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88 Seiten, Note: 90/100
List of tables
Chapter 1 Introduction and overview
1.1 Aims and objectives
Special considerations in a cross-national study
1.2 Scottish and Finnish child welfare – comparable contexts?
Chapter 2 Child protection in an age of austerity
2.1 Austerity in Scotland and Finland
2.2 Child protection: Scottish and Finnish perspectives
Shared emphasis of effective engagement
2.3 Summary and conclusion
Chapter 3 Methodology and research design
3.1 Explorative and comparative methodology
3.2 Research design
Data collection: an adaptive qualitative approach
Thematic cross-national data analysis
Working around bias: reflection and reflexivity
3.3 Summary and conclusion
Chapter 4 Challenges to effective engagement
4.1 Challenges from practitioners’ perspectives
Proceduralism and bureaucracy
Service user-related factors
4.2 Summary and conclusion
Chapter 5 A temporal perspective to engagement opportunities
5.1 Remembering the past: more opportunities and choice
5.2 Here and now: resilient practitioners
5.3 Going forward: concerns about the future
5.4 Summary and conclusion
Chapter 6 Summary and Conclusion
6.1 Evaluation of the findings
6.2 Implications for practice
Appendix 1A – Information and consent sheet (English)
Appendix 1B – Information and consent sheet (Finnish)
Appendix 2A – Interview schedule (English)
Appendix 2B – Interview schedule (Finnish)
Appendix 3 – Yhteenveto (Finnish summary)
This dissertation examines the extent to which Scottish and Finnish child protection practitioners perceive austerity measures to affect their ability to engage effectively service users. The data was gathered from practitioners in Scotland (n=4) and in Finland (n=4) through semi-structured interviews. A cross-national comparative thematic analysis was used to identify barriers to effective engagement and to explore the relationship between these barriers and austerity. Both Scottish and Finnish practitioners viewed limited resources and service users’ negative preconceptions as being the most significant factors that undermine effective engagement. Other factors regarded as challenges related to proceduralism, time restrictions, the power imbalance between practitioners and service users, and practitioners’ ineffective use of their core skills.
Overall, participants viewed the relationship between barriers to engagement and spending cuts as intertwined with other socio-political developments and public perceptions. Scarce resources, high workloads, and increased financial scrutiny in particular were attributed to austerity, although more often by Scottish than Finnish practitioners. However, most asserted that their abilities to engage with families remain unaffected by austerity, which highlights their professional resilience. However, Scottish and Finnish practitioners shared a concern that their ability to engage effectively with families may be undermined in the future should austerity persist.
Key words: austerity, child protection, effective engagement, Finland, Scotland
I would first like to thank my dissertation supervisor Dr Ruth Emond and Dr Jane McLenachan of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Stirling University for their patient guidance, support, and advice during the research and writing process. I would also like to thank my tutor Dr Paul Rigby at Stirling University and Dr Tuija Nummela, who was my supervisor for my Bachelor’s thesis at the Saimaa University of Applied Sciences, for their guidance and input during the dissertation planning process. Finally, I must express gratitude to my family for encouragement throughout my studies and through the process of researching and writing this dissertation. Without their unconditional support and this accomplishment would not have been possible.
Table 1 – Challenges and barriers to effective engagement
During the past decade, austerity measures, i.e. substantial cuts in public spending, have been implemented across Europe (Mooney 2014; Cavero and Poinasamy 2013). Although social policies differ from one country to another (Kennett and Yeates 2001a), in an age of austerity Western welfare states face shared challenges (Mooney and Scott 2012a). This dissertation examines child protection in an age of austerity in two such countries, Scotland and Finland. The cross-nationalism of the research responds to a suggestion that comparing two small countries that share increasing concerns about the implications of government-initiated austerity programmes on public welfare, income equality, and vulnerable groups such as children (e.g. Lehtelä et al. 2016; McKendrick et al. 2016; Kurttila 2015; Mooney 2014; Cavero and Poinasamy 2013), might lead to a better understanding on how to tackle these common challenges (Mooney and Scott 2012a).
