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"Once you check in you don't check out" -- Finland's long haul foster care placements

In some cases children may only get out of foster care when they turn 18.

Dramatisoitu kuva, jossa lapsi istuu nurkassa suojaten kädellä päätään ja torjuen uhkaa toisella.
There were 18,928 children and adolescents separated from their families and living in alternative care during 2019, according to public health agency THL. File photo. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle
Yle News

Once children are placed in foster care in Finland, they very often stay there, according to a recent report by a public health agency. One parent whose children were taken into care seven years ago says the nearly one billion euros spent annually keeping kids in alternative care should instead be used to assist families that need help.

Arthur*, a divorced father of four who emigrated to Finland from the US, says he has been fighting to get two of his children out of foster care since they were first placed outside the home in 2013. Arthur’s real name is not being used to protect the identities of the children.

More than six years later, the older child aged out of her care institution in 2019 when she turned 18. The other, now aged 15, is still in foster care at a professional family home and there is no sign that the authorities have any intention of revoking his placement order.

"Once you check in, you don’t check out," Arthur said of the system. "I was living in the US at the time. I learned that they were taken straight from class and placed outside the home. I relocated to Finland in July 2013 to be with the kids but they were never released from care," he told Yle News.

Arthur’s name has been changed and certain details relating to the case have been withheld to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

"The kids were separated"

Yle News has seen official documentation confirming the initial removal of the children from their mother’s care by social workers and placement outside the home in 2013 over concerns for their welfare.

The records show that a child welfare notification had been filed and that social workers believed the children were living in an unstable situation.

The original placement decision has since been renewed periodically, citing the provisions of Finland’s Child Welfare Act, and declaring that enforcement should not be delayed if the kids’ health and development are to be protected.

"The kids were separated and were not allowed to visit each other," Arthur said, noting that after a transition period in a family support centre in eastern Finland, the older child, then 12, was placed in a foster care institution, while the younger, then eight, was placed with a foster family. The family’s two other children were much older and were not taken into care.

Arthur said that he applied for full custody of the children in court, but a judge decided against granting sole custody to either parent.

"It was never clear why I was not adequate. They invoked the children’s best interests and the fact that the parents did not get along," Arthur said of the decision.

Placements "rarely dissolved"

Arthur’s youngest child was one of 18,928 children and adolescents separated from their families and living in alternative care during 2019, according to figures from the National Institute for Health and Welfare, THL.

Martta Forsell is a specialist at THL and co-author of the institution’s 2019 report on the child protection system (in Finnish). It is an annual review that compiles statistics and tracks trends in the system. The latest report zeroed in on an increase in the number of child welfare alerts filed with authorities.

It also offered many other insights into the system, including the finding that once children are placed in foster care, they rarely return home.

"[Decisions on] care placements are rarely dissolved," the report declared. The authors noted that on 31 December 2017, 93 percent of children up to the age of 15 who had been placed in alternative care, had still not returned home two years later.

Forsell told Yle News that when children are placed outside the home, there is generally no fixed time period assigned to the placement. Initial placements may be six months, but a decision can then be made to extend them.

"When a decision is made to place a child in care it is rarely 'resolved' [voided]. In practice care placements resolve when a child turns 18," she continued.

The THL report noted that in 2019, about 25 percent of children and teens in care had been wards of the state for nearly seven years.

During that same year, one-third of the kids had been away from home for at least half of their lives. The authors of the report noted that this situation had changed little since 2016.

From the frying pan...

In Arthur’s case, the older of the two children was released from a foster care institution at the age of 18. The father described bullying, neglect and at least one instance of violent restraint by workers at the institution and said his daughter still bears the scars of her seven years in alternative care.

"The institution was terrible, it was dirty, toilets were filthy. My children have also been targets of racist and ethnic assaults. My daughter is still traumatised and she still doesn’t trust the world."

Child protection social workers reference the children’s best interests and the desire to shield them from possible harm or neglect when kids are placed outside the home. However in an analysis of data from a 2019 School Health Survey (in Finnish, abstract also in English) released in October, the THL said that the rights of children in alternative care are not sufficiently safeguarded.

You can listen to Yle News' All Points North podcast discuss foster care placements via the embedded player here or via Yle Areena, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or your usual podcast player using the RSS feed.

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The report found that 29 percent of year eight and nine teens in foster care reported physical violence, while 47 percent said they had experienced psychological violence at the hands of a parent or adult during the previous year, even if they had not been living at home.

The agency also noted that 36 percent of adolescents placed outside the home said that they had been punished at a care facility for reasons unknown to them -- nearly half (49%) of kids in institutional care said they had received group punishment.

One in five said they had been deprived of food as a sanction and one-fifth of adolescents surveyed said they did not know the social worker handling their case.

