Nearly four-fifths of workers in child welfare services have experienced some form of physical violence while carrying out their duties, according to a report by the social workers' union Talentia.
The survey, based on responses from 173 people working in the field of child welfare, also found that 95 percent of respondents reported commonly feeling psychological stress. One in four considered the strain on their mental health to be excessive.
"These figures are quite shocking," Talentia specialist Alpo Heikkinen told Yle. "This cannot continue. This does not comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which specifies that such a situation cannot exist. The working conditions must be reorganised."
Heikkinen said that public discussion on the subject tends to focus on how employees within child welfare institutions have performed in the context of tragic events, such as the death of a 16-year-old client of child welfare services in the Koskela district of Helsinki last December.
"The other side has been completely excluded from public debate, such as the working conditions and well-being of employees," he said.
Some 46 percent of survey respondents said that the statutory occupational health and safety action plan was not addressed in their workplace, while 45 percent felt that violence and threats were not addressed on a regular basis.
"With regard to the Occupational Safety Act, we propose to the ministry that a monitoring and development action plan must be launched this year," Heikkinen added.
Ministry: There are means to tackle the issue
Arto Teronen of the Department for Work and Gender Equality at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health told Yle that the results of the Talentia survey are serious, but there are ways in which workers in child protection services can address the threat of violence.
He said that the threat of violence against child protection workers has been much discussed and the ministry has taken steps to monitor, inform and guide on the matter.
"I do not see that we do not have the tools to intervene in the workplace through legislation. It is more a matter of requiring the employer to take active measures to deal with various situations of exposure to the threat of violence. The clauses are fine. The measures need to be improved," Teronen said.
Lack of access to mental health services adds to problem
A limited access to mental health services is exacerbating the problem of violence against child protection workers, according to Aila Puustinen-Korhonen, a specialist with the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities.
Puustinen-Korhonen told Yle that of particular concern are young people who have attempted suicide but are not taken for an observation period in a psychiatric ward. Instead, they are sent away to either a home or a residential placement, often on the same day as the suicide attempt.
The association’s records on child protection and psychiatric care from 2008 to 2018 reveal that psychiatric ward care for younger people has been reduced while the number of children placed in institutions has increased, by the same proportion.
A young person who is taken into care is also excluded from mental health services because he or she is considered to be receiving treatment while in care, and no other help is therefore needed, Puustinen-Korhonen added.
"However, the child welfare institution is not a psychiatric care institution. Children do not tell their painful things there because the everyday life of foster care does not allow them to remain confidential," she said.