Analysis of a Local Case of Support Person Practice

First, we explore how the main agents upholding PSP are positioned relative to each other, and how the making of a support relationship is relationally accomplished and sustained. Next, to understand the valued cultural (and other) resources that volunteers are seen to need in order to deliver successful 'support' to the children, we focus on the qualities of a 'good' or 'appropriate' support relationship as described in the documents and by the coordinator and the volunteers. Finally, we work towards identifying the actual effects of the practice as reported by the interviewed support persons: what does the practice accomplish, how and why?

The documentary materials are coded by the letter 'D' and a number (D1, D2, etc.). Similarly, the ten interviews are coded by the letter 'I' and a number (I1, I2, etc.). The interview with the coordinator of the support activities is identified as IC.

The Making of a Support Relationship

In the local case studied here, the two main agents involved in setting up a support relationship are the municipal child welfare agency (Agency) and the non-governmental child welfare organization (Organization). The latter currently provides support person services as a purchased service for the municipal body responsible for social services.

Setting up a support relationship between a child and a volunteer can only start after a child welfare client's need of a support person has been assessed and confirmed by a social worker. The social worker also sets the goals of the support relationship in co-operation with the child and his/her parent(s), and monitors and evaluates progress made (IC; also D1; D6, 19).

The social worker first discusses the idea with the child and his/her parent(s) and only then delivers a support person application to the Organization. Children and parents may inform the social worker of their wishes regarding the support person (IC; also D5; D6, 21), but they do not make the final decision who the support person will be. After receiving the application, the Organization recruits a volunteer to act as the child's support person. Volunteers will not be informed about the reasons why the children (and their families) have become child welfare clients (IC).

Although basically laypersons, support persons nevertheless need to fulfill certain requirements. Candidates are interviewed individually by the organizational coordinator of the service. The interview covers various topics, including potential substance abuse, religious and other 'strong' convictions, illnesses, and criminal record.

Candidates are required to participate in a training sessions provided by the Organization and comprising 24 hours in total. (IC; also D6, 10–18; D8, 14–16). After training the would-be volunteer signs a confidentiality agreement that resembles the agreement signed by professionals in the public welfare system (IC; also D1; D6, 26–7; D8, 36). In addition, volunteers are instructed to report their child-related concerns to the coordinator, who is then legally bound to submit a child welfare notification if needed.

Volunteers are expected to report regularly to the Organization on progress made in their relationship with 'their' child and are required to be present at the biannual assessment meetings along with the child, the parent(s), the responsible social worker and the coordinator (IC; also D6, 21–3; D8, 18).

The coordinator is clearly the key person in the operation of PSP, as s/he is in contact with all the agents in the field. S/he decides with whom a child should start the support relationship, matches the child-volunteer pairs and organizes the first official meeting where the child, the parent(s), the volunteer, the social worker and the coordinator are all present. In relation to the volunteers, the coordinator mainly provides training, support and control. S/he also takes care of a number of practical matters concerning the maintenance of support relationships once they get started. The child, the parent(s), the volunteer, the social worker and the coordinator sign an official agreement to start the relationship. The agreement is valid for one year, as the municipality allots funding for support person services for one year at a time (IC). The agreement includes such details as the schedule of child-volunteer meetings and progress assessment date (IC; also D1; D6, 22). According to the volunteers, mothers, on behalf of their children, are often the key persons with whom the details of the agreement are negotiated. Children in this context are positioned as 'clients' in relation to the child welfare agency, the Organization providing the service, and their individual support persons. However, the starting stage of a support relationship is in fact rather adult-led: it is adult-initiated, agreed upon by adults, and the main items concerning the support relationship (rationale, goals, timetable) are mostly decided upon by adults, especially when the child is young.

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