The rise of foster care corporations

Arthur said that his youngest child was taken into custody by social workers when he was just eight years old out of an abundance of concern for his welfare. Now aged 15, the teen still wants to return home, he added, but authorities say the family situation is not sufficiently stable.

"If they are concerned about health and efficiency it would have been much cheaper to help the family. It seems like it’s better to pay these corporate entities than to help individuals," he declared, referring to the growing presence of large firms in the institutional foster care business.

A 2018 working paper (in Finnish) on the role of the private sector in foster care in Finland, noted a surge in private companies entering the foster care sector.

The analysis found that while private service providers accounted for around 23 percent of care facilities in 1988, that proportion had risen to 80 percent by 2018. The largest firms owned roughly 20 percent of care units in 2018.

The authors of the paper, Jyväskylä University master’s student Petta Porko and THL experts Tarja Heino and Pia Eriksson noted that the field was characterised by big companies snapping up smaller firms and setting up new units.

They also reported that in line with market logic, large corporations tended to avoid setting up shop in sparsely populated areas and that competition usually resulted in cost consciousness and a tendency to limit spending in areas such as staffing.

An expensive business

Julia Kuokkanen, a senior advisor with the Central Union for Child Welfare, said that in principle, Finland believes in the rehabilitation of parents and that the Finnish child protection system aims to support families in order to avoid the need to take a child into custody.

"On a legal basis we are trying to reunite families even if the child has been placed outside of the home. Even though this is clear on a legal basis, and on a value basis, it still does not happen that often," she told Yle News.

"The problem is that the number of children in alternative care is rising and the costs are rising year by year, even though there have been many measures put into preventive services," she added.

According to Sotkanet, a THL collection of health and welfare statistics, Finland spent 883 million euros on child welfare in 2019, virtually unchanged from 880 million euros in 2019. However the figure had been steadily increasing since 2008.

A report (in Finnish) on child protection costs in Finland’s six largest cities -- Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Turku, Oulu and Tampere -- indicates that combined child protection costs in 2019 amounted to around 400 million euros. Accommodating children in care placements represented the lion’s share of that spending at roughly 318 million euros or nearly 80 percent of costs.

Spending on foster care placements rose in five of the six major municipalities, with only Turku spending less in 2019 compared to 2018. The report also noted that the majority of placements in these municipalities had been long term.

The average cost of keeping a child in care for a year in the big six ranged from just over 37,000 euros in Oulu to nearly 62,500 euros in Helsinki. The average daily cost of a placement for each child in these cities in 2019 ran from either side of 100 euros for family foster care to a maximum of 434 euros for municipal institutions in Tampere. The highest average daily fee for private institutions providing care was 380 euros, also in Tampere.

No national register of providers

The THL-co-authored working paper on the role of the private sector in institutional foster care noted that Finland has no national register of foster care providers, a point that Kuokkanen also highlighted.

"We don’t have a register about what kind of institutional care providers we have and what they do. We’ve been talking a lot about that. We need to have a register that would be open to social workers so they can always check and be assured that these services are good for the children," she stressed.

She added that Finland’s system for monitoring and supervising foster care providers is fragmented, and that there is a need to clarify and harmonise the roles and responsibilities of different actors.

"Guidance and supervision of alternative care is provided by several different parties. We have social workers, municipal institutions’ care units, regional government agencies, Valvira," she said, referring to the Supervisory Authority for Health and Welfare.

On top of that, municipalities are hamstrung by resourcing shortages that affect their capacity to monitor providers. Kuokkanen noted that supervisory budgets are often insufficient and there is inadequate staff for these activities.

"If you think about family foster care, supervision is performed only by social workers responsible for children. And social workers’ resources are limited, so in that way, there is very little that we know about what is actually going on," she cautioned.

"All policy is child policy"

The Central Union for Child Welfare was among 24 NGOs that presented a shadow report on economic and social rights in Finland (in Finnish) to the United Nations in September. Lodged by the Finnish League for Human Rights, the report included recommendations to revamp child protection services and outlined a number of prescriptions to improve the foster care system, but it placed particular emphasis on the need for a unified oversight structure.

Kuokkanen also pointed to a national child strategy currently in the works that would create an overarching structure for governance and decision-making related to child welfare. She said that one of the most important goals of the strategy will be to assess the impact of decisions made on children.

"Many politicians and many people in general have a very narrow view of what affects children, but we have to understand that basically all policy is child policy. Because every decision that is made affects the wellbeing of kids directly or indirectly. Whether we are building roads, new community areas or figuring out where buses run, it will all affect families and their situations."

Meanwhile, Arthur said that he continues to hope that his son will be released from foster care before he too leaves the system at age 18. Until then, he said he is doing what he can to ensure he can continue to be there for him when that day comes.

"I’m 69 now and I’m retired but I’m trying to stay healthy for the kids. What else do I have but the children? I’m basically trying to be here for my kids."

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