In September 2004, the Service for Children and Youth at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services began implementing its "Towards the Community" policy to reduce risk among children and youth. The policy is two-pronged: (1) It limits children's out-of-home stay to four years; and (2) It gives municipal social service departments more flexibility in the allocation of resources previously earmarked exclusively for out-of-home arrangements. The aim is to provide a range of services in the community to a greater number of children and at the same time to respond to the needs of children returning to the community after out-of home placement.
Implementation of the policy was met with stormy public debate and apprehension among professionals and academics. The study examined the preparations for policy implementation at the levels of the head office and regional inspectors, as well as the actual implementation of the policy and its effect on organizational arrangements and outcomes for parents and children.
The data were gathered using qualitative and quantitative tools and came from a range of sources: policymakers, inspectors, social service department heads, professionals from different services, parents, and children.
Among the main findings:
The management of the Service for Children and Youth managed to comprehensively implement the various components of the policy within a short amount of time. However, many of the department heads did not feel they had been involved in the decision to implement the policy and in its design.
Despite their misgivings, the social service departments managed to cope with their new responsibilities. A large percentage exchanged out-of-home placement quotas in the first year and an even greater percentage did so in subsequent years. The departments used most of the available resources, developed services, and expanded existing services.
The department directors and their staff developed new skills (for example, data collection and analysis, service planning) and reported a sense of professional growth, competence, and pride. However, implementation of the policy imposed a burden on the departments.
The inspectors reported a sense of empowerment due to the change in their role.
Most of the children returning from out-of-home frameworks remained in the community. Most adjusted to neighborhood schools and there were no records of irregularities. However, the help that was provided to them was insufficient to contend with their many difficulties. It is therefore recommended that the extent that the services and programs meet the needs of the children and their families be examined and that local social service departments conduct long-term monitoring of all children returning home.
The study findings have increased awareness of the need to develop community-based services for children and youth at risk and form the basis for expansion of the "Towards the Community" policy, for development of the national program for children and youth at risk, and for recognition of the need to implement the reform of the planning and evaluation committees. The study was funded by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services.