Juha Hämäläinen
University of Kuopio, Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy, Finland
PhD (SocSc), Lic Education
Riitta Vornanen
University of Kuopio, Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy, Finland
PhD (SocSc)
Social Work and Social Policies
Symposium 2005: Advocacy and Empowerment in SW Policy-making
Inter University Centre, Dubrovnik, 19–25 June 2005


In this article the role of social work in child policy isfocused on from four perspectives: the history of child policy; obligations of child policy at the local, regional and national levels; the implementation of child policy; and the most urgent challenges of child policy in Finland. In addition, the connections between different levels are analysed. The conclusions highlight the challenges of social work as a discipline and practice, and consider the implications of child policy as a part of social work, i.e. how children’s rights can be promoted and how services can be planned, implemented and evaluated.




In the Finnish welfare system, social work is seen as a professional instrument of public welfare policy. This article discusses the history and current trends of child welfare and policy, paying particular attention to the role of social work therein. The financial requirements of the reorganisation of the welfare system create new challenges for both child policy and social work. Thus, the role of social work in today’s child policy-making must be analysed in this context.


In order to define the role of social work in child policy, its role in the welfare system must first be defined. According to Malcolm Payne (2002), the factors that determine social work are demographic issues and client population, policy and law, education, science and research, professional organisation, values and political goals, and the structure of organisations. These are issues that could also be addressed when focusing on social work and its role in child policy at the local, regional and national levels.

A brief history of child policy in Finland


Pre World War II: towards a programmatic child protection


In Finland, many non-governmental activities for promoting children’s welfare emerged at the end of the 19th century. The first steps towards the development of child welfare policy were taken at the turn of the 20th century when the Senate set up a committee for the provision of child welfare (Suojelukasvatuskomitea). An integrated public programme for the development of the child welfare system was established, although the recommendations of the Committee did not yet lead to a Children’s Act. The proposal considerably forwarded the development of systematic policy-making in child welfare.


This programmatic foundation for the development of child welfare was elevated by several politicians and theorists during the first decades of the 20th century. Shortly after Finland’s political independence in 1917, a new committee for child welfare (Yhteiskunnan lasten ja nuorison suojelun komitea) was appointed. This committee significantly furthered the development of child welfare policy and the concept of programmatic child welfare, although the proposal still did not lead to a Children’s Act. In 1919, soon after independence, the Child Welfare Department was founded in the National Board of Education. In 1925, the Child Welfare Office moved to the Ministry of Social Affairs where it was located in the Department of Work and Welfare Affairs.


One fundamental question in the development of the child welfare system was whether or not the activities should be administrated by educational or social authorities. Close to this question was also a disagreement – which already started at the very beginning of the century – about the position of child welfare in relation to the system of poor relief. The question was whether or not the system and policy of child welfare should be developed as part of or separate from the poor relief system, both at national (state) and local (municipalities) level. In the Children’s Act (Lastensuojelulaki) of 1936, child welfare was prescribed primarily as a part of the expanding social welfare system. According to the law, municipal authors had the right to and were responsible for protecting children. In addition to this bureaucratic trend, non-governmental activities – which in fact have a semi-governmental position under the special patronage of the government – diversified and expanded.


Post World War II until the late 1970s: child protection as an integral part of the universal welfare policy


In the true sense of the term, the development of social work as an academic field only began after World War II. Child welfare policy and public activities therein were still strongly influenced by the paternal and bureaucratic tradition. However, economic and political ground for the development of a strong welfare state was established in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, Finnish society was purposefully developed on the basis of universal social policy in terms of the Nordic welfare model. The aim was to provide a covering system of social security for every citizen in the form of wide national social insurance and an expansive system of welfare services. Both the social work profession and the child welfare system were developed within this framework.


After World War II, one of the most remarkable changes in social work relating to children was the paradigmatic shift towards child-centred policy-making. This has increasingly directed social policy and family policy towards child policy comprising special features that promote children’s rights and best interests. We do not argue that child policy is a new phenomenon in Finland, but rather there have been different phases in Finnish child policy at the national, regional and municipal levels. The paradigmatic shift is a way of capturing these changes in child policy and analysing the role of social work within it. The background of the paradigm in social work is not only rooted in child welfare research in social sciences, including social work, but also in the changes in society and the international development of children’s rights.


