High numbers of children in foster care, insufficient supervision of alternative care facilities, inadequate training of social workers – over the years, local and international bodies have flagged numerous shortcomings in Finland’s child protection and foster care system. One critic says the system is broken partly because of a whistle-blower culture, unfettered power given to social workers - and big bucks paid out for children placed in care.
Stephen*, a UK national, has been in Finland for just over 15 years and lives in the southwest with his family. He says he has been unjustly treated by a child protection system that targeted his family over anonymous reports that his children faced physical violence.
"The children were interviewed on one occasion to confirm or remove the allegations that they were being abused. And those interviews confirmed that the allegations were untrue – they were false."
After a 3-year battle that involved the local Administrative Authority, Stephen was eventually cleared of the allegations and his children were not taken into care.
Stephen was one of several who answered Yle News’ call to share their personal experiences with the child protection system. Most accounts were overwhelmingly negative, with individuals expressing feelings of humiliation, anger, frustration and a sense of futility and hopelessness against the might of the child welfare machine.
"It would seem that there are two standards, one under which the foster families and the private for-profit entities who contract with the government cannot possibly be guilty of any wrong, and the other whereby the slightest real or imaginary fault by the real parents justifies the indefinite incarceration of the child," said one father, Claude*, with two children in foster care.
Leeni Ikonen is a senior lawyer who has long campaigned for change in the Finnish child protection system. She said reforms introduced in 2008 have created a kind of whistle-blower culture that has put families at the mercy of informants and child care workers.
"This legal framework emphasizes the power of the officials. Social workers have unlimited power and the family’s access to legal protection is non-existent. This leads to the fact that we always end up discussing the same problems: child protection is unpredictable and clients never know what to expect when they become clients of the child protection system."
The child protection worker was very supportive and helpful
My kids went into foster care at the end of December 2013. They were away for six months. It was after I became separated and I was sick and needed medication. They were in open care with a foster family and we had regular weekend visits. They were very well taken care of by the foster family. The youngest had a skin condition and looked very healthy. The child protection worker was very supportive and helpful.
Families are being destroyed with false accusations. Too much power is given to social workers.
This system is broken and it is very difficult for people with foreign backgrounds. I never received any translation services. My kids were taken after her mother and I separated. We had joint custody and the mother wanted the children, but I refused. A child welfare worker came and took the children away without any prior notification – no calls or letters. I was only able to meet the officials one month after the incident and didn’t see my child for four months. When my daughter asked me to take her home after school one day the social workers called the police and I was arrested for kidnapping. Prosecutors later dismissed the charges. Local officials even apologised. I am in poor health and could not fight the heavy bureaucracy so I agreed to give up custody under constant harassment. Officials don’t listen to the children, either. My daughter complained about her mother and was taken into care but returned two months later, only to be placed in care again. She is now in permanent care in an institution that is not a home but more like a prison. This process has destroyed my family and families are being destroyed with false accusations. The courts listen only to social workers, who don’t even conduct investigations into claims. Too much power is being given to social workers and they do what they want. I have appealed to the Administrative Court but it has been nine months with no answer. Finnish children are also suffering in this system.
Follow the money
Ikonen is also the founder of an NGO known as the October Movement that advocates for parents and children caught up in child protection cases. She charged that that the system’s spin-off, foster care, has become an industry that needs a steady supply of clients.
"No one in Finland has asked how much it costs, this system of child discrimination. We are ready to pay 15,000 euros a month to foster care providers that speak of diagnoses and symptoms and we don’t demand quality from them. … It’s certainly a billion-euro business nowadays."
Yle News asked Social and Health Affairs Ministerial Counsellor Marjo Lavikainen to respond to Ikonen’s claims. But she said the state doesn’t actually know how much the nation is spending on foster care.
"We also want to know more about it, so we have asked THL to look more closely at the cost of child welfare services and we will get a report this spring", Lavikainen said.
Yle News reached out to the national Institute of Health and Welfare, THL, to see whether they had any hard data on the money moving through the system. The organisation’s number crunchers provided a report, "Comparison of child protection services and costs for six largest cities in 2014" by the Kuusikko child protection working group. It provided figures on child welfare costs for six major cities: Helsinki, Vantaa, Espoo, Turku, Tampere and Oulu.
If I don’t do as they say they threaten to take the kids away. Even my lawyer says I should shut up … and that I can’t fight the system.
I have been enduring a violation of my human rights for 10 years. When I came to Finland my ex-husband began to be physically violent. In 2007 my children and I had to be taken to a halfway house. I couldn’t understand Finnish at the time and I had no translator and didn’t know what was being said. In 2010 he attempted to kill us and police would not investigate the case. When I moved out he used the child protection system against me. I didn’t have translation services and only my ex-husband’s words were recorded. In 2015 a local judge gave the father full custody without consulting me, without proof or process. So a bailiff and child protection worker came to my home and tried to take the children. I was physically abused in the process. The kids were placed in foster care and then given to their father. Some months later the children were taken from their father and placed in care. When the father threatened the children the workers refused to allow him to visit them. Because of my profession I was ordered to pay a 15,000-euro penalty because he was not allowed to see the children. I have appealed the custody decision twice but I have been turned down without explanation. I have now had the kids since December and am being forced to meet with social workers three times a week for 1.5 hours. I have always taken good care of the kids; the school and friends can confirm this. No one wants to listen to them. They have no respect for working people or family life or the children. I don’t have any control. If I don’t do as they say they threaten to take the kids away. Even my lawyer says I should shut up or everyone will be against me and that I can’t fight the system.
