“Today I stand in front of you and I want to tell you that your message has been heard. The long episode of silence is over. As a society, we carry our responsibility of what has happened to you.” Juha Rehula, the minister of family affairs and social services, spoke with a soft, pensive voice as he stood behind the podium in his dark suit at the Finlandia Hall on Sunday afternoon. He spoke slowly. Today, on the Universal Children’s Day, he was about to ask for forgiveness.
The seats were occupied by women and men in their 50s and 60s. Many of them victims of a failed system, now waiting to hear what the spokesperson for the government had to say about the pain and mistreatment that they went through as children of the 1950s.
Some of them had grown up in an orphanage, others in foster care and reform schools. They were participants of a survey of 300 people who previously had held their tongues, not saying much to their friends, relatives or even to their spouses, but had finally spoken as subjects of interviews, where they had explained their violent experiences in a fragile childhood.
In April, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health published the interview survey on shortcomings, mistreatment and violence in child welfare foster care between 1937 and 1983 when the first Child Welfare Act was already in force. The foster care system involved about 150,000 children. According to the survey carried out by the University of Jyväskylä, maltreatment and violence occurred in all forms of child welfare foster care. Many of the victims said that they volunteered to participate in the survey in hopes of preventing similar horrors from happening to other children.
There were many reasons why a child could be sent to foster care. For example, if the family was poor and unable to provide food or clothing to their children. Mental problems of the parents and substance use were also common reasons. “And sometimes the children didn’t behave well. They were sent to reform schools because of minor misbehavior, such as being absent from school,” said Pirjo Markkola, a history professor at the University of Tampere. According to Markkola, most of the children subject to child welfare foster care were sent to live in foster families. Sometimes they were adopted by families that should have never allowed to keep children. “In some families, the mothers behaved cruelly. Sometimes the child was only a way to earn money,” Markkola said.
Alarming is the fact that each and every one, both men and women, told stories about violence while growing up in child welfare foster care during the period of over four decades. Toni Mäkinen, a man in his 40s, was one of the victims of violence while growing up in a foster home in Helsinki in the 80s. “They told me I was shit, nothing, and they beat me constantly,” he said in front of the silent audience. “But somehow I managed to grow up as normal. I am channeling my feelings by playing in a band, for example,” Mäkinen continued. He spread his arms wide as if trying to hug the whole crowd. “I have love for everybody.”
Another common problem in orphanages and reform schools was manual labor. “Many of the children felt that they were forced to hard labor,” Markkola said. But the hardest problem of them all was sexual abuse. The abuser was usually an adult man and the target was a girl. “We were also told about sexual abuse conducted by women and sexual acts conducted by men toward boys,” said Markkola with a trembling voice. “In addition, we heard about sexual abuse between the children, which was necessarily never reported to the adults but occurred in institutions.” Markkola reminded the listeners that many carried traumas to adulthood. Hardships in forming meaningful relationships was one of the common problems because of a lack of trust and sense of self-worth.
Minister Rehula took a deep breath. He said that today has been the most difficult day of his career since he became a minister in May 2015. “As the minister of family affairs and social services, for the behalf of the Finnish government and society, for all the victims of maltreatment in child welfare foster care, I offer a deep, sincere apology,” Rehula said.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has not reached a decision on starting collective compensation proceedings for those who were abused in child welfare foster care. However, the government’s key project on the program to address child and family services has reserved 40 million euros for developing processes and procedures in child and family services during this parliamentary term, and child welfare forms a significant part of this work.
An additional annual allocation of 10 million euros is being allocated to developing child welfare and safeguarding the availability of home-help services for families with children. A decision was made already before this parliamentary term, to annually allocate supplementary financing of 10 million euros as of 2015 for developing child welfare. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has not reached a decision on starting collective compensation proceedings for those who were abused in child welfare foster care.
[divider]Reforms in child welfare services[/divider]
According to the survey mentioned above, the core of successful child welfare work consists of constructive interaction with children and active listening to them. According to the social and health ministry, Children need to be heard and listened to. They need to be told, as honestly as possible, about all matters concerning them. Problems must be tackled at an early stage.
The government’s program to address child and family services aims at establishing services which make it possible to give support at the right time. The best interests of the child and support for parenthood are paramount. The aim is that services exist, they are easily available and they reach everyone who needs them.
The reform program also enables children, young people and experts to be heard and to participate. The reform of child welfare is part of the key project. Monitoring foster care activities is one area where new ways of doing things must be introduced. Mistreatment of children must not take place anymore, and child welfare services must serve to give a good and safe childhood for children placed in care.
[divider]Other countries apologize too[/divider]
Other countries too have conducted studies on shortcomings in child welfare foster care. In 2015, Åland made an apology to those who had were ill-treated and allocated funds for the development of child welfare work. The Netherlands and Scotland have also presented state apologies. In Sweden, Ireland and Canada, research has led to a state apology and to personal compensation payments.