In the 1960s and 1970s there was an ideological turning point in child welfare, a transition from child protection to the development and promotion of the rights of children: from child protection policy to child policy (Pulma 2004, 18). The non-governmental organisations produced comprehensive child policy programmes for the development of child welfare in the frame of the massive welfare system. This era has been called a stage of radical child policy (Satka et al. 2002, 246). The aim was to improve children’s position in society fundamentally in the name of the values of democracy, equality, and social welfare. The way of thinking and speaking also changed in the legal dimension of child welfare, when civil law-based strategies increased alongside biased public law-based strategies, and soft methods were developed in the place of hard interventions (Saurama 2002, 86–88, 137–138).


After the 1960s, during the rapid development of the welfare state, social work was strongly attached to the public service system, which aimed at generating social security among citizens and population groups. There has been a strong administrative emphasis on social work, especially and increasingly during the strong growth of the service system in the late 1970s and 1980s. Since the beginning of the 1990s municipalities have found more freedom in the local welfare policy. The state steers municipalities by norms, resources and information, but the mechanisms of steering seem to be weak, especially when steering is done by policy-programmes in social and health care. This is why the role of local actors as social workers must be considered in the planning and implementation of welfare policy, including child policy. This also includes the challenges of child protection and social work concerning the most vulnerable children in society.


From the 1980s to the present: the promotion of children’s subject liberties and self-determination together with protection


In the 1980s, the tendency of subjectivism strengthened in child research, education and child policy. A child was seen increasingly from the point of view of individual rights and capacities for self-determination in legislation, research and professional practices (e.g. Alanen 1988). The new concept of child does tally with the constructivist paradigm of research and ethics that since the 1990s have had a strong influence on social and educational sciences, including social work research. The rhetoric of child policy has also been greatly shaped by this trend.


Contrary to the development of general human rights from liberties to extending welfare rights, children’s rights have been developed from protection towards the diversification of liberties. In today’s child policy, protective and liberating rights are developed both separately and together. The tendency is, as far as possible, to treat children as equal to adults. A concrete example of the development of children’s liberating rights in legislation is the right of the child to be listened to in a child protection process.


The reformation of the Children’s Act at the beginning of the 1980s was based on the idea of the subjective rights of children, which meant a new way of thinking in child policy and welfare legislation (Mikkola & Helminen 1994, 19–27). Efforts to promote children’s liberties came in addition to protective activities. The values of individual freedom, equality, democracy, prevention, and help based on individual need were acknowledged profoundly in child policy debate and implementation.


Since the 1980s, multi-professional collaboration has been highly emphasised in the promotion of children’s welfare. In terms of social, health, and educational services, the child welfare system is thought to be a multi-professional whole, a kind of network of different services for children and families, in which children have subjective rights as child-citizens.


Today’s child policy


Since the 1980s, perhaps already earlier, there have therefore been two basic motives in child policy: protection and liberation. In today’s child policy, there is concern about children’s well-being because of the rapid increase in the psycho-social problems of children and families. However, there is also a strive for the promotion of children’s participation, self-determination and freedom.


Since the 1980s, child policy has been strongly shaped by international contracts and declarations emphasising children’s rights for welfare and integrity. Finland is engaged in developing children’s position in society and welfare services for children and families according to the required standards from the point of view of the children’s best interests. This, of course, is not a task for any single profession or institution, but rather is the responsibility of the whole society in terms of the welfare system. However, social work is at the heart of the matter in fulfilling national duties.


Today’s child policy is an integral part of welfare policy, focusing primarily on developing and co-ordinating welfare services offered for children and families, and it is based on the values of democracy, equality and welfare. Children’s rights are increasingly comparable with general civil rights. The role of social work is to advocate children’s rights both in terms of protection and liberty. The judicial standards in child protection are based on the human rights conventions, specially on the convention of the Rights of the Child and on the decisions made in the European Court of Human Rights (Mikkola 2004, 73).


National, regional and local welfare programmes and strategies currently play an important role in development of the welfare system. The aim is to create structures and means for long-term and systematic development. In this context, today’s child policy takes much of its shape in strategy work organised by authorities in municipal, regional and state organs.