It’s been three years and I’m seeing the kids less and less frequently. It’s like the kids for cash, for-profit system in the US.
My Finnish companion (mother of all my children) and I had lived abroad 20 years when she decided to bring our four kids here for what I believed to be a visit. She later decided to stay and not allow me to have contact with them. This triggered an abduction case under the Hague Convention. It took almost 2 years for the case to go before the Finnish Supreme Court. It was ruled that I could take the kids back to the US immediately.
Since they had been in Finland for almost two years, I was urged to allow them to stay as they seemed habituated to Finland and the possibility of appeal by their mother would mean another lengthy court battle. So we made a contract that I could visit them and they could visit me in US.
I stayed in the US and visited regularly, but in April 2013 the two smaller children were taken into foster care: one was placed with a family and another in an institution. They were separated from each other and parents by about 50 kilometers. Child protection workers decided it was in their best interests to be placed into care because the elder of the two had been skipping school. There were no issues with the youngest. I was urged by the social workers to move to Finland: "your presence would greatly help their recovery from the traumas..."
It’s been three years and I’m seeing the kids less and less frequently. I would have probably seen them more, had I stayed in US and visited! I think they’ll keep them until they can’t legally keep them any longer. Now seeing them no more than twice a month, separately.
The older of the two who was a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) student in US, now refuses to attend classes. They have been bullied and in fact I found out that a much older kid beat my youngest in the school bus. There have been many incidences of neglect and injury. The older child was violently restrained by some young so-called social workers and she was bruised. A similar incident occurred with the other when he was 9. In the case of the foster family the parents divorced and we never found out until months afterwards. The kids were never in any danger from their mother or me.
It would seem that there are two standards, one under which the foster families and the private for profit entities who contract with the government can not possibly be guilty of any wrong, and the other whereby the slightest real or imaginary fault by the real parents justifies the indefinite incarceration of the child. Sadly, it seems like the old story of crony capitalism and corruption. A private sector that profits from this with the complicity of those who are supposed to have, for only consideration, the best interest of the child. It’s like the kids for cash, for-profit system in the US.
Six cities spend over 260 million on foster care in 2014
Total spending on child welfare services by the six-city group in 2014 was 329,878,580 euros. Helsinki forked out the greatest amount of money, nearly 126 million.
The report noted that, "The cost of placements are the largest item of spending in the total cost of child protection."
Altogether these six municipalities spent more than 262 million euros on placements in 2014, corresponding to 79.4 percent of child protection expenses.
To keep children in institutional or family foster care, Helsinki spent just over 100 million euros, Espoo close to 38 million, Vantaa 39 million, Turku 37 million, Tampere 27 million, and Oulu 21 million. With the exception of Oulu (35.8 percent) all spent well over half of these sums (60 – 77 percent) on institutional care.
|City||Amount spent on placements|
In 2014 the average cost of keeping a child for a stint of alternative care in these municipalities was 51,174 euros; Turku paid most per child at 59,533 euros and Oulu the least at 32,822 euros.
In a separate data set, THL revealed that in 2014 Finland had a total of 89 child welfare institutions run by the state, municipalities or joint municipal boards. The total number of private care institutions and professional family homes was 615, while foster families and families providing care services by way of a commission agreement amounted to 4,290.
I know that I am not the only victim and have decided - despite the risk of further harassment - to speak out against these injustices.
The social workers were told that the children were being threatened at both gun and knifepoint and being physically beaten - these claims are untrue and have been investigated and affirmed as untrue. Other persons including schoolteachers also provided social workers with false information; they were accusing me of trying to abduct the children from their school.
The cases were resolved only following many time-consuming interviews and meetings - social workers refused to protect us from a terror campaign of false accusations. I only got the issues resolved by the local regional administrative office. People can and did lie to social workers knowing that they would never have to answer for this bullying.
My experiences lead me to the conclusion that far too much authority has been delegated to local authorities that are largely unaccountable for both professional and ethical decisions. I know that I am not the only victim and have decided - despite the risk of further harassment - to speak out against these injustices.
The social workers say they don’t know when I will get the kids back and that I need to cooperate with the system.
When I came to Finland I had 2 children already. I married a Finn and we had 4 kids together. Our interaction with child protection authorities started because of constant fights with my husband, now my ex-husband. I didn’t understand Finnish and didn’t always have an interpreter and only later realized that my husband told the officials terrible things about me. My younger Finnish kids have been clients of the system all their lives. On many occasions neighbours reported us to the child protection officials. In 2008 we divorced and in 2009 the kids were taken into care for the first time for three weeks. The second time they were taken into care was three months ago. The youngest didn’t like daycare and caused a lot of trouble. No one believed me when I said he was fine at home. The six-year old was first placed in care. Then because the authorities were concerned about the other older kids they were taken from school, although they had no problems. I was not informed. The smallest, now 7, is in an institution and the other three in family foster care. Officials say an institution is the best place for the youngest. They are now planning a psychiatric evaluation for him. The only good thing is that I can see the kids as often as possible, although I am studying to be a practical nurse. The social workers say they don’t know when I will get the kids back and that I need to cooperate with the system. I don’t use drugs, drink or anything like that. I have done all I can for the kids.
