gulf between our two societies, and that these different attitudes must inevitably play out in our respective approaches to child protection.
In England, the message seems to be – take responsibility for your own thirst. Buy some water or carry it with you. Why should you expect anyone else to bail you out for your own laziness or lack of foresight? If you are thirsty, that is your fault and you must take the blame.
Whereas in Helsinki there seems to be more of a recognition that life is simply nicer for everyone if we come out of our individualistic bubbles and work collectively to take care of each other. Rather than waste energy arguing over who should have provided the water, just make it available without fuss.
If you think my example is too whimsical, have a look at how Norway deals with children who kill children and compare and contrast with the response to the children who killed James Bulger. Consider again the relentless hunt for ‘someone to blame’ after Peter Connolley was killed – that ‘someone’ being exclusively amongst the social workers. As the Guardian commented about the killing of Silje Redergard in 1994:
But perhaps the most significant difference was that, in Britain, the authorities decided to let the nation judge the child killers. Trying Thompson and Venables as adults and releasing names and mugshots unleashed a countrywide roar of anguish that can still be heard today – much to the disadvantage of any damaged child who behaves badly to another, and who needs help rather than “justice”.
We are out of step with Europe
There is little doubt in my mind that the UK is increasingly out of step with other European countries and our approach to protecting children and supporting families, and there is a real risk that we end up doing precious little of either.
The courage to communicate
I first spoke on behalf of the CPR site about the courage to communicate. To say that it takes courage to speak the truth is both distorting and inhibiting, it makes the truth something to be feared. However, when that distortion and inhibition has already taken hold, courage is needed because you are trying to speak hard truths, that your listener may not want to hear.
I spoke of Atul Gawande, the American surgeon who recognised that as a young doctor he did not have the courage needed to tell his terminally ill patients that they were going to die and instead risked giving them false hope by talking of possible treatments which in reality would not help at all. I suspect the same fear – of not wanting to upset someone or make them angry with you, or having to admit that we just don’t have the resources available to help – is behind the cloaking of much of our attempts to communicate in the child protection field in terms of jargon and euphemism, which parents just cannot understand.
Social work and the work of family lawyers, is about human beings talking to other human beings, being interested in and concerned for the welfare of those other humans. If we cannot communicate, distrust arises, which leads to fear and anger. All hope of a constructive relationship is lost. I spoke about the work of the CPR site and what we were trying to do to improve communication – by speaking hard truths plainly but hopefully with compassion.
The culmination of this work was of course the conference on June 1st – is the Child Protection System Fit for Purpose? I spoke about how surprised and pleased I had been at the number of people who came from such different walks of life and how the parents who came were also so happy to be able to speak in a room full of professionals without feeling judged or ashamed.
I hoped that what we had discussed at this conference would continue to be part of an ever forward moving project to promote continued communication and continued change for the better. It was very interesting to hear from some of the parents that the conference had made them think about their own attitudes to social workers and what they needed to change. But it sadly confirmed just how deep are the current levels of distrust and fear between families and professionals.
What’s happening in Finland to improve communication between parents and professionals?
I then listened to very interesting presentations from two groups that work with parents and children in Finland. The key message was how parents and children are engaged to work with the process.
Finland seems far ahead of the UK in its willingness to recognise the continuing importance in the child’s life of loved family members. The view is that care away from families should be for a short time and that children should go home – adoption is currently not possible in Finland.
(EDIT – this is what I was told by the Finnish delegates, but it does not seem to be true! Please see this post by Claire Fenton Glynn. I will attempt to find out more and clarify this position. Edit 9th August 2015, Claire Fenton Glynn clarifies the position in this post.)
But if a child can’t go home, the family remains important. There was also recognition that professionals should not be ‘gate keepers’ to a child’s participation in the system; they should ask the child if he/she is ready to participate.
The Lahemmas (‘closer’) project is part of the Pesapuu organisation, which is a nationwide child welfare association bringing expertise to the field of child welfare. Lahemmas seeks to enhance the recognition of family relationships in child protection in Finland. Its goals are:
- to promote the relationships of children and their loved ones and their right to be heard
- to reinforce expertise of experience in developing child protection
- to provide support for children and families to cope with the help of relatives and other important people
- to find solutions in child protection based on the help and support of people close to the child.
- to create new child-orientated methods in social work which take parents, relatives and people close to a child into account.
With regard to parents, the group Voikukkia (‘Dandelions’ or ‘can bloom’) was set up in the early 2000s when it was discovered that the parents of placed children often remained without support and were left alone to deal with the crisis of that removal. The group recognises the shame parents can feel when their child is in care and are determined that no one should feel alone in the process.
The group’s objectives are:
- to justify and convince others about why parental support after custody removals is important and worthwhile. The parent’s own voice is a crucial element in this.
- to disseminate their proven peer support group methods, so that Voikukkia peer support groups would be available to all who need it.
- to train professionals and experienced parents of the group to become the peer support group facilitators, as well as better identify the need for assistance of families in crisis.
Voikukkia now has more than 200 trained instructors in different parts of Finland and has published a book about parents’ experiences.
Take the leap of co-working
Both groups promote engagement between children, parents and professionals. At first, ‘co-working’ with families had seemed like an impossible step but now in Finland it is difficult to think of developing the child protection system without the parents and children having input and we were urged to ‘take the leap of co-working’ – this struck an immediate chord with those following the CPR twitter feed in the UK and was the most re-tweeted comment from the session.
This is very far from my own experience as a lawyer at the adversarial end of the child protection system but clearly brings with it enormous benefits. I am interested to keep exploring the Finnish model and hope to bring some of the speakers over to #CPConf2016 – watch this space.