Obligations and the implementation of child policy and the role of social work therein


The international and European context for national child policy in Finland


First we must address the fact that child policy is not solely a national issue. Finland has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into operation in 1991. Since then, Finland has also committed to report regularly on how the country and its authorities have been able to promote children’s rights. One remarkable legislative change in Finland was the reform of the Constitution in 1995. The aim of this reform was to supplement the Constitution with international human rights obligations to which Finland was committed (Ulkoministeriö [The Ministry of Foreign Affairs] 1998, 5–7).


It is enacted in the law that children should be equally treated as individuals and subjects, and that they have a right to participate and influence decisions and matters affecting themselves. This is expressed in Article 12 in The Convention of the Rights of the Child:


State parties shall assure any child who is capable of forming his or her own views, the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting him/her; the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with his/her age and maturity.


This obligation is important in social work in which important decisions about a child’s care and foster care are made, or if a child is taken into custody. The social worker has to identify the best interests of the child and listen to the child in accordance with the child’s age and maturity (the Convention of the Rights of the child, Article 12: ‘the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child’). Another significant supplement constitutional level was in added in 1995; government officials have to support parents and legal guardians in their upbringing task. The State must render appropriate assistance to parents in the performance of child rearing and ensure the development of institutions and services for the care of children.


Social workers face this challenge in their work when they plan open care measures for children and families. Open care measures contain a wide range of services such as housing, financial support or more tailored family work. The goal to support families is not limited only to work with children, parents and families. It obliges social work, as a profession and a science, to influence the planning and evaluation of child and family policy. At policy level, one way to be influential is to study and evaluate child and family policy and produce information from social work practice, for example, on the consequences of family policy among children and families.


In addition to legislative cornerstones for promoting children’s rights, there are many national and international programmes and strategies that also support and complete the basis for child policy in Finland. In Europe these are, for example, the European Social Charter (Conroy 2005; Official Journal 2002) and the Community Action Programme to Combat Social Exclusion 2002-2006. Finland has answered this challenge by producing the National Plan of Action to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion. Other important programmes include those to combat drug abuse and drug trafficking (Action Plan to Combat Drugs 2000-2004) and those against the sexual exploitation of children (e.g. Jones 2003; Joint action 2005; see Mikkola 2004).


All of these are not just to support child policy but also for promoting rights and well-being among different population groups, including children. These are all important efforts, but there remains the need to have special programmes and strategies for child policy, in which children’s issues are focused upon separately from other population groups. The task to promote child policy in Europe needs internationally accepted principles and action plans which can be applied in child policy planning at national level. Some challenges in child protection require international cooperation. Such issues are, for example, challenges to combat drugs and the sexual exploitation of children.


The latest effort in Finland has been the new report of the Committee of Children’s Issues in Finland, appointed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The task of the committee was to formulate a national plan of action based on the United Nations document ‘A World Fit for Children’ (accepted in a United Nations’ special session in 2002). The committee’s plan provides that there should be widely accepted national child and family policy strategy for promoting the well-being of children and families in Finland.


The child’s best interest and meeting children’s needs are addressed as important issues in addition to guaranteeing services and economic resources for families. There are also other recommendations that should be included in further policies and activities in child policy. It is also highlighted that this committee and its recommendations supplement the previous national action plans in different sectors such as early education, education, and social and health care.


Obligations for and the implementation of child policy at the national, regional and local levels of the welfare system


Present-day child policy is closely connected with the politics of human rights. Generally speaking, child welfare is part of the common welfare system. According to international standards as well as the national legislation of Finland, child welfare is firmly linked both with the schooling system and the system of social services for children and families (e.g. Mikkola 2004, 66–72). Child policy is a part of welfare policy carried out by all the bodies of the welfare sector.


In the 1990s, a strategic way of thinking and working became general practice at all levels of the welfare system. Both general and sector-specific programmes and strategies have been produced. Different kinds of child policy issues are often included in general acts, and specific child policy programmes and strategies are also implemented at the different levels of the system. Child and youth policy programmes operate in a third of municipalities and are currently being drafted into another third of them (Fig. 1) (Eronen et al. 2005).



Fig. 1. Municipal welfare strategies and programmes in Finland (Eronen et al. 2005).


