Dát siidu ii gávdno sámegillii. Sámegiela ovdasiidui

The Child Welfare Service in Norway

Status evaluations, new perspectives and proposed reforms

General recommendations

In this section, the committee will focus on some general issues and proposals. These concern assumptions, values, methods of organization and social factors that influence both political and professional priorities as regards the conditions in which children and young people grow up, and thus the wide range of problems faced by the child welfare service and its possibilities of dealing with these problems.

The purpose of the child welfare service

In the Act of 1992 relating to Child Welfare Services, the purpose of the child welfare service is set out in section 1-1, which reads as follows:

"The purpose of this Act is

  • to ensure that children and young people who live in conditions that may be detrimental to their health and development receive the necessary assistance and care at the right time,
  • to help to ensure that children and young people grow up in a secure environment."

Thus, the Norwegian child welfare service has a dual objective: firstly, to implement measures to provide assistance and care, which primarily means concrete support and assistance in cooperation and in concert with the child’s family. This also entails efforts to determine whether inadequate care is being provided and other deficiencies, and to intervene when parents are incapable of taking sufficient responsibility for their children. Such interventions may include coercive measures.

Secondly, the child welfare service must adopt a preventive approach. Its preventive activity is further elaborated in section 3-1, which specifies that the municipality must monitor closely the conditions in which children live, and be responsible for framing measures to safeguard against inadequate care and behavioural problems. It also stipulates that the child welfare service has particular responsibility for bringing to light inadequate care and behavioural, social and emotional problems at a sufficiently early stage to avoid lasting problems, and for instituting measures to this end.

The committee points out that this dual goal gives the child welfare service a unique role in general Norwegian child and youth policy. Its general assessment is that the child welfare service in its current form is not qualified to achieve this goal in a way that can be considered satisfactory.

At present, unacceptable processes resulting in exclusion and marginalization are taking place in the arenas in which children and young people grow up, and this negative trend seems to be increasing. This means, first and foremost, that considerably more effort must be focused on preventive activity with a broader impact. This requires increased awareness of the risk factors with which we are dealing, coupled with the use of new instruments to increase the opportunities available to children and young people. Measures will be needed at local, national and international level.

The environment in which children and young people grow up is increasingly influenced by commercial forces, and the vast majority of problems necessitating the provision of assistance or care by the child welfare service are the result of factors in the overall social context. Therefore, it is also fundamentally important that concrete measures are taken to limit the possibilities of this type of problem arising and being allowed to develop.

It is the opinion of the committee that increased resources will be required at many levels in order to provide the necessary conditions for the development of a child welfare service that can be a credible source of assistance and an active promoter of a sound childhood environment, in addition to providing care for children whose parents are unable to do so themselves.

Recommendation:

As a general recommendation, the committee proposes that the Child Welfare Act maintain the goals of the child welfare service being responsible for the provision of care and assistance, and the municipality being responsible for preventive activity.

A goal should be formulated regarding the development of a child welfare service with high ethical and professional standards that can be a credible source of assistance, supervision and care for children at risk. The child welfare service must also be an active partner in all fields that have an influence on the development of children and young persons. In future, the child welfare service should keep a critical eye on the conditions of children and young persons in all childhood arenas.

Values and rights

The aim of the welfare society is to create a good childhood and learning environment for all, and equal status and equality are fundamental values that make special demands on all those who are responsible for children and young persons.

Each child represents an inviolable value, and children’s need for protection and favourable conditions in which to grow up is paramount over all other considerations. Safeguarding individuals’ personal integrity means safeguarding their right to protection of their self-respect and to be given the opportunity to develop confidence in their own abilities and potential. This is a right on which little attention has been focused, an omission which must be regarded as a significant flaw in child and youth policy.

An important underlying principle of the welfare state is that it is permissible to have problems, and that they do not justify humiliating treatment or attitudes.

It will never be possible to create a system that is independent of human qualities. Personal qualifications, the development of professional expertise and research are therefore of crucial importance.

A general principle of the Child Welfare Act and the Children Act is that decisions taken must be in the child’s best interest, and that account must be taken of the opinions and views of the child.

What the child welfare service focuses on, what it does or does not do, reflects traditions and priorities. Among other things, it is characteristic that the child welfare service is mainly concerned with the child as part of a family, while young people and the new age of adolescence are an area that has been neglected in general child and youth policy. Today, this period of life is heavily influenced by both educational ideologies and commercial forces. There is thus a clear need for a holistic, innovative, value-based approach.

