Social work and social policy – facing old challenges and new risks and insecurities

An example of Finnish child policy and prevention

Riitta Vornanen
PhD, professor (acting)
Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy,
University of Kuopio, Kuopio


Introduction: The trend towards preventive social policy and social work

This article discusses the concepts of insecurity, security, and risks, and raises the issue of whether the concept matters in defining the policy. In what way is it possible to use minimum intervention yet still guarantee a secure environment for children and families? One of the trends in Finland has been the quest for evidence-based practice and effective policies and practice in the social field, including socio-economic aspects. It seems that in the future there will be an increasing need for more focus to ensure that scarce resources are allocated efficiently, and hence the need for preventive work has become a demand.


One issue that appears to be neglected in social policy and among social work practitioners is a critical attitude towards the goals and means. In preventive social policy and social work the premise must be taken that the results may be plus, minus, or zero. In addition to explicit goals and predicted outcomes, the policies may have side-effects that are neither expected nor wanted (e.g. Weiss 1998; see Törrönen & Vornanen 2004).


This article presents Finland as a case, to describe the difficulty of steering social policy and social work at national and local levels. The Finnish example also shows the trend of placing more focus on preventive social policy. This is an increasing demand which is seen in family policy and child welfare. The question of prevention is closely connected to the definition of goals, i.e. those risks and insecurities that are supposed to be prevented. The traditional and current meanings of risks and security are presented in the section ‘Defining risks in child policy and welfare’. The crucial question is whether these definitions guide the policy, and if so what the consequences are for the policy and its implementation.


Two theoretical and very preliminary models for preventive child policy are presented at the end of the article. These models are for dealing with proposed effectiveness in child welfare and child protection from two points of view: children at risk and children’s needs (a population-based approach). The question is how to allocate scarce resources in child welfare and child protection and obtain optimal results. The synthesis of the two models will also be discussed, and critical remarks presented in order to develop preventive policy modelling.


To start with, Finland will be examined as a case in which social policy has traditionally been steered by the state, and powerfully so. Despite differences between European countries, there may be some common trends in social policy and social work, and this is why the case examples may be useful in illustrating development.

The Case of Finland

It is significant to assess social work and social policy in national context of Finland. The constitution safeguards basic rights for all people in the country, and the realisation of these rights is guaranteed by the state and municipalities. Finland has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (2002) and this has had an impact on its constitution and child legislation. Child welfare is one part of family policy and the aim is to provide a secure growing environment for children, and to support parents when having and raising a family.


The child allowance system was introduced in Finland in 1948, and the Finnish family policy support system has been continually developed since then. Family policy consists of direct financial support for families, for example in the form of child allowance, housing or income support, and taxation relief. Remarkable forms of support are the Finnish day-care system, and also parental and maternity leave and allowances, and day-care and pre-school teaching. Families have the possibility of receiving support in the form of child guidance and family counselling (Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 1999).


In Finland, more focus is placed on child welfare as a part of family policy. At the municipal level of family policy, social work with children and young people operates in the area of preventive care together with other fields, and has the task of non-residential care, support measures, and taking children into care and foster care if necessary. The former modes of support, such as child allowance and housing, are traditionally described as more universal and preventive measures of family policy. The latter forms of support, such as child guidance, family counselling, and social work, are more constructive and ultimate forms of help.


As a whole, the Finnish social security system is based on the principles of the Nordic welfare model. The main features are characterised as the principle of universality, a strong public sector, tax funding based on the legislative rights of citizens, and equal treatment. There have been shifts in the relationships between the state and municipalities in terms of steering the welfare policy and in defining the challenges and goals. The classification of state steering instruments is the division in steering by norms or rules, economic steering, and steering by information. The trend in steering social and health care has shifted from a strict steering by rules to steering by information and the fundamental rights of citizens (Oulasvirta et al. 2002).


One interesting trend in Finland has been the increase in municipal responsibilities compared to the role of the state. The level of state steering was reduced in the early 1990s, and municipalities were given independent power in planning social and health care services. This has been a challenging situation from the point of view of steering. The crucial question is how to achieve nationwide objectives through government steering and yet maintain real municipal autonomy.


Throughout history, in addition to national interests, local and regional interests have had an impact on the development of Finnish social services (Kröger 2000: 68–70). During the period of powerful states steering, the differences between municipalities were diminished. States resources were allocated to spesific activities in municipalities. Since 1993 municipalities have had more freedom to decide how to allocate resources.