There are many kinds of highly specialised programmes, including for example those for elderly people, for disabled people, for intoxicant users, etc. These programmes differ from each other according to the age group or type of substance they relate to, respectively. Different authorities are responsible for working out welfare plans and programmes and implementing them at national, regional and local levels (Table 1). This applies also to child policy programmes.


Table 1. Characteristics of child welfare programmes and the main authorities of child welfare in Finland.


National level

Regional level

Local level (municipalities)

Welfare programmes

- Main lines and principles of the national welfare policy

- legislation

Welfare programmes

- Regional collaboration in the provision and administration of services

- steering and controlling mechanisms at the regional level

Welfare programmes

- Strategies for fulfilling legislation-based duties

- Municipal programmes in child policy


- Parliament, Government, Ministries (especially the

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health)


- County administrative board (State)

- Provincial Union, Provincial Government (Municipalities)

- Joint Municipal Authorities


- Local council, local authority committee

- Local administration system

- Municipal boards

Role of Social Work

- to influence child and family policy at international and national levels

- to produce information (also statistics) for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and for the Centre for Research and Development of Welfare and Health (called Stakes in Finnish)

- to report cases that are being appealed at a higher court, such as the European Court of Human Rights

- to participate in the reform of legislation as part of the development programme in the social field (as in 2005, the reform of Child Welfare Law in Finland)

- to participate in public discussion and elicit children’s rights in cooperation with other representatives from public sectors as well as with NGOs and citizens

Role of Social Work

- to participate in welfare policy at regional level

- to do this, social workers participate in regional programmes

- municipal social workers cooperate with representatives of social work education (universities) and participate in the activities in the centres of expertise in the social field

- to trace, plan and evaluate the welfare services in regions and smaller districts that consist of a few municipalities (to produce, for example, special services in social work, such as adoption counselling or foster care together with other municipalities)

- to report the state of social work and produce statistical information on the use of services (also at national level)

Role of Social Work

- to trace, support and evaluate the living conditions of children and families, and in order to do this:

- to participate in the planning and implementation of child policy at municipal level

- to plan services for children and families

- to cooperate with different sectors and professionals and with NGOs and citizens in promoting well-being in communities

- to work as professionals in preventive work and in the demanding tasks of open care and foster care


Thus, welfare programmes and strategies are drawn up at all administrative levels of the welfare system. At the national level, the programmes focus on the main principles of developing the welfare field.


One example in Finland is the new national development programme for child welfare, which is administered by The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The development of the programme has been spread across the country in regions (National Development Programme for Child Welfare [Lastensuojelun kehittämisohjelma] 2004). Regional cooperation in social welfare services is promoted by developing regional centres of 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.)


The national and municipal programmes for children and young people are usually based on the age or population group containing family indicators and services for the families. We can ask how differentiated programmes need to be regarding promoting and implementing child policy? There have been demands for different levels of strategies in Finnish child policy (Heino 2000, 69) and also demands for specialised strategies and policies within child policy.


This issue is relevant if we analyse the challenges of the child population according to age. For example, Marjatta Bardy and Tarja Janhunen (2001) were concerned about long-term foster placements in babyhood and how urgent placements were linked with anticipated difficulties in the child’s later life. They hastened to develop long-term child policy and strategies especially for demanding work with families with babies. In planning and implementing this kind of policy, multi-professional cooperation is needed between social and health care. There is also need for targeted programmes for young people and youth policy.


The question of targeting programmes and policies is related to securing resources for services. For example, focusing on mental health issues among children led to earmarked resources for mental health services for them. Still it should not be forgotten that children are part of the population, and that we need to balance the needs of children with the needs of other population groups in society. The needs of different groups of children should also be balanced and evaluated (for example, disabled children, etc.).


The regional programmes emphasise regional cooperation in the organisation of services. The main point is to ensure the quality of services by regional cooperation in terms of availability, cost-efficiency, and an adequate amount of personnel. The municipality level programmes deal especially with local characteristics and special features. They are often some form of strategic municipal plans for managing legislation-based obligations and standards. In the Finnish welfare system municipalities are responsible for providing sufficient welfare services in accordance with the rights of people.