As regards the issue of rights, it is noteworthy that none of the provisions of the Child Welfare Act are worded to the effect that the child or the family has a "right to" or is "entitled to" services and benefits. The statute is worded differently from the Education Act or the Social Services Act. The practical implications for children of giving them a statutory right to assistance from the child welfare service should not be overestimated, since the service already has a duty to initiate investigations and implement measures. At the same time, there is judicial precedent according to which the municipality is liable to pay compensation in the event of its failure to perform its duty. Furthermore, the municipality has a duty to allocate such funds as are necessary to enable the child welfare service to provide assistance to children falling within the scope of the provisions of the Act. It must also be emphasized that establishing such a statutory right would not exempt other agencies from their responsibilities. However, the child welfare service is the ultimate safety net that assumes responsibility when other agencies give up. In the committee’s opinion, the child welfare service must continue to have a responsibility as "final instance". An important question is whether this responsibility should be combined with giving the child welfare service the possibility of instructing other agencies dealing with children and young people to implement measures.

As far as making the right to assistance a statutory right is concerned, there may be reason to make it subject to a proviso as regards the "right to coercive measures", at least for measures for young people with severe behavioural difficulties.

Recommendation:

A focused effort must be made in all areas to ensure equal status and equality, and to create genuine security against all forms of discrimination against minority groups of children and young people and their families.

Greater importance must be attached to value issues and ethical considerations in all parts of the child welfare service. Such issues must be incorporated into measures to upgrade expertise.

The right of children and young people to child welfare services should be made a statutory right. This will focus attention on the interests and needs of children and young people, and contribute towards harmonizing child welfare legislation with the Social Services Act and the Municipal Health Services Act, which entitle individuals to assistance.

A study must be made of whether it is expedient that the child welfare service be authorized to impose responsibility for measures for children and families on other agencies.

When children and young people are to state their opinions in connection with difficult decisions that concern them directly, the procedure followed may give rise to serious ethical objections. Recommended guidelines should be drawn up for child welfare service employees and experts who will hear the views of children and young people in such contexts.

Family development and focus on opportunities

Both formally and in fact, the family forms the core unit of society, and has the main responsibility for caring for, bringing up and teaching children. In this context, all other institutions are to be regarded as support structures, be they public health clinics, day care institutions or schools.

It is therefore important to give families the best possible ability to carry out this social task. In the light of this, NOU 1995:26 The Ombudsman for Children and Childhood in Norway points out that overriding priority must be given to providing parents with the best possible working conditions, while ensuring that measures to facilitate the role of parents do not conflict with necessary measures to protect children against harmful family relationships.

As a basic principle, it is taken for granted that parents protect their children and are capable of looking after their interests. The recognition that this is not always the case represents the traditional foundation for the child welfare service. Children and young people are vulnerable and need to be protected against conditions that can have negative consequences, both in and outside their home.

The fact that the family is no guarantee of a safe base is linked, among other things, to the difficulties experienced by parents in coping with their own life situation. The committee has noted that parents with a weak financial situation, who also have low scores for other welfare indicators, are overrepresented in the child welfare sector. This applies, for instance, to certain immigrant families whose position on the labour and housing markets is weak.

The reminder that parents are responsible for taking care of children is probably overcommunicated, while other factors capable of jeopardizing children’s security tend to be undercommunicated. Social and structural factors affect the conditions in which children and young people grow up, and arenas such as schools and leisure activities are of great importance in both a positive and a negative sense.

An important trend in the child welfare service is the growing use of measures to provide assistance. This reflects a change of approach in the form of changing methods of thinking and working. The committee has noted that new theories are emerging in work with children and parents, both nationally and internationally, entailing a shift from a one-sided focus on problems to a focus on possibilities, through empowerment-oriented approaches.

This means that efforts are made to identify the positive qualities of children and parents, with a view to helping them to develop their own resources so that they are better able to cope with their everyday life. This approach will also help parents to build up their self-confidence, belief in the future and assertiveness. In this case, the role of the helper is primarily that of a supporter and counsellor for the family, and not that of a remote expert who might generate a climate of insecurity.

In Denmark, parents and children have a statutory right to anonymous counselling. Such counselling must be provided as early as possible with a view to helping families function better. The legal provision emphasizes that both individual family members and the family as a whole are entitled to family-oriented counselling, even when no other form of support is to be provided. The provision is thus entirely preventive in nature. If other measures are required, families are encouraged to contact the child welfare service themselves.