The current and future trends in social services imply that local and regional characteristics will increase, as is also currently in evidence in child welfare. The slogan ‘Think globally, act locally’ characterises the present-day situation in Finland. Simultaneously with international trends, solutions should be found at a very local level and in certain changing contexts.


The results of the realised politics are seen by social workers as the need for and use of child protection services. If this information is evaluated and analysed it can be used in the planning of welfare policy at local level. The goal in social work is not merely the integration of marginalized people into society but also the prevention of marginalization and the promotion of the civil society and rights. Finland’s line on combating poverty and social exclusion is based on the principles of the Nordic welfare state, which include universal services and adequate social protection. The various sectors of social policy aim to prevent the threat of social exclusion, with particular emphasis on the position of groups at risk (c.f. National Plan of Action to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion 2003-2005). These are challenges that are faced together with other trends, such as globalization, demographic and labour market transitions, the strengthening expectations of citizens, and increasing knowledge and awareness of social problems and rights (c.f. Esping-Andersen 1999).


In child welfare there has been concern over the quality and attainment of services. The main problems of steering child protection have been the scarcity of resources (financial, personnel), and problems in legal protection, and in the functioning of the system (Pösö and Salomaa 2002: 117–119). The result of a national report on children’s well-being implicated increasing regional differences in services for children and families (Bardy et al. 2001).


In social and welfare policy planning, anticipating the future and the steering of social and health care are real challenges. The question is raised of who defines the goals and strategies for welfare policy and, for example, child welfare. Who defines the alternatives and how are the national and international strategies transferred and implemented in regions and municipalities?


One example in Finland is the new national development programme for child welfare, which is administered by The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, but the development of which is sporadic across the country, National Development Programme for Child Welfare 2004 (Lastensuojelun kehittämisohjelma). Regional cooperation in social welfare services will be promoted by developing regional centres for expertise and by establishing a variety of network structures together with municipalities and other regional actors. The municipalities can thereby ensure the availability of specialised services (Strategies for Social Protection 2010, 2001: 19.) Child protection related to non-residential care measures, foster care and after care has been declared as among the most urgent development goals.


One of the strategic tools at national level is the target and action programme for social welfare and health care. This is a government-approved four-year programme specifying development targets, recommended measures, and those responsible for implementing them. The programme’s primary purpose is to provide guidelines and recommendations for local authorities, concerning the organization of social welfare and health care. The first target and action programme was issued in 1999 and covers the period 2000–2003. The State Audit Office (2002) evaluated this programme, and the main conclusion was that the direct effect of the target and action programme on social welfare and health services arranged by local authorities has been minimal. Despite the social welfare and health services having been developed in line with recommendations, the programme’s direct effect on positive development has been weak. From the local authorities’ viewpoint its content is broad which makes it more difficult to implement and manage the programme at local level.


Challenges for preventive social policy and social work in child welfare — prevention and early intervention as a solution to problems

Social security is generally seen as (minimum) protection offered by the state to individuals whose personal security is threatened through sudden and drastic changes in their life opportunities and situations (for example, economic depression, ill health, etc.), or offered to individuals for predictable contingencies, such as old age, in cases where they lack sufficient resources to meet their needs (Vail 1999: 8). The basic principle of the Nordic welfare model is to guarantee universal rights for everyone. The model can be described as a needs-based and rights-based model, which is also seen in child welfare (e.g. Törrönen 1994). The following presents some issues and responses concerning the goals of Finnish child policy and prevention.


Issue 1: Child policy and prevention at national and municipal levels


If one accepts the principles of the legislative rights of citizens and equal treatment, it is impossible to ignore how child protection work is organized and directed, and how human and material resources are allocated at municipal level. Social work has its task in child welfare and child protection according the Child Welfare Act (683/1983), as do other municipal fields. The Child Welfare Act contains provisions for the responsibility to organise child welfare, development of the growth environment and experimental activities, support for parents in the upbringing of children, and provisions for family-oriented and individual-oriented modes of child welfare services. This includes support functions in case work, taking children into custody, and their placement in substitute care and after-care.