Rights audits: Lack of national standards, inadequate training and supervision
According to a THL report released in December last year, nearly 18,000 children nationwide had been placed in alternative care in 2014, while another 90,000 were clients of the system in open care. Moreover in 2014 citizens had lodged more than 63,000 child protection reports with the authorities.
Organisations such as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Human Rights Committee have expressed concern over the high number of children placed in care.
In its fourth periodic report on Finland’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Rights of the Child specifically raised the issue of children placed in alternative care.
"…the Committee is concerned that, in practice, the number of children placed in institutions, including successive placements, is increasing, that the number of foster family care placements is insufficient and that there is no unified nationwide standards establishing criteria for placements in alternative care, care planning and regular review of placement decisions, and that there is insufficient supervision and monitoring of alternative care facilities."
Those findings were communicated in 2011, and the UN CROC will provide its next assessment by July 2017.
Even Finland’s Parliamentary Ombudsman has highlighted shortcomings in the system. In a 2014 review of the state of democracy and human rights in Finland, Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen also flagged his own concerns about the system, including inadequate education of social workers and insufficient supervision of foster care (lack of resources for monitoring and inspection).
How can cultural differences allow them to treat me like an animal?
I came to Finland in 2010, I was pregnant and had a 5-year old with me. I gave birth in March, but my older child wasn’t doing well. I asked for help because something was wrong with her. The social workers came to the reception centre and took her away, saying they’d bring her back. They later said she had been abused but the doctor who saw her said she was not sure. The social workers said they would take the child away. I began to cry and asked someone to take (hold) the baby because in my culture one is not allowed to cry while holding a baby. But they took the baby although I was still breastfeeding. They came everyday for about a month to take milk from me, like I was an animal. How can cultural differences allow them to treat me like an animal?
I later found out that the older child had an infection and that doctors said she had been abused. Police began an investigation as I was under suspicion. After a bit over two years I was cleared but they didn't inform me and I didn't get my children back. My children now speak only Finnish because the former social workers didn't allow them to have any English teaching. Both kids live with the same foster family. The baby is now five years old and the older one is 10. I don’t know where they live, I don’t have a phone number and I am not allowed any contact outside of official visits. Yet they tell me I should cooperate more with the foster parents. I never signed any documents to give up custody of my children, and I was only allowed to see them once a month for three hours. What have I done? I now have a new social worker, who is younger and more understanding and since last autumn I have been able to see the kids more often. There is a big difference between the younger and older social workers.
Legislation the smoking gun?
Activist Leeni Ikonen insisted that flawed legislation is causing many families to experience interventions they don’t need. It’s also taking many more children away from their families than is necessary.
"The new child protection law which has been changed and to which many reforms have been introduced over the years is based on forced assistance - in other words, the social worker defines the family’s needs."
She added that the current system is particularly unkind to migrant families.
"When people are approached by way of theory and prejudice and pre-judgment, then immigrants are considered "odd" by officials and the problems may multiply. The research shows that among immigrants many children are taken into care."
Ministerial Counsellor Marjo Lavikainen didn’t directly address Ikonen’s claims, but noted that child welfare legislation has been the target of numerous updates. She says that new reforms introduced in 2014 that stress early intervention are already beginning to bear fruit.
"More families are getting support at an early stage so they don’t need to be taken into care. In recent years there has been a decline in the numbers of emergency placements. They had previously been growing during the 2000s. But in 2013 there was a 10 percent decrease. It shows that there isn’t need for foster care if they have early stage support."
THL data show that the overall number of children placed outside the home in 2014 – 17,958 – decreased by less than one percent compared to 2013. Moreover, the THL trend line indicates a steady overall increase from the early 1990s onwards.
Lavikainen also leaned on the law in her assessment of how immigrants are treated in the child welfare system. She noted that the Social and Child Welfare act requires workers "to consider alternative measures to support the family, including clients’ opportunities to participate and influence, and taking into account clients’ linguistic, cultural and religious background".
However she admitted that although the law is very specific, the quality and nature of child welfare services vary depending on municipal resources, and that exposure to sensitivity and cultural training is also likely to differ from place to place.
The ministerial official struck an optimistic note as she said that recent legal reforms and a new ministry project is looking to put families – and especially children – at the centre of child protection services.
But for clients of the system such as Stephen and the others who shared their experiences with Yle News, such moves will likely seem like too little too late. They have already lost faith in institutions that claim to champion the rights of the child and family.
"My experiences lead [me] to the conclusion that far too much authority has been delegated to local authorities that are largely unaccountable for both professional and ethical decisions."
*Names and certain details changed to protect the individuals’ identities.