In the vast majority of cases, children are dependent on a good relationship with their parents. It is therefore particularly important that the child welfare service engage in a process with the parents. In most cases, improving the conditions in which children grow up can only be done by enhancing the ability of the parents to provide care. To help a child and ensure that it has the necessary conditions for sound development, it is therefore essential to approach parents with respect and acceptance. This must be said to be a professional and moral imperative. However, as long as there are parents who mistreat and abuse their children, or who for other reasons are unable to ensure that their children grow up in an environment that meets acceptable minimum standards, there will be a need to provide measures outside the framework of the family.

One of the very greatest challenges lies in the child welfare service’s duty and ability to propose coercive measures, while generating the climate of confidence and security that is necessary in order to be a credible helper. It must be a minimum requirement that the child welfare service possess such skills, both human and professional, that it can deal with parents who are unable to perform their duties as caregivers without offending them. Parents who cannot cope with their everyday responsibilities have often been in situations where they have been mistrusted, misunderstood, overruled and let down. Consequently, they also have difficulties in establishing a relationship of trust and accepting advice and guidance from a helper.

We have a long tradition of focusing on negative aspects through our diagnostic practice. On the other hand, we have limited experience when it comes to focusing on possibilities. Another aspect of this is the problems linked to prediction. This means that even if we succeed in analyzing the current situation, we may not necessarily have identified the factors that are most relevant for the future.

One characteristic of today’s child welfare service is the existence of conflicting theories. Educational theory, for example, tends to point to and emphasize aspects with an inherent development potential, while administrative law might, in the interests of legal safeguards, be more concerned with documentation of the fact that something is inadequate and possibly harmful to children.

Recommendations:

The family as a childhood arena should be given greater visibility in society. Clearer emphasis must be placed on the importance of day care institutions, schools and other parts of the support apparatus basing their activities on a family-oriented approach and sharing responsibility for underpinning and assisting parents in caring for and bringing up their children.

There should be focus at all times on improving financial and practical support arrangements.

Consideration should be given to introducing a statutory right to voluntary, free and anonymous counselling for children, young people and their families, both individually and as a group. This must include counselling related directly to the development and future of children and young people, to practical and financial planning and to other aspects of the family as a childhood base.

The rules should specify that an assessment must be carried out to determine what is best for the children, and how the parents can be helped to improve their capacity for care-giving. Importance must only be attached to inadequacies in the parents’ ability to provide care and the children’s care situation when this is significant in relation to the conditions laid down in the Act for implementing measures.

Voluntary measures to provide assistance should be significantly strengthened. The state should encourage the increased use of such measures.

Developing ethically appropriate and reliable respite, supplementary and replacement services

It will always be necessary to have measures that can be implemented when children are subjected to serious crises in their home, school or local community. It is a question of being prepared to respond to the needs of children and young people who are victims of their parents’ misfortune, illness or seriously inadequate care. In such cases, the child welfare service will have the main responsibility for the children. This entails responsibility for developing alternative services that can guarantee the children a satisfactory childhood environment.

There has been a discernible political upgrading of the local community’s responsibility for children and youth. This is probably most apparent in school policy, where the principle of integration was applied in earnest in the amendments to the Education Act in 1975. This laid the foundation for the closure of special state schools for children and young people with behavioural difficulties. The principle of integration reflects the value of being part of the community represented by the local neighbourhood and the local school.

In accordance with this principle, there must be strong grounds for separating or excluding a pupil from the social community in which he lives. Reference is made in this connection to a principle of inclusion and proximity which local child and youth agencies have a duty to observe. This also applies to efforts to meet special needs which were formerly met by external institutions. The principle of inclusion and proximity reflects a right that must be regarded as a fundamental child and youth policy obligation.

In the light of the above, the extent to which external institutions are now being used by the child welfare service is considered problematic, seen both in a value context and in a professional and political context. This assessment is supported by the fact that no provision is made for quality assurance, supervisory arrangements do not function as they should and the institutions are not subject to any system of official approval.

On the other hand, there is a need for respite, supplementary and replacement services. However, it must be a fundamental condition that these services are of a high professional and ethical quality, and that they are located as close as possible to the home of the child concerned.

A special effort must also be made to counteract any tendency towards stigmatizing attitudes as regards such services. They should provide assistance with a view to rehabilitation, specially adapted training and relevant work training, and should include cultural and sports activities.

Recommendation:

Consideration should be given to establishing local, multi-disciplinary facilities and services such as child and youth resource centres, which engage in long-term efforts to develop optimal services for disadvantaged children and young people, and which can contribute actively towards improving the conditions of children and young people in all relevant arenas of life and learning, i.e. the home, local community, day care institutions, schools and organizations and the labour market. Such centres must cooperate closely with the municipal children and youth service, cf. section 4.1, and their work must be of the same standard as that of a centre of professional expertise.

