Social work on clients’ terms
"People in need of assistance find it frustrating to have to take documents from one official to another and explain their situation. The newly amended social welfare act will correct these deficiencies and in other respects better meet clients' needs," says Lotta Hämeen-Anttila, Ministerial Counsellor for Legal Affairs at the MSAH.
Current social welfare legislation is like a patchwork quilt that over the decades has had pieces removed and new ones added. The resulting fabric is covered in holes and bulges, and in providing sufficient cover, it varies greatly from one part to another.
"Laws are made for different groups and at different times, which is why services may be unsystematic. This needs rectifying. The process of social welfare and health care reform, which aims to better integrate social and health services and ensure a uniform level of services nationwide, has also had an impact on the changes to the law. The drafting of the new act has taken into account future changes, especially the transfer of income support to the Social Institution of Finland," explains Hämeen-Anttila.
The right time
Currently, support is available on time, as long as clients go to the correct department at the right time. Otherwise, they may face delays.
"Parents may delay in applying for child welfare, in which case such support may remain unclaimed on time, despite the obvious need for it. In future, family services will no longer require that one is a child welfare client, and also other support measures are transferred to the area of universal services."
Under the new social welfare act, individual support needs assessment must be done as soon as one becomes a client. The same will apply for a job contact person for helping to ascertain their situation, so they do not have to start from scratch every time.
Hämeen-Anttila believes that lowering the services' threshold benefits not only clients but also society as a whole. Improvements can be accomplished by small measures, as long as they have an impact at the right moment. Delays and waiting only worsen the situation and complicate the process of finding solutions.
The annual costs of the new law are estimated to be €32 million, but there will also be savings due to problem prevention. Hämeen-Anttila cites the example of the reduction in recent decades of home services for families with children is reflected in the numbers of children in foster care.
"Of course, there are many factors influencing the issue, but it is common sense that services have an impact. The numbers of children in foster care have increased by ten thousand over the same period that home services have correspondingly declined. If support measures were to help even five thousand of these children to be able to live at home, it would reduce social welfare costs by €200 million."
In divorce cases, the courts may rule that access between a parent and a child must be supervised, for instance in cases where a parent has a problem with substance use. When responsibility for arranging such access has not been previously assigned, it may be that in contentious divorce situations meetings do not take place. Under the new law, municipalities will be responsible for such arrangements.
"Access is important, but it must be carried out on the child's own terms, which is why it is good that municipalities are in charge of arranging the service," says Hämeen-Anttila.
The amended law also works to prevent social exclusion among young people. Not everyone knows how to apply for study or work places in line with the Youth Guarantee, a government initiative designed to promote education and employment among youth to help tackle social exclusion. Many young people drop out early on without applying elsewhere. Under the new social welfare act, those providing a job contact person will be able to follow the situation and act to help young people.
Operational culture changing
Hämeen-Anttila stresses that social welfare is a practical activity for which the amended law creates a uniform model and regulations that apply from the moment a client seeks social welfare services. An important part of the process involves smooth cooperation between the authorities, which reduces the need for clients to go from department to another.
"All decisions concerning clients who are in the most vulnerable situations will be done jointly with the different authorities, but in other cases the authorities will have to be in touch with the necessary parties. It requires a change in the operational culture, which may take some time."
The best practices written into the amended law already operate in many places, and the role of such things as the job contact person's needs assessment is not wholly new. Hämeen-Anttila believes that municipalities are managing well in implementing the act. This is also supported by positive feedback received.
"For a long time, we have long talked about the need to prevent problems rather than merely to correct them, and now we are taking a great leap forward in this direction. In the field of social welfare, it is considered a positive thing to be able to make a timely impact and that services are readily available to those who need them."
Text: Paula Mannonen & Mark Waller