The remarkable phase of child policy in Finland began when the Child Welfare Act (683/1983) obliged municipalities, the social welfare board, and other local authorities to follow the development of children’s growing environment and services that support children’s development.. The aim with this shift was to support children’s social status through municipal welfare practices. According to Satka et al. (2002: 253), the state’s role in child policy was minor during 1980s: only protecting children’s juridical status, and child policy established as a part of municipal social policy. During the 1990s the role of the state was still minor. This change took place during the years 1990–1997, when the goal of supporting families and children’s well-being became the goal of preventing exclusion and highlighting the individual’s own responsibility. At the end of the 1990s, a new kind of child policy in municipalities was started and municipalities started when the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities began a programme of child policy and strategies for the year 2015. This programme emphasizes children’s participation and rights to participate and to be heard in the decision-making concerning issues relating to them.


Although there has been criticism of the state’s role in child policy there are some strategies and plans in child policy which aim at promoting children’s well-beeing as a part of the population . For example, in the new target and action programme for the years 2004–2007 (Sosiaali- ja terveysministeriö 2003, 19) child welfare policy is emphasised as preventing social exclusion and health problems. The preventive measures suggested at municipal level are early intervention programmes and practices to identify the risks of exclusion. Prevention and early intervention focus on the early stages of development that may lead to exclusion (Trends in Social Protection in Finland 2003). This challenges all sectors and professional groups, including social workers in municipalities, to support children and families and to develop so-called best practices. The question is how to prioritise the goals and policies and allocate the scarce resources to the right targets.


The current and future questions concern the relationships between the state and municipalities: who sets the goals, how these goals are modified, and on what information and approaches the goals and suggested policies are based. For example, the meaning of the term early intervention is mentioned in the government’s policy but is interpreted in different ways in the 432municipalities in Finland.


Issue 2: How is preventive work defined and targeted?


Prevention is usually divided into primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. Primary prevention is directed towards the initial occurrence of an incidence or promoting strengths in order to resist threats. This requires knowledge or a hypothesis of what is to be prevented. Secondary- and tertiary prevention aim at identifying the problem as early as possible, and correcting it or alleviating its consequences as much as possible. In child welfare, primary prevention is highlighted, for example, in maternity welfare, in which the health of the baby and the mother are screened in many medical and psychosocial ways. Rae-Grant (1995: 916) divides prevention into universal prevention, which focuses on the whole population, selective prevention (focussing on part of the population, such as children at a certain age), and indicated prevention, which is targeted at certain risk groups or risks.


One of the trends in child welfare is early intervention and focusing the services for primary prevention. Primary prevention and early intervention are presumed to have many advantages in child welfare, i.e. a child will receive help and support before their problems worsen. In Finland, the main part of preventive work for families is done through family policy, which consists of direct financial support for families, e.g. child allowance, maintenance allowance, housing or income support, and taxation. In addition, Finland also has a nationwide and comprehensive day-care system based on subjective rights, parental and maternity leave and allowances, and day-care and pre-school teaching. According to national child legislation and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Finland has ratified), the state must support families in their task of upbringing. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the trend has been towards early intervention and somewhat in the direction of how the whole child population should be protected from risks.


There is a remarkable challenge to the justification of those early support measures when focused on a single child or family. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides for the protection of family life and privacy. Thus, free choice maybe exercised as long as it does not jeopardise other people’s security (Vail 1999: 17). One of the sources and contexts of insecurity lies in family life. The project of family can no longer be relied upon to deliver structural stability and temporal continuity mapped across a predictable life cycle.’


Family life has been on the public agenda. One of the most popular public debates in child welfare has been the discourse on parenting. Causes of children’s problems have been found in a lack of parenting and deficiencies in parenting competence. This interpretation has been popular among politicians, who have tried to find solutions at municipal level (e.g. Heikki Suominen 2001). In a qualitative sociological study of articles published in Finland’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, Jallinoja (2004: 82–97) reported that the most popular theme in articles is the insecurity experienced among children and young people. The causes of the insecurity are work, alcoholic parents, and the lack of parenting.


Another category of reasons stems from the structural and societal facts of the market economy which press parents and children towards early independence and successful models of living. Jallinoja (2004) describes the impression given in  Helsingin Sanomat as an escalating story of how the problems of children are worsening, and as something that also happens in so-called ‘good families’. According to Jallinoja, this may lead to a culture of fear and increasing risk consciousness. It is quite evident that the public discourse on children’s increasing problems has impacts on child welfare, and on the strategies and policies made in municipalities. The family has thus become a major issue and priority in defining problems (e.g. Börjesson & Palmblad 2003).


