International Focus: SOS Children's Villages, Finland


Finland has a population of 5.5 million. Despite being a relatively wealthy country - its per capita output is equivalent to France - it has an unemployment rate of nearly 10 per cent and youth unemployment is double that level. Nearly one million Finns earn too little to cover their costs of living, with one in 10 children having welfare needs.

Rising economic hardship over the past decade has seen increased demand for welfare and social services has turned attention to intervening earlier. This has led to the growth in preventative services run by the voluntary sector, such as SOS Children's Villages, aimed at working intensively with families.

CULTURE AND SOCIETY

Finland's municipalities account for half of public spending, which is financed by municipal income tax, state subsidies, and other revenue. As of 2017, there are 311 municipalities, and most have fewer than 6,000 residents.

Finland's social protection system is underpinned by an assessment of each municipalities' social needs. Information from this is then used to shape welfare services. The aim is to provide a sufficient level of support across an area, rather than targeted interventions against poverty.

While this approach has led to a comprehensive social care system, support tends to be reactive instead of preventative.

SOCIAL POLICIES

Before the implementation of the Finnish National Action Plan 2001, the Finnish government did not have specific policies targeting poverty and social exclusion. The action plan lists the measures to combat poverty and exclusion that the government, labour market organisations and the third sector have committed themselves to.

However, it has not been updated since, and some care experts say that this means the country is not responding to the complexity of families' needs.

SOS Children's Villages were first established in Finland in the 1960s, and are legally regarded as institutions. Enabled by the Child Welfare Act, they provide child welfare services, with the goal of decreasing the number of children living in vulnerable conditions. The municipalities buy the services from the villages, which comprise almost 90 per cent of the costs and the rest is covered by fundraising and other sources.

VILLAGE PRACTICE

The purpose of the villages is to provide family based care for vulnerable children, strengthen families at risk of breakdown, and improve community child and family welfare responses.

The villages are in a variety of locations around the country, both urban and rural.

They are made aware of children and families in need of the services by social welfare authorities from the municipalities who contact the villages to find out if there is a place for the vulnerable child or family.

They aim to prevent family separation by providing parents with better life skills, to boost their resilience, and encourage better interaction within a household.

Where children require being taken into care for a period, foster families live in "integrated villages" in the community with close supervision provided by SOS support workers. This approach helps to alleviate the stigma children may face as a result of being in care.

Social workers coordinate the child's placement into a village or family, where the birth parents and foster parents meet. The SOS social worker keeps in contact with and coordinates support for the child and the foster family, and cooperates with the municipal social worker and birth parents to meet the needs of the child.

They specialise in taking care of siblings together, as well as children with special needs and children whose birth parents are challenging to co-operate with. They have constant access to therapy, counselling, group activities and hobbies.

There are now four "traditional" villages, and five "integrated" villages in the country supporting families and providing foster care for nearly 200 children.

IMPACT

Since leaving SOS care, more than 90 per cent of young people have a degree from secondary education. In addition, nearly four out of five care leavers are employed.

The villages' family-like environment and strong support for young people entering independent life is a key factor in these high progress rates.

SOS Finland's "Impact Insight" portfolio shows that 90.3 per cent of children leaving their care were satisfied with their lives, with 91 per cent performing well as parents.

Each year, up to 10 per cent of children placed in foster care can return to their families.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UK

This is an interesting method of providing intensive support and supervision of families where there is a high risk of children entering state care. The published results suggest positive outcomes for many and in view of that, this would indeed be a useful service design to consider for UK systems.

The model appears to build on UK models of residential family placements for families at risk and analysis will be needed with regard to how well families can sustain progress when returning to communities. But the results would suggest this is an innovation that would benefit from our further consideration.

David Derbyshire, director of practice improvement, Action for Children

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