Scotland, with its somewhat social democratic approach to social welfare (Mooney and Scott 2012b), has been seen as drawing lessons from the Nordic welfare model (Stiberg 2014). There are similarities in principles and values that underpin child protection practice in Scotland and Finland, which offers an interesting platform for cross-national comparisons. For example, effective engagement with children and families is acknowledged as a precondition to comprehensive assessments and successful early interventions in both countries (e.g. Lavikainen et al. 2014; Scottish Government 2014b). However, both Scottish and Finnish research suggest that cuts in public spending are linked to diminishing social work resources (e.g. Beatty and Fothergill 2015; Alhanen 2014), a lack of which is found to be a factor, among others, that hinders a practitioner’s ability to engage effectively with children and families (e.g. Alhanen 2014; Gallagher et al. 2011). By exploring the perceived relationship between spending cuts and effective engagement, this research aims to contribute to satisfying the lack of empirical research on this under-researched topic.
My interest in examining the implications of spending cuts stems from the insights into the implications of austerity measures I gained while on placement in a Scottish child protection team during my social work studies. It appeared to me that both practitioners and service users face increasing pressures due to cuts in resources and welfare. Furthermore, growing up in Finland during the early 1990s’ financial depression, which hit the country particularly hard compared to other European countries (Alanko and Outinen 2016; Forsberg and Kröger 2009), has given me an awareness of the adverse impact short-sighted welfare policies may have on children and young people. The prolonged mass unemployment and radical welfare spending cuts made in Finland in response to the depression (Kananen 2016; Julkunen 2001) have had long-standing and well-researched detrimental effects (e.g. Alanko and Outinen 2016; Rinne and Järvinen 2011; Satka et al. 2007; Julkunen 2001). Nonetheless, the Finnish government continues to implement further welfare cuts (Valtioneuvoston kanslia 2015), which may lead to the current austerity bringing adverse outcomes for yet another generation of children.
By drawing upon the shared challenges of promoting the wellbeing of vulnerable children in an age of austerity, this dissertation aims to explore Scottish and Finnish child protection practitioners’ perceptions of the impact of spending cuts on their ability to engage effectively with service users. An explorative approach (D’Cruz and Jones 2004; Hantrais and Mangen 1996) was adopted to work towards the overarching objective of the research, i.e. to generate insights and increased understanding in relation to the possible implications of austerity on frontline child protection practice.
The following questions guided the research:
1. What are the most significant challenges or barriers to effective engagement with children and families at the initial stage of child protection assessment?
2. To what extent do child protection practitioners perceive the challenges or barriers as resulting from austerity measures?
3. How do practitioner perceptions in Scotland and Finland differ with regard to the impact of austerity on their abilities to engage with families?
The aim of the research design was to gather sufficient qualitative data for credible cross-national analysis. The data was gathered in an adaptive manner (Layder 2013) through a small number of semi-structured interviews that were completed verbally or in writing, and interpreted through an adaptive and descriptive thematic cross-national analysis (Layder 2013; Hantrais 2009).
To achieve the above-mentioned aims and answer the research questions successfully requires, firstly, an understanding of 1) the broad socio-political context of the welfare state, and 2) the particular context of child protection practice in both countries (Kennett and Yeates 2001a). This includes acknowledging the complexity of the relationship between austerity and child protection. As discussed in Chapter 2, welfare systems both in the UK and in Finland have been, and continue to be, subject to large-scale reforms, and it is challenging to separate the impact of recent austerity measures from those of long-term policy developments (Mänttäri-van der Kuip 2015; Jones 2014).
Secondly, credible cross-national comparison requires careful linguistic and cultural consideration of the key concepts that guide the formulation of research questions and inform interpretation of research findings (Carey 2013; Bryman 2012; Hantrais 2009). While the chosen concepts are introduced in Chapter 2, Chapter 3 includes an account of the continuous self-critical reflection (D’Cruz and Jones 2004; Finlay 2002) that was applied throughout the research process to acknowledge and account for personal and method bias (Hantrais 2009).
Scotland and Finland are significantly different countries in terms of social policy. Scotland is a non-sovereign nation-state (Law 2012) within the liberal welfare state of the UK (Kennett and Yeates 2001b) that is traditionally characterised by class-political dualism and persisting inequalities in welfare distribution (Esping-Andersen 1990). In spite of the devolution of administrative powers and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the current Conservative-led UK government controls social security, and employment legislation (Guthrie 2011) and hence continues to control Scottish social welfare (Mooney 2014).