In child protection, it is evident that intervention should occur when a child’s health and development is endangered. However, it is not clear whether there are enough resources for preventive programmes for all families at municipal level. Prevention means measures to prevent the occurrence of risks and covers measures to arrest the progress of negative processes and phenomena. Similarly, it includes the idea of reducing the consequences. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (2002) introduces three principles: provision, protection and participation (see Heiliö 1993). These principles imply the different aspects of the issues that should be addressed in child policy. A child may be regarded as protected but also as a participant subject in society, which guarantees the proportion of resources for children.


How, then, should efforts and resources for children and families be targeted? In the first instance, the actual requirement for child welfare services is not known. In the Finnish report submitted to the Finnish Parliament in 2001 were the wellbeing of children summarised from different studies and sources: a small but increasing group of children are faced with accumulating problems. A quarter or as many as third of the children in Finland do not feel well. (Bardy et al. 2001, 172.)


The assessed number of children at risk for psychosocial problems was approximately 15–30% (Bardy et al. 2001). According to national child protection statistics, the number of children in open care has increased dramatically, and the same trend is seen in foster care. The exact reasons for this are unknown. Has the need to support families with children and to protect children from harm really increased, or are these changes due to our service systems (e.g. availability and organisation of services for children and families and more efficient detection mechanisms)?


Issue 3. When and how should we intervene in family life?


When should we intervene in family life? What are the optimal means and timing? The continual burden in social policy and social work is the relation between support and control. Risk discourse may increase this tie at both individual and population level. How is it possible to intervene as little as possible yet still guarantee a secure environment for children and families? As Finnish society changes, its social and health care develops and information increases. This may lead to decision-making problems concerned with how to prioritise in social policy and social work. Furedi (1997) comments on how the use of the term risk has increased in medicine in recent decades. In health sciences, the term medicalization describes the phenomenon in which new spheres of society are under medical treatment and control. This may have had some consequences for the social field.


One of the trends in Finland has been the quest for evidence-based practice and effective policies and practices in the social field, including socio-economic aspects (e.g. Rousu & Holma 2004). There have been some calculations of the financial costs if children are not helped as early as possible. For example, the cost has been calculated for the case of an 11-year-old child who does not get help for his/her psychosocial problems, and for those whose problems get worse and require a significant amount of social and health care services, such as institutional care (Räsänen 1999). Another type of calculation is based on longitudinal or retrospective research, and shows the cycle of young people and the costs caused by inefficient intervention and help during early years. For example, Scott et al. (2001) have reported how antisocial behaviour in childhood is a major predictor of how much an individual will cost society. According to the results, crime incurred the greatest cost, followed by extra educational provision, foster and residential care, and state benefits. The research design involved costs applied to the data of 10-year-old children from Inner London (UK) on a longitudinal study, and selectively followed up to adulthood.


It seems that there will be an increasing need to focus scarce resources more efficiently in the future, and this requires preventive work. Even though the accumulative knowledge base is continually developing, preventive measures must be assessed critically. In preventive social policy and social work, the premise must be taken that the results may be plus, minus or zero. In addition to explicit goals and predicted outcomes, the policies may have side effects that are neither expected nor desirable. As an example of this, Weiss (1998: 8) has presented a programme that serves parents who appear to be at risk of abusing their young children. This programme may have the unintended result of labelling the parents as potential abusers, even to the parents themselves. Once they accept that label for themselves, they may become more rather than less abusive by identifying themselves as abusers. So the preventive programmes should be planned carefully in order to avoid unexpected consequences and to gain the preventive aims as well as possible.

One issue that seems to be neglected among social policy and social work practitioners is a critical attitude towards the goals and means. According to Weiss (1998: 27), one purpose of evaluation is to instil practitioners with a little scepticism about what are they doing. Especially within some programmes for preventive work, there seems to be huge optimism, and people take it for granted that their services are good and have good effects. This shows that people value their work, which is a positive attitude to hold when going work each day. The politicians must believe in their policy and persuade others to believe in the results they try to attain. Why should they be sceptical about it then? Why would this be healthy?



Defining risks in child policy and welfare


Risks and security – towards individual responsibility?


Every society will prioritise one set of insecurity concerns over another. Social policy, its goals and strategies imply the contents of security and insecurity, and the politics and practice show the results. According to Vail (1999: 8), any consideration of security is, at the same time, a description of the insecurity which could possibly endanger it. Vail argues that there is a symbiotic relationship between security and insecurity, and this is seen in the insecurity dilemma. This is the phenomenon that the most well-intentioned efforts to ensure security may sometimes have the reverse effect and increase insecurity instead.