An inter-ministerial study should be initiated with a view to putting in place services of this nature for children and young people who require special assistance and support.

Strengthen the possibilities for a multigenerational community

There is a growing trend in our society to split generations. The sense of a community of generations is being undermined, and the population is largely segregated according to age and position in the life cycle. Many factors have contributed to this tendency. Aspects of modern working and economic life have undoubtedly made an impact in terms of splitting generations. The institutionalization of the education of children and young people and society’s geographical mobility have reinforced this effect. Similarly, many factors have led to the growing isolation of elderly persons from the rest of society.

The increasing division of society according to age may also have a sub-cultural effect. Many of the problems evident in the youth sector can be perceived as a product of the fact that young people are deprived of natural association and shared responsibilities with adults and elderly persons. The fact that access to working and social life has become more difficult is an important factor. Instead, young people are required to remain in a school where they largely encounter persons of their own age, and where a relatively large number of them are not happy. This has spurred the emergence of a separate child and youth culture, which has been stimulated and exploited by commercial forces in particular, and which has numerous unintended, negative effects.

In the present context, it is specially important to point out that as a result of this segmentation by age, we are depriving ourselves of important socializing forces and opportunities. Society is being divested of both learning and control functions. At the same time, these socializing limitations unquestionably also have a number of negative consequences for adults and elderly persons, who are both deprived of stimulation from young people and alienated from new trends.

Recommendation:

Society should give priority to efforts to curtail forces that create divisions between generations, and promote a stronger multigenerational community. This will necessitate a rethinking of the way we organize education, work and cultural and leisure activities.

An inter-ministerial effort should be initiated to develop concrete measures to prevent generational segregation and to bridge the gap between generations.

Bridge-building measures that promote a multigenerational community should be concretized in municipal prevention plans.

Improve access to working and social life

The goal of bringing up children is to ensure that young people become independent individuals who contribute to and participate in society. Bringing up a child consists of a continuous process of providing care and learning that takes place in the home, at school and in a large number of work and leisure arenas. It is important to create an awareness and understanding of the fact that children and young people also require the support, stimulation and protection of persons other than those who have a formal responsibility for bringing them up.

Sectorizing the process of bringing up a child is bound to generate negative effects. Nonetheless, we have developed a society that functions on the basis of such sectorization, which is manifested in many ways. First of all, there is a tendency to view education as a narrow process of acquiring knowledge which takes place during childhood. This way of thinking is out of step with the idea of life-long learning. For many young people who are branded as losers and are thus subject to negative learning experiences, the result is that school may become as much a risk factor as a resource.

Secondly, it is important to note that large areas of society, particularly the media and commercial recreational facilities, have a tendency to consider themselves to be exempt from any responsibility for children and young people. Substance abuse, violence and racism can be seen as extreme manifestations of the need to mobilize responsibility for child and youth policy.

Learning, personal development and access to working and social life are fundamental values to which all relevant actors in society, including the employment sector, should make a binding commitment. It is a question of safeguarding and stimulating the forces possessed by children and young people. This necessitates the development of childhood environments that both strengthen and protect the learning process of children and young people. For example, learning to acquire self-confidence and determination is of fundamental importance. It is also important to be aware that extended schooling and education can act as a barrier, rather than helping to create future opportunities.

In this connection, the committee wishes to point out that a child’s home, day care institution and school are all potential risk factors in his or her childhood. At worst, children and young people give up. They no longer have any faith in themselves, belief in the future or determination. They have become educationally disabled. In addition to a tendency to underestimate the negative ramifications of the many years of theory-based schooling, it is important to be aware that working life is underestimated as a learning arena. Working life also plays an important role in children’s and young people’s dreams for the future, and lays the foundation for both their adult identity and autonomy.

Recommendation:

A general child and youth policy principle should be formulated to the effect that all agencies must share responsibility for enabling young people to access working and social life. All child and youth policy must be oriented towards this goal.

To strengthen access to working and social life, business and industry and the labour market authorities should work as partners in the child and youth sector. Emphasis should be placed on promoting labour market measures that offer opportunities for young people who have particular problems on the ordinary labour market.

Special measures should be considered to enable young people to enter the labour market when they reach the age of 15. In keeping with the assumptions on which the competence reform was based, young people, like other workers, will have opportunities to supplement their education when they desire to do so.