In contrast, Finland is a young democracy with its constitution dating from 1919. Finland has adopted a social democratic Nordic welfare model, which is underpinned by social liberalism and principles of universalism, equality, and social justice (Kananen 2016; Stiberg 2014; Satka et al. 2007; Kautto et al. 1999; Esping-Andersen 1990). In the social democratic model, the state is seen as primarily responsible for the welfare and social security of citizens (Satka et al. 2007; Hearn et al. 2004), whereas in the liberal model employed in Scotland a significant portion of welfare services are provided by the market and civil society (Kennett and Yeates 2001b; Ferguson and Woodward 2009; Esping-Andersen 1990).
The Scottish child welfare legislation and policy has drawn upon the Children Act 1989 which established framework for the current child protection system in England and Wales, and lessons learned from significant case reviews conducted in the UK since the 1970s (Guthrie 2011). A concept of ‘significant harm’ is used as a threshold to child protection interventions that are underpinned by principles of promoting parental responsibilities and children’s rights (Guthrie 2011; Hearn et al. 2004; Children (Scotland) Act (C(S)A) 1995). In the Nordic countries, however, child welfare has traditionally focused on structural prevention of social problems (Hietamäki 2012; Forsberg and Kröger 2009; Eydal and Satka 2006) through comprehensive preventive and family-oriented services (Hearn et al. 2004).
A significant difference between the countries is that in Finland, unlike in the UK, the discourse of abuse and neglect does not characterise child protection (Hietamäki 2012; Hearn et al. 2004). In fact, the first public inquiry into social and health services following a child’s death was published in Finland only recently following the death of 8-year-old Vilja-Eerika in 2012. The review concluded with a demand for more resources in frontline practice to ensure effective early interventions (Kananoja et al. 2013). Overall, the recent Finnish child welfare discussion has centred primarily on tackling social exclusion and promoting children and families’ participation, not only in child protection processes but also in the society as a whole (e.g. Halme et al. 2014; Lavikainen et al. 2014; Bardy 2013).
However, Scotland and Finland are both situated on the outskirts of Northern Europe and have relatively small populations of 5.4 – 5.5 million (National Records of Scotland 2016; Statistics Finland 2016). Both have also undergone similar reforms typical for advanced post-war welfare states and hence are facing similar challenges, as discussed in Chapter 2. Furthermore, the Nordic welfare model is viewed in Scotland as a source of inspiration for reform (Nordic Horizons 2017; Stiberg 2014), which is arguably related to the Nordic countries’ low child poverty and mortality rates (Stiberg 2014; Forsberg and Kröger 2009), and achievements in education (Dorling 2014) and social and economic progress (Porter et al. 2016; Stephens 1996).
A recent example of this modelling is the Scottish National Party’s decision to provide a free maternity package to new parents (Heydecker 2016), similar to which has been granted to all families in Finland for the past 80 years. Another example that suggests that Scottish and Finnish child welfare are underpinned by similar values and are shifting closer to one another is the Scottish Government (2012) initiative Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC). This approach is underpinned by principles of early intervention and inter-agency collaboration between social, health care, and education services. In other words, a frontline practitioner’s responsibility to promote child welfare is understood to extend beyond the local authority duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of ‘children in need’ (C(S)A 1995 s. 22). A similar preventive approach to child welfare is incorporated in the Finnish Child Welfare Act (CWA) 417/2007. Thus, it may be argued that Scottish and Finnish child welfare systems are similar enough for credible comparison. In addition, findings may contribute to informing further policy developments in an age when governments expect practitioners to continue improving outcomes for children with fewer resources (Jütte et al. 2015; Valtioneuvoston kanslia 2015; Scottish Government 2014b; Paasivirta 2012).
This dissertation is divided into six chapters. Chapter 2 examines the relationship between austerity and effective engagement in Scottish and Finnish child protection practice through a selective literature review. Chapter 3 describes the study’s methodology and design. Chapter 4 introduces the findings in relation to challenges to engagement. Chapter 5 examines the findings from a temporal perspective. The final Chapter 6 summarises and evaluates the findings of this research and examines its potential implications.
This chapter explores child protection in an age of austerity where practitioners are expected to ‘deliver with less’ (Jütte et al. 2015, p. 8). First, austerity is examined in a broad socio-political context and then Scottish and Finnish child protection systems are introduced. The exploration of previous research indicates that the relationship between spending cuts and social workers’ abilities to engage effectively with families is a relatively under-researched topic. The chapter concludes with a summary of gaps in the current research, on the basis of which the research questions (Chapter 1) were formulated.