The same kind of premise is presented by Evers & Nowotny (1987). They argue that the more security is guaranteed, the less insecurity is tolerated. This describes the paradox of the most developed welfare states; people’s needs are increasingly better met, and thus the tolerance against deficiencies is decreasing. This can also be seen in Finland, which has a versatile service system for children and families, though the need remains to expand it. The most evident reason for this is not solely in the lack of services but more in the balance of needs and services.

According to Culpitt (1999: 9–10), the concept of risk in social policy might be seen as requiring a detailed examination of the range of services and policies that represent complex patterns of response to individual and social need. A possible starting point might be the belief that the welfare state has already achieved its expectations: that there is a consensual, caring society of mutual obligation. The discourse on risk has shown the relative decline or deficiencies in our welfare systems. At the same time, with the emergence of “risks” in our debates there has been a trend towards individualization.


Culpitt (1999: 13) argues that we can no longer readily talk of welfare as opportunity, responsibility, or obligation. Instead, welfare is described as welfare dependency, and risk is one of the underlying terms of this new rhetoric. The more risky life seems, the more individuals are expected to manage against that risk. It is more the individual, not the state, who must guard against risk (Petersen 1999: 122–125). In Finland, the transition in relationships between the state and municipalities has probably strengthened the focus of welfare policy towards population groups, families and individuals. This trend may mean increasing differences in attaining social services because there is remarkable variety among policy and politics at municipal level. Even if there is no strong neo-liberal emphasis in Finnish social policy, the trend towards the responsibility and new tasks of municipalities may shift the welfare policy towards more individual and selected forms. It is now well-known that the state’s role has diminished. In addition, the targeting of resources is not in contradiction with the ideathat the municipal sector can arrange services according to steering by norms and information (Oulasvirta et al. 2002).


In Finland, traditional social policy has been to secure people and population groups against risks that may be encountered by any citizen (sickness, old age, etc.). Security may have a slightly different meaning in traditional social policy; according to interpretation, security means securing continuity in transition phases and ensuring a certain standard of living. In new and what are sometimes known as neo-liberal modes of social policy, an individual must manage and take responsibility for the risks. That individual should bear more and the state should carry less, and often not only the risks of welfare but also the costs are common threads in public discussion (Culpitt 1999: 15).


According to Lupton 1 (1999), risks may be viewed from either a techno-rational approach or a socio-cultural approach. In the former, risks are treated as objective facts just to be measured. Experts are better than lay people at identifying risks, and the expert’s role is not questionable. A human being is seen as a rational actor who processes information. If people get enough information they will avoid risks and risky situations. In the socio-cultural approach, risks are characterised as relative and culture-bound. This makes it necessary to take the culture and ethics of societies into consideration in order to understand how people define and assess risks. This notification is important, for example in international comparisons of social policy and social work (e.g. multicultural social work). In socio-cultural approaches, risks are related to real dangers and threats but are socially and culturally defined and must be assessed in context.


Risk definitions and child welfare


This kind of risk definition may also be applied in social work and child protection. Risks are related to real dangers and threats. Still, there are differences in how the child’s situation is assessed and interpreted. For example, child neglect is a complex phenomenon which is defined in four different ways: a) as parenting deficits; b) as community deficits; c) as the child’s deficits (the outcomes of the effects of neglect on the child or children associated with neglect); or d) combinations of these. There are many models which explain causes, theoretical foundations, and practical strategies of child neglect. Researchers, social planners, legal and medical professionals, and social workers use these definitions for various purposes in various contexts. Social planners include the cost of child maltreatment in making decisions regarding resource allocations. Researchers construct theories regarding the aetiology of neglect, which can guide the development of preventive social policies and remedial interventions (Smith & Fong 2004: 12–37).


Child neglect is also a legal concept. Legal definitions guide judicial decisions and processes regarding issues such as when the state can intervene in families (see, for example, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 8) (Council of Europe 1998), the role of practitioners, and the court in identifying and working with neglect cases (see Taskinen 1999). In medicine, the purpose of the definition is to find a diagnosis and treatment. 2 Social workers use social, legal and policy definitions to make decisions regarding the identification of neglect and to plan service interventions (Smith & Fong 2004: 12–37).


For social workers the issue of children at risk is not merely a theoretical dilemma. If a child is hungry, dirty, and left alone without proper care there is a need to intervene. For medical personnel, the child’s situation may appear as a biological fact, and the courts will demand the burden of proof that something has happened in order to justify the intervention.