Emphasis on local political responsibility

Under the Act of 1953, the child welfare committee was responsible for child welfare in the municipality, and local politicians therefore received direct information about the way disadvantaged children and their families lived and struggled to cope with their problems. Since the Act of 1992 did away with laymen as a mandatory element of municipal child welfare services, procedures can now be organized in such a way as to eliminate the systematic provision of information to popularly elected officials on the situation of those children who are worst off. A number of municipalities still consider a popularly elected committee to be a good arrangement, among other things to ensure that information reaches the politicians.

In the main, however, there is little participation in the child welfare sector today by elected bodies. Today, the law requires that each municipality has an administration headed by a person who is responsible for carrying out the duties prescribed by law. The requirement regarding a separate administration for the child welfare service and the requirement regarding a separate position as head of this administration is an exception from the principle laid down in the Local Government Act as regards municipal freedom to organize local government administration. This requirement does not preclude the person in charge from also having other duties; for instance, the person in question may be head of a joint child and youth agency comprising schools, day care institutions, the school psychology service and cultural and recreational activities. To ensure the protection of privacy, the child welfare service must have its own archive. Furthermore, the persons carrying out duties prescribed by the Child Welfare Act must be clearly identified.

Norwegian municipalities differ significantly, for instance in terms of population density and size. In some municipalities, one person is responsible for child welfare in addition to a number of other duties, while in others several dozen people work exclusively with child welfare. Persons working with child welfare in small municipalities face different demands and challenges than child welfare professionals in large municipalities. Several factors may make it more difficult to achieve a high standard of child welfare in small municipalities: recruitment problems, a high turnover rate, a large number of newly trained staff members, a limited number of child welfare professionals, and the difficulty of maintaining clearly defined roles as child welfare professionals in a small community. Matters are also complicated by the small number of cases, difficulties in building up expertise and a lack of stability and continuity.

Child welfare work is grounded in values and ethical assessments of what should constitute the minimum conditions in which children should grow up and develop in our society. Through their work, employees in the child welfare service are instrumental in defining acceptable parental roles and behaviour. The values and views expressed through the way such employees perform their duties thus acquire a normative function. Therefore, it is also of fundamental importance that their activities are based on a common understanding of the values laid down in legislation and key public documents. Personal values must not be allowed to govern child welfare work. At the same time, we know that service providers are bound to be influenced by their own values. To prevent child welfare services from being governed by personal values to the detriment of community values, child welfare professionals must be very conscious of their personal values and the impact of these values on their work. It is also important that the premises that form the basis for the work of the child welfare service are clearly defined and that there is no strong political disagreement on child welfare goals and means. Ensuring greater transparency in the child welfare service will help to prevent inappropriate routines and systems based on personal values.

There is also reason to assume that the position of the child welfare service in the municipality, its resources and its working methods are largely determined by the attitudes towards and knowledge of child welfare of the general population, other agencies with which the service collaborates and the political leadership in the municipality. Providing information on a continuous basis to elected officials should therefore be a priority task at all levels of the child welfare service.

The child welfare service must ground its activities on a holistic approach aimed at seeking to understand the child’s situation on the basis of its overall life situation. Ensuring that this approach is clearly perceived by the rest of society poses a challenge to the child welfare service. In this connection, it is important to take a critical view of some of the terms used, and the ways of thinking reflected in these terms.

In the committee’s opinion, it would benefit the child welfare service if its goal and activities were to contribute more to increasing the visibility and predictability of the service. To an even greater degree than is the case at present, the fundamental values of the child welfare service and the professional principles underpinning its work should be made known, rendered visible and, not least, practised uniformly in respect of those with whom the service deals, including its partners.

Recommendations:

Consideration should be given to measures to ensure that local politicians have an overall picture of and assume responsibility for the services provided by the municipal child welfare service.

In each municipality there should be a popularly elected body with particular responsibility for preventive functions, pursuant to section 3-1, first paragraph. Each municipality must decide the way in which this body is to enabled to perform its function, including whether it is to be assigned other areas of responsibility or possibly also perform functions pursuant to section 3-1, second paragraph.

The continuity and stability of the child welfare service must be ensured in every municipality. This requires working models that are more binding and rooted in political and administrative systems than those currently used.

Measures should be implemented to render the goals, basic values and functions of the child welfare service more visible, both to those to whom services are provided and to the general public. Giving the public, including the press, access to minutes of county board meetings relating to specific cases, while safeguarding the privacy of the parties concerned, would be constructive.