In this research, austerity is understood as government-initiated measures that aim to reduce budget deficits in response to an inauspicious economic climate (McKendrick et al. 2016), which includes cuts in public expenditure, welfare services, and benefits (Mooney 2014). The literal translation of austerity (talouskuri) entered Finnish usage recently (see e.g. Pye 2016; THL 2016) and the concept has not yet been adopted widely in research or literature. However, an increased concern regarding the impact of public spending cuts (julkisten menojen leikkaukset) on social welfare emerges in both countries in policy and research (e.g. McKendrick et al. 2016; Lehtelä et al. 2016; Valtioneuvoston kanslia 2015; Scottish Government 2013), media (e.g. Paterson 2016; Arola 2015), and critical socio-political literature (Pugh and Connolly 2016; Tynkkynen et al. 2016; Kokkinen 2014; Mooney 2014; Julkunen 2013).
In Scotland, current austerity measures are seen to be linked to the EU-wide economic crisis (Cavero and Poinasamy 2013) and the decisions made by the UK Conservative-led and coalition governments in response to the global economic crisis that developed in 2008 (HM Treasury 2016; 2015; Mooney 2014; Scottish Government 2013). Currently, public sector services and local authorities in Scotland are experiencing the financial squeeze through limited funding available to them from the Scottish government, which in turn receives its budget from the UK parliament (Unison Scotland 2016; Mooney and Scott 2012a; Mooney 2011).
However, austerity does not solely result from a financial crisis, but is rather a complex manifestation of continuing and interrelated changes in the economic, social, and political climate that have shaped Western welfare states since the 1970s (Kananen 2016; Veilahti 2016; Julkunen 2013; Dominelli 1999). In spite of the wider economic constraints, governments hold considerable power to make decisions about public spending that shape the welfare service sector (Wren 2001). Admittedly, these political decisions have complex social, economic, and ideological underpinnings (Mänttäri-van der Kuip 2015), which explains the competing interpretations as to whether austerity should be seen as ‘vital’ (HM Treasury 2016, p. 16), a ‘necessary evil’ in the current economic climate (McKendrick et al. 2016, p. 455), or an ‘assault on welfare’ (Ferguson and Lavalette 2013, p. 93).
From a sociological perspective, both Scottish and Finnish austerity is linked to post-industrialist pressures to renegotiate, restructure, and modernise a post-war social contract and collectivist approach to social welfare (Kananen 2016; Pierson 2001; Wren 2001). In general, during the past few decades, the aim of social policy reforms has been to restrict public spending (Julkunen 2001). This has partly been implemented through renegotiating the relationship between the state and the citizens (Ferguson and Lavalette 2013). The promotion of personal responsibility and service user empowerment and choice (Scottish Government 2016a; Valtioneuvoston kanslia 2015) can be seen as an example of these developments, which, although potentially liberating, simultaneously attempts to transfer the responsibility and risk from the state to the individual (Welbourne 2011).
Austerity as a means to control public spending is linked to neoliberal social welfare reforms that have sought to revise the Western welfare states over the past decades (Clarke et al. 2007) by introducing the idea that public services should be managed like private sector businesses (Rogowski 2012). Neoliberalism has been dubbed as one the most significant challenges to Western post-war welfare states (Kananen 2016; Jones 2014; Satka et al. 2007; Harrikari and Satka 2006; Dominelli 1999). Hence, it must be acknowledged that cost-efficiency has been promoted in Western welfare states even before the current age of austerity. Admittedly, it is not austerity alone, but rather the cumulative impact of spending cuts, economic crisis, and welfare reforms that pose a challenge to social welfare (Mooney and Scott 2012b).
In Scotland and Finland, neoliberalism is evident in the welfare reforms that have taken place since the 1990s in response to continued international pressures to privatise public services (Kananen 2016; Koskiaho 2015; Hirvonen 2014; Rogowski 2012; Banks 2011; Taylor-Goodby 2011; Forsberg and Kröger 2009; Dominelli 1999). Although increasing economic growth at the expense of income equality does not fit as well with the Nordic welfare model (Timonen 2004) as perhaps with the liberal model, critics in both countries have noted that privatisation and marketisation of welfare services has sought to generate profits to a rich minority while limiting opportunities available to the generally less well-off welfare recipients (Ferguson and Woodward 2009; Helminen 2009; Laatu 2009).