In Finland, the wide public discourse on parents’ deficits and the lack of responsibility towards children implies the risk concept, in which risks are seen from the point of view of norms, discipline and control. Risks related to parenting competence are closely connected with responsibilities and guilt. Active citizenship means the competence to work and take care of future generations and to control risks as much as possible. Individuals have the opportunity to make choices concerning how they act with risks, access information, and anticipate current and future insecurities. This also takes place in the area of health and other life spheres. If people receive information they are supposed to make the right choices, for example in screening health risks as genetic anomalies, etc. (Petersen 1999.)


Heikki Suominen (2001) has analysed documents concerning finance and policy planning from 14 Finnish municipalities. He found six areas of discourse on describing welfare and child policies in the municipalities: discourse on splitting (different population groups, different needs of services, different parts of municipalities), exclusion, new targeting of services according social problems, increasing own responsibility, cooperation, and responsible parenting. The first three discourses fall under the heading of social polarization and the latter three are characterized as increasing responsibility.


As a threat, polarization means the accumulation of problems and growing divisions in the population between those who are well-educated, healthy and have good standard of living, and those whose living conditions are worse and whose problems seem to accumulate. According to Suominen’s analysis, the discourse on increasing responsibility means that people in municipalities have to take more responsibility for their own well-being and financing services. Increasing responsibility aims at promoting children’s well-being and strengthening parenting in families.


Suominen (2001: 284) refers to Rothstein, 3 who describes the central challenges for modern welfare policy: financing public services, weakening moral and mutual responsibility among families and communities, the need for individual services instead of standardized ones, and means-test services that have been transferred ideologically and practically from collectivism to individualism, and individualized services and benefits that have expanded to be more universal than before.


Traditional and post-modern meanings of risks and security


The traditional and contemporary meanings of risks and security are presented in Table 1. The traditional meaning for risk in social policy was more based on objective and measurable facts, such as income level or poverty, or normative life events such as old age, where the level of living has to be secured. As a term, risk was used mainly for mathematic calculations at population level. In Finland the basic model has been an institutional model of social policy, not a residual model which is more targeted and selective in its measures. This model still forms the basis of social policy in Finland. In the preventive sense, the modern meaning of risk has broadened to include different spheres of life, in which individuals struggle, not just with traditional problems but also with new risks and insecurities, such as in family life and the threat of exclusion in society. Today, for example, individuals have more responsibility towards risks and to be more active members of society.



Table 1. Traditional and modern (post-modern) meanings of risk and security.


Traditional meaning

Modern/post-modern meaning


- Objective, measurable facts

- In the traditional meaning of social policy, risks were old age, illness, poverty, etc.

- Actualised risks were dealt with by the system

- Social problems

- Probabilities also concerning human beings, social action and society, exclusion, family problems such as divorce, etc.

- Prevention, individual responsibility to deal with risks

- Activating social policy, which demands the individual to be active in order to secure benefits in the case of unemployment

- Personal and individual problems

-Social construction of risks


- Social security, insecurity as a lack of material resources

- Universal social policy (insurance)

- Solidarity as a value

- Security is an individual issue and insecurity is a very private phenomenon (anxiety, losses)

- Freedom (of choices) as a value



In the modern or post-modern meaning, the concept of risk has spread to new spheres of life, such as family relations (e.g. Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 1995; Niemelä 1996; Giddens 1991). Those issues are not just seen in scientific discourse of risks, but also in the welfare sector and policies. Risks are dealt with as individual problems and thus insecurity is also an individual matter and dealt with in private life. The problem is the chain reaction in defining the problems: when an individual undergoes drastic changes or has problems, both the reasons and solutions are to be found in the area of private life. Society, culture and the structural issues are not connected to private life, either as reasons or solutions. This may happen in education and employment, where a young person may find both their labour market status and their own chances to cope with the situation are weak.


When we consider social problems in Finland, the definitions have become broader and include multiple problems instead of traditional poverty, helplessness or deviance. For example, in unemployment the problem is not just being without permanent work or income but also includes health problems and the probable risk of exclusion. Since the problems seem to be accumulated, there are also consequences for policy and practice. At the national level, activating social and employment policy is needed. At the local and municipal level, social, health, and employment services are combined into the same service system in order to respond to the individual needs of unemployed people. There has also been more preventive emphasis concerning education and employment policy as the following example shows.


