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Finnish child protection measures face heat over 8-year-old’s case

Two social workers from Helsinki have criticised their office’s management for not allocating enough resources for legally bound child protection work. The workers say that executives and management should have their areas of responsibility scrutinised.

Lapsi leikkii leikkihevosella.
Finger-pointers in 8-year-old Eerika's child protection scandal are looking for someone to blame for oversights. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

The dispute arose on Friday when District Prosecutor pressed charges on 11 people for neglecting their official duties. An 8-year-old child, Eerika, was brutally killed in 2013 by her father and step-mother; both denied charges but were sentenced to life in prison for murder.

A total of 11 child welfare reports were filed, but none were responded to and Eerika stayed with her violent father. Now no compensation is expected, and the uproar surrounding the case is in full swing.

“Of course things like this shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” says social worker Timo Kitunen. “The whole course of events is so hard to comprehend, no one was prepared for this situation.”

Four of the 11 charged were social workers in grassroots child protection. Social worker Silja Remes says that information flow problems and organisational oversights should have been scrutinised.

“The question this raises is of an individual employee’s responsibility in cases like these,” she says. “The issue at stake is of the ways in which working conditions are maintained and how working teams are organised, which are decisions that are not on the heads of individual workers.”

"Many children left behind"

The current affairs program A-Studio interviewed the Helsinki director of child protection, Sisko Lounatvuori, who said that the responsibility and liability affairs of social workers within the organisation are in order – blatantly contradicting the stance of the social workers themselves.

Lounatvuori cited resource figures that put Helsinki on top, and equivocated over where the actual blame in Eerika’s case could be laid.

“Whether social workers have too much on their plates is a legislative concern,” she said in the TV show interview.

Both Kitunen and Remes say that any one social worker could face similar charges under the current measures in use. Neither worker had a hand in little Eerika’s reports.

“We would like to think that we would have responded to the reports more conscientiously,” Remes says.

“But with a caseload of up to 40 children per social worker, rushes can occur and situations are seldom as clear in reality as they seem to be on paper. I can’t speak to the information the officials in charge had at the time, for instance.”

Hard lines

8-year-old Eerika had been placed in social care previously, but had been sent back home to her father after a brief appraisal of living conditions.

“We have far too little time to actually meet with children in need, and the risk of leaving a little one behind is constantly increasing,” says Kitunen, who was one of the social workers to sign the indictment on the city of Helsinki’s management in March.

Times are rough in the Social Services Department, he says.

“I’ve worked in the department since 1988, and values have definitely hardened in that time,” he describes. “It’s good ot be cost-effective, but the current situation is deplorable.”

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