In order to understand current austerity in Finland, it is helpful to briefly consider the financial depression of the early 1990s that impacted the country particularly hard compared to other Nordic and European countries (Kananen 2016; Forsberg and Kröger 2009) and brought about prolonged mass unemployment (Kananen 2016; Julkunen 2013). This marked the end of expansive social welfare (Julkunen 2001) and triggered a radical reorganisation in the Finnish welfare state, which included privatisation of services (Hirvonen 2014), tightening eligibility criteria, and large-scale cuts in public spending (Julkunen 2013; 2001). Although the current austerity is less drastic in Finland compared to the spending cuts implemented in the UK (Mänttäri-van der Kuip 2015), similarities can be drawn between the current inauspicious economic situation and that of the early 1990s (Lehtelä et al. 2016). The long-standing adverse effects of the 1990s welfare cuts on public wellbeing are well documented (e.g. Alanko and Outinen 2016; Kananen 2016; Forsberg and Kröger 2009; Satka et al. 2007; Julkunen 2001; Stephens 1996), yet the Finnish government continues to implement further welfare cuts (Valtioneuvoston kanslia 2015). This suggests that the far-reaching consequences of austerity are not fully considered (see Lehtelä et al. 2016; Kurttila 2015).
In critical literature, the rich minority, which is seen to be behind austerity and neoliberal policies, are labelled a capitalist ‘elite’ (e.g. Dorling 2014; Crouch 2011) that seeks to influence public opinion in order to protect their own interest (Dorling 2014; Crouch 2011). The most recent Eurobarometer examining public perceptions of poverty demonstrated that, although Finland is one of the most equitable rich countries (Dorling 2014), a majority (58%) of Finns view 'much injustice in our society' as causing poverty, whereas only a third of the UK population feel the same (European Commission 2010). Interestingly, the proportion of the UK population blaming people’s laziness or lack of will power for their poverty (24%) is amongst the highest in the Europe after Malta and Poland, whereas only 12 per cent of Finns regard this as the cause. Although these findings do not necessarily describe current public attitudes in Scotland, they may reflect the message about unsustainable social welfare that has been conveyed to the public to legitimise spending cuts in the UK (Dorling 2014; Ferguson and Lavalette 2013; Clarke et al. 2007).
It has been noted that in an age of austerity, the rights and needs of vulnerable groups such as children are in conflict with the interest of public spending cuts (Alhanen 2014). However, welfare has wide public support in affluent states such as Scotland and Finland, which is why it appears unlikely that these welfare states would be completely dismantled (McKendrick et al. 2016; Kananen 2016; Mänttäri-van der Kuip 2015; Timonen 2004; Pierson 2001). In fact, persisting austerity is already affecting people’s attitudes towards spending cuts. According to a social attitudes survey (Clery 2016), only a decreasing minority of the British public supports the overall objective of reducing welfare spending.
To summarise, austerity is a complex concept and interrelated to various other socio-political factors. However, austerity appears to be here to stay (Pierson 2001) and the renegotiation of the social contract will continue in Scotland and Finland through further restructuring of services around the pressures to increase cost-efficiency and limit public spending in order to sustain social welfare (McKendrick et al. 2016; Jütte et al. 2015; Hirvonen 2014; Mooney 2014). Hence, as the growing body of research (e.g. Lehtelä et al. 2016; McKendrick et al. 2016; Mänttäri-van der Kuip 2015) suggests, the impact of spending cuts on citizens and welfare services is both concerning and warrants further exploration.
Child protection has been chosen as the topic of this research due to the adverse impact austerity has on vulnerable children (Kurttila 2015; Dorling 2014; Scottish Government 2014a; 2013; Children’s Commissioner 2013) and low-income families on benefits (Lehtelä et al. 2016; Moisio et al. 2016; Policy in Practice 2016; Mooney and Scott 2012b). Increased income inequalities and child poverty in Scotland (Scottish Government 2015; Mooney 2014) and Finland (Kurttila 2015; Kananoja et al. 2013) have been attributed to both austerity and welfare reforms (Honkanen and Tervola 2014; Mooney and Scott 2012a).
