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The Support Person Practice in Finnish Child Welfare

In the Nordic countries, social work services are publicly financed and municipally organized, in accordance with national legislation. Child welfare (alternatively called 'child protection') is an integral part of a fairly comprehensive system of

2 The terms 'volunteer' or 'voluntary work' have multiple meanings, as a vast number of voluntary activities and agencies exist. Here we use a common definition of volunteering as 'unpaid work chosen by individuals themselves, and carried out within the framework of an organization to assist other individuals to whom they owe no familial or contractual obligation' (Jegermalm and Grassman 2013). municipal social work services for children and families. The practical operation of these services is mainly the responsibility of municipal social workers.

It is widely assumed that Finland, along with the other Nordic countries, takes a preventive and family service oriented view on child welfare issues (e.g. Pösö 2011; Blomberg, Kroll, and Meeuwisse 2012). The stated aim, also of child welfare services, is to support families through so-called 'open care' measures or in-home services. These measures include a variety of psychosocial, financial and practical supportive services such as home help, financial support and support persons, whereas taking children out of the family and into public care is regarded as a last resort of intervention.

PSP has been used in municipal child welfare since the beginning of the 1970s, although it only became official with the Child Welfare Act of 1983 (Act 1983/683, 13 §). The method has its origin in the radical social welfare reforms of the 1960s and the 1970s. The existing welfare model became increasingly regarded as bureaucratic, control-centred, stigmatizing and even detrimental to its clients (e.g. Harrikari 2008, 106−13). Thus a key aim of the reforms was to revise the ideology of social welfare: existing practices were to be changed to help implement the principles of client-centeredness, voluntariness, normality and prevention.

The current Child Welfare Act stipulates that the municipal body responsible for social services 'must, wherever necessary, arrange a support person (or family) for the child deemed to be in need of support'. A child welfare social worker should first assess and decide on the need of provision, so that before a support relationship is started an official decision has to be made about the terms and conditions under which the support person will be collaborating with the child. A support person cannot be appointed against the will of the child or the parent(s) of the child, and children of any age must have the opportunity to present their own views and wishes (Act 2007/417, 5 §, 20 §, 36 §).

The service can be provided by the municipal child welfare agency, but also purchased from a private foror non-profit organization. Currently, municipalities' need for support persons is not being met, despite the widespread use of PSP in child welfare open care services (e.g. Valtiontalouden tarkastusvirasto 2012, 37–40). The considerable lack of knowledge and statistical information as well as research on PSP, despite its nearly 40-year history, is therefore surprising, raising the question why so much trust is laid on the practice as a presumably effective open care method (cf. Brännström, Vinnerljung, and Hjern 2013). Here, one of our aims is to suggest a tentative answer to this question.

Data and Methods of Analysis

This exploratory study utilizes two types of data: documentary data and thematic interviews. The documentary data (listed in the end) include web-published introductions to the support person practice produced by municipal
or governmental authorities, and reports and guidebooks published by two NGO's acting in the child welfare.

Thematic interviews were conducted with ten volunteer support persons whose support activities are organized by a child welfare NGO operating in a mediumsized Finnish town. We also interviewed the coordinator of these activities. The support persons comprised eight women and two men, and ranged in age between 21 and 66 years. Most, however, were either in their twenties or early thirties – often students – or over fifty. Experience as a support person varied between three months and eight years, and in most cases was at least one year. The children 'supported' by these volunteers were between age 6 and 17 and comprised girls and boys in roughly equal numbers.

Analysis of Data

Text analytical methods were applied to the documentary data, to reveal the prevailing dominant discourses currently upholding PSP as a legitimate child welfare practice, the personal characteristics regarded as appropriate to and properties valued in a support person, and the social and cultural resources that support persons are expected to bring into the child–adult relationship.

The analysis of the interviews aimed at illuminating the everyday operation of PSP, although necessarily limited to the adult actor's position in the support relationship and in relation to the host organization. A systematic thematic analysis of the transcriptions was conducted, with particular focus on the expressions used by the support persons' and their evaluations of the intergenerational nature of their experience.

The final analysis, presented in the next section, involved cross-reading and merging the results of the twofold analyses. This was followed by the last analytical step: setting our findings within a Bourdieusian frame.

 
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