Ek et al. (2004, 120–123) have studied exclusion from the labour market in Finland.  Their research results emphasise the importance of identifying the individuals who are at great risk of exclusion from the labour market due to either an unfavourable societal position or insufficient personal resources. They suggest developing appropriate methods for strengthening the resources of these people in the early stages of the process of exclusion or even before this process starts. They conclude that preventing labour market exclusion requires efforts that address the well-being deficits already present in early childhood.


This is only one example of the strong emphasis on early intervention in risks and exclusion. Exclusion is seen as a continuum that has its roots in the early years of development and the life situation of an individual. The implicit scheme of these models is the cycle of life, in which childhood is the time to prepare for adulthood and the later years of life. Old challenges, such as poverty, have become new risks of exclusion, which may mean a considerable amount of problems and threats and cause insecurity and anxiety among individuals. Wilkinson (1996) identifies vulnerability and anxiety as being conditioned by the experience of relative deprivation. Social, psychological and emotional deprivation is experienced in relation to the negative meanings which people acquire and create for their lives. Thus, there may be some forms of chronic experience of anxiety, insecurity and helplessness which are a cultural product of low-income households (see also Wilkinson 2001.)


The challenge for social and employment policy is to identify factors that concern the labour market, educational system, economic situation, and other structural factors that have an impact on citizens and their opportunities. Unemployment and poverty are not only individual problems, although some concepts and policies seem to strengthen this view. The old challenges remain regarding poverty and protecting people from drastic changes in their life opportunities or from predictable contingencies by using the insurance systems.


The responsibility issue is slightly different in child welfare to that concerning adults. Children’s rights and parent’s responsibilities and duties are both highlighted in Finnish child welfare. A child has the right to be protected, especially during his/her early years. Young people’s responsibility is demanded more in activating social and employment policy.


In child welfare, social workers and other professionals find another reality, where people seem to ignore the norms and expectations of society. The belief in the rational human being is put to a severe test (if it is not yet realized). How is it possible that people may act by ignoring risks and information loaded by the information society and social and health care professionals? Is it really a question about choosing how to act with risks? These questions return to the definition of a human being: Do we see a human being as a rational being that chooses the best alternatives? Perhaps it is not just a case of knowledge or rational choices; life is unpredictable and lifestyles vary considerably. Social policy and social work have to deal with the paradox of freedom and security, and try to find optimal measures for supporting children and families.


The challenge to find optimal timing and effectiveness in child welfare in municipalities – two models of prevention


In the final section of this article, we concentrate on two models of prevention and theoretical consequences for child welfare in municipalities when choosing alternative ways to target resources. Although conceptual and ethical issues of how to support children and families have been discussed above, the one current question in child policy and child welfare is how to use the scarce resources and gain optimal results. Is primary prevention really the solution in helping children and families? Are there more possibilities to save resources and get better results?

Two theoretical and very preliminary models are presented here. They involve how to deal with proposed effectiveness in child welfare and child protection from two points of view: children at risk and children’s needs (a population-based approach). Meeting children’s needs effectively requires population-based strategies and means which are guided by national and municipal policies (social policy, family policy, child policy).


For example, are child allowances or taxation as a part of family policy effective ways of supporting families with children? The problem is one of knowing whether and how children’s needs are met in families. How do we know that the welfare will rebound to the child’s advantage? This issue is relevant in studies of poverty and how to get children ‘out of the statistics’, where figures describe the situation in a family (for example, Forssén 2002; Sauli 2003).




Figure 1. The optimal timing and effectiveness of policy and practice in child welfare in the case of meeting children’s needs (a population-based approach).


This first model could be used to describe both national and municipal child policy. The emphasis is on universal modes of support for children and families. The state’s family and child policy guarantees the basic needs of children in the best way, and thus decreases the demand for municipal services and child policy measures. At national level, the debate has been concerned with allocating resources between income transfers and services. Income transfers are targeted to alleviate the burden of family costs.


Services are organized by municipalities, and the state finances those services as social and health care, day-care, and education. As one of the basic services, education is aimed at guaranteeing equal opportunities for children. Figure 1 illustrates the situation where a society supports the family in its upbringing task through general family policy.


Figure 2 shows how the needs of children are not optimally met through universal income transfers and services. If a child has problems and needs special support, or if the family needs support, primary prevention is not enough and its relative efficacy decreases. This means that more selective measures are needed to support children and families. If children are at risk, the optimal solution is found at the level of secondary prevention, and therefore primary prevention is not enough. The effectiveness of support measures decreases over time, and tertiary prevention is no longer efficient when problems worsen.