Poverty has multi-dimensional and well-researched adverse effects on children’s outcomes (Harker et al. 2013; Hakovirta and Kallio 2014; Marmot 2010; Preston 2005), which are acknowledged in child protection reviews (Kananoja et al. 2013; Munro 2011), handbooks (Hothersall 2014; Bardy 2013) and policy (Scottish Government 2014a; Scottish Government 2011; STM 2010). In general, material deprivation resulting from poverty is linked to an increased likelihood of poor physical and mental health, social isolation, and feelings of shame that stem from public discourse around poverty (Walker et al. 2013). Furthermore, increasing social inequalities may undermine people’s opportunities to make life choices because their social and cultural resources are limited (Clarke et al. 2007).
Thus, there appears to be a connection between austerity and a continuing demand for effective child protection services, especially where more families are becoming vulnerable to problems that may lead to child protection interventions. In fact, in conjunction with the levels of child poverty, the number of children receiving child welfare services has increased throughout the 21st century, both in Scotland (Jütte et al. 2015) and Finland (THL 2015). In part, this may reflect the outcomes of welfare cuts and persisting income inequalities (McKendrick et al. 2016; Mooney 2014). On the other hand, it may reflect increasingly defensive practice in response to high profile case reviews and early intervention policies recently introduced in both countries that have broadened the scope of child welfare from statutory child protection to encompass universal services, thus potentially generating more referrals (Heino 2014), and perhaps influencing public perception about child welfare services.
As briefly outlined in Chapter 1, Scottish and Finnish child protection systems have well-established legal and policy frameworks that share some underpinning similarities, but also have somewhat different emphases. In both countries, child protection is underpinned by children’s rights in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations 1989). The key aspects of the Convention, including the child’s right to necessary care and protection from abuse and neglect, as well as the principles of family preservation and the best interest of the child, have been incorporated into Scottish and Finnish child welfare legislations (CWA 417/2007; C(S)A 1995). Furthermore, both Scottish and Finnish child protection interventions are underpinned by the duty of local authorities to promote the welfare of citizens (Sosiaalihuoltolaki 1301/2014 s. 1; Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 s. 12) and to safeguard the welfare of children (CWA 417/2007 s. 11(1); C(S)A) 1995 s. 22).
In both countries, child protection social work means helpful interaction with children and families and professional interventions, which attempt to solve social problems and enable change in unhelpful behaviours that endanger the child’s health or development (Calder et al. 2012; Anis 2008). In Finland, child protection has been traditionally characterised as family-focused (Muukkonen and Tulensalo 2004; Hearn et al. 2004; Granfelt 1998) and explicitly child-centred approaches have been adopted into child protection policy and practice quite recently (Lavikainen et al. 2014; Pösö et al. 2014; CWA 417/2007; Muukkonen and Tulensalo 2004). In the UK child-centred approaches have been promoted for decades (Hearn et al. 2004) and more family-oriented approaches have been adopted recently (Scottish Government 2012). These changes in policies suggest that Scottish and Finnish child protection practices are underpinned by similar values and influenced by similar managerialist and neoliberal welfare reforms, and thus shifting closer to one another.
An example of shared underpinning ideologies is the emphasis on early interventions emerging in both countries since the turn of the 21st century (Scottish Government 2014a; 2012; 2009; Harrikari 2006; Karjalainen and Sarvimäki 2005). In Scotland, early intervention is promoted through the national GIRFEC practice model (Scottish Government 2014b; 2012) elements of which are incorporated in legislation (Children and Young People (Scotland) 2014). Principles of early intervention are also included in the Finnish child welfare legislation (CWA 417/2007 s. 4), and despite the lack of national assessment framework akin to the GIRFEC model in Finland, early interventions in both countries are underpinned by similar principles, e.g. conducting ecological child-centred assessments and working in partnership with families (Scottish Government 2014b; 2012; CWA 417/2007 ss. 26-27).
Drawing upon these shared underpinnings, this research focuses on examining child protection practice at the initial stages of child protection assessments. The Finnish term for ‘child protection’ (lastensuojelu) is sometimes used in literature interchangeably with ‘child welfare’ to encompass a wide range of preventive services (Forsberg and Kröger 2009; Anis 2008; 2005; Hearn et al. 2004). However, in this research it is limited to describe statutory social work with children and families where a referral, i.e. a child welfare concern report (lastensuojeluilmoitus) has been made to a local authority social work department by a member of the public or another agency that has a duty to report concerns (CWA 417/2007 s. 5; C(S)A 1995 s. 22).
