Child welfare and child protection as local government functions need more specific rules

Toomas Mattson | 2/6/2013 | 11:37 AM

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TALLINN, 6 February 2013 - The audit carried out by the National Audit Office indicated that the child protection work of local authorities is mainly aimed at dealing with the consequences of problems rather than their prevention, which is why the necessary help may not reach children in the early stages of social problems.

This is also the main problem of the current child protection system that has been discussed for many years, but attempts to change the system have failed. The state has not imposed adequate regulations on child welfare and left local authorities too much room for decision-making. This approach has not justified itself, as many local authorities do not give child welfare enough attention and it is also underfinanced. The Ministry of Social Affairs has tried to influence the system, and prepared and implemented development plans, but the resolution of a number of fundamental problems has been avoided so far. The National Audit Office therefore finds that the state should be more forceful with local authorities when it comes to these activities and establish stricter requirements on the organisation of such work.

In the opinion of the National Audit Office the most important problems that need to be resolved are the number of child protection workers, organisation of prevention and quality requirements for social services. The audit revealed that only 38% of local authorities had employed a separate person for child protection. In the remaining local authorities this work is covered by social workers, who have many other duties to perform (dealing with the elderly, disabled people etc.). They do not have enough time and sometimes also the skills for child protection, which leads to a situation where no attention is given to prevention. Approximately 60% of children in Estonia live in local government units that have no child protection workers or which do not have enough of them considering the optimal ratio of children to child protection workers as suggested by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The main focus of the Development Plan for Children and Families until 2020 is on improving the special skills of child protection workers, but there are no good measures to ensure that all local authorities have enough such workers. The National Audit Office finds that this does not solve the problem in full and that the ability of local authorities to do this work will not improve unless they find more people to do it.

Another problem found by the National Audit Office is that activities are often not written down when the problems of a child are dealt with – the child protection worker or social workers has the information stored in their memory, but it may be lost when the person leaves. A good database for information about the problems of children received from different sources would provide a lot of support and help find early and appropriate solutions to the problems of children.

The National Audit Office also investigated whether local authorities have information about children belonging to different risk groups and found that local authorities often have no overview of this, or that it is inadequate. The National Audit Office is of the opinion that effective prevention is not possible without such an overview. There are still no uniform principles or understanding about how prevention should be carried out. The state should give local authorities more specific guidelines on how to carry out prevention.

The Ministry of Social Affairs should be more decisive in regulating the quality of social services. There are no quality requirements at present, which is why the minimum that people can expect from local authorities is unknown. This is also an important gap in the supervision of local authorities.

County governments, who are obliged to check the quality of services by law, are basically unable to do so at present and, as the audit indicated, such checks are a mere formality. The majority of local authorities interviewed by the National Audit Office in the course of the audit (78% of 205 local authorities) also support the establishment of quality requirements. The minimum list and quality standards of the social services of local authorities are also listed as objectives in the action plan of the Government of the Republic, which must be performed during 2013. The explanations given by the Ministry of Social Affairs in the course of the audit did not convince the National Audit Office that these objectives would be achieved by the deadline.

The National Audit Office also found several omissions when it compared the activities of local authorities with legal requirements. Analysing the requests for assistance submitted to local authorities on issues relating to children indicated that although such applications are usually satisfied (the proportion of such applications in local authorities ranged from 82-99%), the law is often breached when assistance is refused. For example, local authorities do not inform the applicant when they have decided to refuse to provide assistance or give reasons for their refusal, or the circumstances of the refusal do not comply with the procedures of local authorities or the need for assistance was not assessed before the decision was made. Also, the law has not always been followed when children without parental care are sent to live with other families or in substitute homes. In the first case, the backgrounds of all family members were not checked with sufficient care and children have often been sent to substitute homes without relevant written decisions that explain the reasons for this action.

The National Audit Office has made several recommendations to the Minister of Social Affairs, local authorities and county governments.

The National Audit Office audited the organisation of child protection and child welfare in detail in ten local authorities and supervision and counselling of local authorities in this field in five county governments. A survey was also carried out in the remaining local authorities in order to characterise the problems in this area on a broader scale. Responses were received from 205 municipalities and cities.

Toomas Mattson
Head of Communication Service, National Audit Office
640 0777
51 34 900
[email protected]
[email protected]

  • Posted: 2/6/2013 11:37 AM
  • Last Update: 11/10/2015 5:29 PM
  • Last Review: 11/10/2015 5:29 PM

The audit revealed that only 38% of local authorities had employed a separate person for child protection.

National Audit Office

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