The role and challenges of social work in the implementation of child policy


In principle, the Finnish welfare system greatly facilitates the policy-making orientation in social work because social work is seen as an essential instrument of the implementation of welfare policy and social care. Child policy is closely connected to the welfare system.


Social work has a special role in the node of service networks in child welfare, connecting with several activities dealing with the living conditions, health, education, and care of children (Fig. 2).



Fig. 2. Child welfare and the role of social work in the service system (Mikkola & Helminen 1994, 30).


Social work cooperates in close connection with basic or primary services such as schools, day care, and health care. The workers in other sectors have a legal obligation to report if a child (or children) is in need of child protection services. This may be the beginning of the work process in child protection social work: a primary assessment of the situation of a child and a family, and planning the open care together with the family and other parties involved. This work process may necessitate continuous cooperation with the representatives of health care or other sectors. For example, the plan for open care may consist of a place in a day care centre or family work. In this way, social workers can make use of the arsenal of primary services at their disposal.


In addition to these services, social workers must be familiar with the workings of special services such as therapy, services for intoxicant users, or services in residential care. These may be needed in working with families in open care and in planning support for the child. Also in cases in which a child is taken into custody and placed in foster care, the whole range of services should be available to the child and the family according to their individual needs and the best interests of the child.


Thus, social work plays a central role in the promotion of children’s welfare in cooperation with other sectors and service providers. In addition to grass roots level activities, social work has to influence the service system and child policy at the national, regional and local levels. In municipalities, social work has to evaluate the availability and quality of services as a part of municipal welfare and child policy. This is important in order to guarantee the services for all of the families and also for vulnerable groups of children.


In brief, the role of social work in child welfare may be understood as: 1) a part of social work supporting children and families in straight cases of work (also including the issues of custody, adoption, paternity, maintenance, and issues pertaining to family law), 2) supporting families in housing and financial support and the whole range of services in day care, school, health care, as well as overall issues on how to promote safe growing environments for the children, and 3) social work as a part of child policy in general child policy and child legislation (Mikkola 2004, 61).


The Finnish welfare system is strongly shaped by rapid changes in financial conditions, and the facilities for policy-making social work are under pressure. On the other hand, the contribution of social work expertise is badly needed for policy-making in attempts at the reorganisation of the welfare service system.


From the point of view of social work with children and families, the most important challenge of today’s child policy applies to the guaranteeing of financial and organizational preconditions for policy-making and prevention-orientated social work alongside the decrease in public sector resources and the reorganisation of the welfare system. There is a need to promote children’s rights and the best interests of children in terms which further favourable conditions for children’s welfare.


Outplacement, regionalisation and networking are new strategies used by public authorities in maintaining the welfare system. Problems in the provision and financing of welfare services have a fundamental effect on the implementation of child policy. This endangers the materialisation of the standards of child welfare in practice. Social workers are professionally involved in child policy-making in terms of demanding compliance with standards under economic stress.


In social work, in addition to organisational reshuffles, emphasis is especially placed on a new kind of expertise in terms of research-based reflective practice (e.g. Satka et al. 2005). This trend of expertise is connected with academic skills, in particular, research-based education. From the point of view of policy-making and advocacy in child welfare and policy, social workers are presumed to have sufficient intellectual capacities and qualifications in research-based problem-solving, knowledge-production, and argumentation. This kind of expertise should be characterised as committed social work.




In Finland, child policy has developed from the protection of children towards the promotion of their participation and self-determination. Social workers play a central role in advocating children’s rights in both of these dimensions. There is a strong tendency to develop methods for advocacy and empowerment in social work with children and families.


Social workers take an active part in policy-making in child policy by promoting children’s rights in welfare and child policy programmes of municipalities and regions. In this context, they watch over children’s interests. Ultimately, social work is the professional institution that attends to the implementation of child policy in practice in the welfare system. Social workers play a strategic role therein.


From the point of view of social work, the most important challenge of today’s child policy applies to the guaranteeing of financial and organisational preconditions for policy-making and prevention-orientated social work while resources are decreasing and the welfare system is about to be reorganised. This requires a new kind of expertise in social work in terms of advocacy and policy-making based on academic skills, enabling social workers to participate effectively in the planning and preparation of political forums at all the levels of the welfare system and society.




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