In both countries, a social worker carries out an initial assessment (alkuarvio) in response to the concern report, i.e. an enquiry regarding the child’s circumstances to determine whether the child is in need of welfare services, at risk of harm, or whether a more comprehensive assessment is required (Jütte et al. 2015; Scottish Government 2014b; Harris and White 2013). The aim of the initial assessment is to draw up a comprehensive view of the child’s circumstances and needs including concerns, risks, strengths, and resilience factors (Calder et al. 2012; CWA 417/2007 s. 27).
It must be acknowledged, however, that initial assessments are not the same in Scotland and Finland. For example, in Scotland, child protection practitioners use the concept of ‘significant harm’ to guide their responses to child welfare concerns (Scottish Government 2014b), whereas Finnish discretion-based practice (Hearn et al. 2004) is more dependent upon the individual practitioner’s perceptions of risk and need. A further difference is that in Finland the state provides a variety of low-threshold ‘open care’ family support services (avohuollon tukitoimet) that must be given precedence over more intrusive child protection interventions (CWA 2007/417 s. 4), which means that Finnish social workers are involved in assessing and addressing perhaps a broader range of needs than their Scottish colleagues are.
In the interim, there is only limited empirical knowledge about the way austerity affects child protection in Scotland and Finland. However, service cuts, growing emphasis on short-term interventions, increased demands for efficiency (Alhanen 2014; Walker 2012; Banks 2011), and the higher numbers of child protection referrals suggest that spending cuts create increased pressures for practitioners (Walker 2012) who are expected to continue delivering services with fewer resources (Jütte et al. 2015; Paasivirta 2012; Satka et al. 2007). Concerns are voiced in both countries that social services are becoming more reactive and less preventive (Saarinen et al. 2012; Scottish Executive 2006a). Even early interventions that are promoted as an effective tool for preventing complex social problems (Karjalainen and Sarvimäki 2005) may be seen to be more cost-effective for governments than more intensive interventions are (Jütte et al. 2015).
In an age of austerity, social work fulfils a mediating role between the state and citizens who may feel themselves increasingly excluded and powerless (Ferguson and Lavalette 2013; Walker et al. 2013; Davis and Wainwright 2006; Ferguson and Woodward 2009). Managerialism brought about by neoliberalism has been suggested to have a particularly damaging impact on social workers attempting to make a difference to families’ lives where budgetary considerations are prioritised over social work values (Ferguson and Lavalette 2013; Ferguson and Woodward 2009). Although growing demands for accountability aim to improve practice through increased oversight, there are concerns about it leading to a ‘culture of blame’ (Scottish Executive 2006a, p. 11) that is shifting the social worker’s role towards monitoring behaviours rather than supporting people to make changes. Where a tragedy occurs, both politicians and media remain unsympathetic to social workers coping with significant managerial and resource-related constraints (Ferguson and Woodward 2009).
A recent large-scale (n=817) research has touched on this topic and explored work-related wellbeing of frontline social workers in an age of austerity (Mänttäri-van der Kuip 2015), and concluded that social workers experience conflicting demands and increasing work-related economic constraints in their daily practice that affect their ability to meet statutory assessment timescales and provide early interventions. In other Finnish research, inadequate resources have been noted to have adverse effects on child welfare services (Kananoja et al. 2013), practitioners’ work-related wellbeing (Saarinen et al. 2012; Sipilä 2011), and their ability to make accountable and ethical decisions (Alhanen 2014; Sipilä 2011).
In Scotland, child protection practice in an age of austerity has been explicitly examined in two small-scale qualitative dissertation studies, one of which found that increasingly limited resources makes it challenging for practitioners to balance their time between paperwork and direct relationship-based practice with services users (Secmezsoy-Gault 2014). Tate (2010) concluded that stringent resources and high caseloads hinder practitioner ability to engage in multi-agency work, a conclusion akin to findings in Alhanen (2014). While these studies offer a glimpse into the complex impact of spending cuts on child protection, the growing interest in both Scotland and Finland to study the topic, and the limited available research indicate that there is scope for further analysis in relation to the impact of austerity on frontline child protection practice.
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