Figure 2. The optimal timing and effectiveness of intervention in child protection in the case of children at risk.


Figure 2 presents the situation when a child needs special services or support, and when, by definition, they are in a risk situation. The effectiveness of primary prevention may then decrease, and universal and non-selected measures are insufficient to support the child and the family. In terms of secondary prevention the situation is identified quite early, and if a child and the family receive the right help at the right time the efficacy of the aid is optimal. The efficiency of the preventive measures may decrease gradually between the lines of secondary and tertiary prevention. This is only a theoretical proposition and depends on the situation of how effective ways of support may be found.


The supposed decrease in the efficiency of aid is in no way a justification to do nothing, and the meaning of prevention or preventive work is different in different contexts (Törrönen & Vornanen 2004). For example, a child who is taken into custody and placed in foster care needs special support from the society that has been involved in such a serious intervention in that child’s life. This means not only child protection services but also guaranteeing the child’s economic, social and educational rights (Articles 22–27 in Universal Human Rights Declaration in 1948 and The European Social Charter). Realizing these rights requires legislation as well as the allocation of resources for these purposes.


Figure 3 combines the previous two approaches, to illustrate the quest for the optimal model in meeting children’s needs (the whole child population) and the special needs of children and families at risk. The crucial issue is how to find a balance in targeting services and support for all children, and at the same time focus on those groups that need special services.




Figure 3. Combing approaches in order to find an optimal solution to meeting children’s needs and to support children at risk.


In the third model (Fig. 3), the shaded area shows one potential solution to meet the needs of children and support children at risk in terms of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. The shaded area shows how the effectiveness is limited and decreases gradually. The possible solution is difficult to understand without referring to the resources needed for certain policies and their implementation. The model is thus very theoretical and does not provide answers relating to questions of concrete planning. It is merely heuristic and shows that the resources should be allocated carefully, and that focus should be simultaneously on primary prevention and on secondary and tertiary prevention. These areas should not be addressed separately but rather as a continuum.


In this version, Figure 3 opens up for many theoretical solutions. The presented models are merely suggestions for child policy to illustrate the complexity of targeting the goals and measures and allocating scarce resources. Theoretical models are not sufficient without research and careful planning. In Finnish municipalities, child policy is part of the municipal planning system and there is a challenge for strategic thinking, leadership and long-term plans for optimal allocation of resources. There is thus an increasing need for socio-economic research in Finland.


Theoretical and ethical discussion is also needed in the planning of family and child policy. Perhaps the most interesting questions in Finland, and possibly also in different European countries, are:

1) What are the aims of child policy and prevention?

2) How are equal opportunities and the rights of children secured?

3) What kind of policy steering is needed at local, national and international level (for example, in the EU)?

4) What kind of evaluation strategies and means are available with regard to current and future challenges (e.g. content, quality, and efficiency)?

5) What is the quality and content of the knowledge used in the planning of services (research, statistics and indicators)?

6) What is the structure of the service system at national and local level?

7) What is the emphasis on general and specialised services?

8) What is the role of social work in defining and implementing the policy ?


This last question is closely connected with the content and quality of research and practices, and with the demand for best practices and evidence-based practice (Munro 2002). What is the role of preventive work in social work, and what are the demands for the work and for education? In social work practice, professional ethics are one of the guidelines in decision-making (e.g. Munro 2002). In Finland, social workers are those who make important decisions in municipalities. Social workers do not merely implement decisions made by others. They have to plan welfare policy for the future, and this is why they can have a remarkable influence on policy and practice.



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1. Deborah Lupton (1999) has described the history of the concept of risk. In the Middle Ages, people faced dangers which they could not avoid or deal with, such as natural disasters. During the 1800s, risk became a scientific term. There was a strong belief in progress and in objective scientific knowledge in measuring natural phenomena, and counting and predicting. Positivism was the strong trend in science. During the 1900s, the assessment of risks was broadened into new spheres and counting probabilities also concerned human beings, social action, and society. The consequences of risks were either good or bad. In the late 1990s, the neutral meaning of risk diminished and more often it meant the same as danger .


2. There has been criticism towards diagnosing children at risk, and thus labelling them too readily (Swadener & Lubeck 1995; Börjesson & Palmblad 2003).


3. Rothstein, B. 1998. Just institutions matter. The moral and political logic of the universal welfare state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





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