A seminar organised in Oslo, Norway, was attended by 60 policy makers, managers, practitioners and researchers from ten different countries. The theme “Protecting Children by Strengthening Families” was one of two priority topics identified in The International Initiatives strategic directions document. (The International Initiatives include networks in different countries, comprising policy makers, managers, practitioners and researchers involved in The International Initiative’s activities.)
The seminar was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, and was organised to examine new practice approaches that support and strengthen families, and to discuss a new vision for planning and organising child protection systems. Key speeches during the seminar focussed on challenges facing child protection systems in different countries, and strategies for new directions. Participants in the working groups, exchanged experience and knowledge on new programme approaches being developed, the new roles that these aproaches require of the different agencies involved, and how they should be implemented across the whole system, to create a better way of protecting children and strengthening families.
During the seminar it became clear that, despite cultural, political and structural differences, the participants” ideas for changes to child protection systems, were remarkably similar across the participating countries. All nations were concerned with developing child protection systems and services at the neighbourhood level, based on the specific needs of each locality, and involving a wide range of different agencies and community partners. This new “vision” for child protection systems, outlined by participants during the seminar, had a number of common elements:
effective child protection should emphasise prevention of maltreatment before it occurs – families under stress, who are having difficulty caring for their children, should receive help at an earlier point;
families' needs, once identified, should be responded to in a flexible, individualised and comprehensive way, involving a wider range of partner agencies in the public and private sectors;
local neighbourhoods should be engaged in planning the services. This includes maximising family and extended family involvement in the planning and delivery of specific services, and fostering neighbourhood involvement and participation in planning the whole system;
the availability of easily accessible universal services for all families in the neighbourhood is vital.
These common elements suggest that entire child protection services, the different agencies and community partners involved, and the individual programmes and services offered, must follow a comprehensive and cohesive philosophy. Further, these elements suggest that effective child protection should become a “community responsibility”, rather than being the sole responsibility of the child welfare or protection agency.
However, it was recognised that the gulf between the current systems and the desired “vision” is considerable, and requires fundamental changes in service delivery and planning. It was also recognised that there is no one “right” course of action for developing new child protection systems, and that each locality will have its own starting point and strategy.
This seminar, and subsequent discussion with participants, led to a more detailed study of neighbourhood-based systems that support children, youth and families. Participants from The National Initiatives found more examples of programme and policy approaches that attempt to encompass the common elements identified during the Oslo seminar.
These approaches, found in a number of different countries, seem to work on the premise that conditions do not improve for many families unless they get the support they need closer to home, and in a form that is attuned to the real conditions in which they live.
Further, these approaches suggest that it is often not formal services provided by public and private agencies that make a difference to children and families; they benefit more from being helped by people they know well, in places they know well.