„Future-forum Residential Child Care“ (Zukunftsforum Heimerziehung)

„Future-forum Residential Child Care“ (Zukunftsforum Heimerziehung)

The Future-forum Residential Child Care” (Zukunftsforum Heimerziehung) was a nation-wide platform to collect, discuss and evaluate past and current issues in the field of residential child and youth care in Germany. With a special emphasis and hearing of service users’, (children and youth as well as parents), professional social workers’ and other experts’ perspectives, the goal of the future-forum was to identify key issues and core needs for the structural and professional development of residential care in Germany.


Supported and initiated by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, the project was organized, hosted and presented by FICE Germany (Internationale Gesellschaft für erzieherische Hilfen | IGfH) from January 2019 until March 2021.


The central working format in the future-forum was a nationwide panel of experts. About 30 representatives from research, social work practice, service users‘ and Care Leavers‘ associations bundled and discussed current and future needs for action in the field of residential care. This was based on the evaluation of past and present (professional) discourses and empirical research on residential care on the hand but also combined and contrasted with young peoples‘, families and professional social workers‘ points of views. Various formats such as (participation) workshops and expert discussions were organized for the development of positions and recommendations. Thematic sub-working groups were established and expert reports were prepared in which assessments and positions were discussed and deepened. More than a dozen documentations, expert reports, position papers etc. emerged from these formats and served as reference sources for this final paper.www.zukunftsforum-heimerziehung.de


Growing up in Public Responsibility

Residential care – as it is framed by the German child and youth care act - can be regarded as one of the most intensive forms of socio-pedagogical, professional intervention in the life-course and biographies of young persons and their families. Growing up in public responsibility is closely linked to changes, challenges and problems in the life situations, lifeworlds and social positions of children, adolescents and their families. When children and youth are facing these issues and grow up in public responsibility, the state, legislature and society have a special responsibility to provide professional structures and such settings where the rights and needs of care receivers are met and their chances/ressources to participate in society are promoted.


However, the long-term socio-political interest in residential care and the public awareness of the specific social situation of growing up out of one’s home and what this means for children, youth and families (Leaving Care, transitions, being placed out of one’s home) differs from time to time. At the same time, wrong developments and scandals in residential care institutions are repeatedly addressed in specialist and public debates (e.g. poor performance, problematic practices with and with children and parents, or high costs).


With good reason, the Future-Forum demands more empirical information about services, effects and structures of residential care on the one hand - as well as a stronger professional debate in a quite “invasive” field of the youth care system where the state is in charge of the (future) social situation of young people and their families and their chances to participate in society.


Overthinking the Sustainability of Residential Child Care

Residential care today can only hardly be compared today with the large scale residential units and institutionalized forms of the past times. In Germany, residential child care has witnessed a crisis of legitimacy:  Over the past 30 to 40 years, degrading, punitive, compulsory und inhuman practices of institutional child abuse especially in large-scale institutions of the post-war years, were scandalized and revealed. In the 1960s, the so-called „German campaign for residential child care reform“ demanded principles such as deinstitutionalisation, genericism, normalisation, flexibilisation, decentralisation, individualisation, and professionalisation. Rooted in these reform movements, one could witness several change-processes over the past years with regard to the design and quality of residential care. Professionalization, decentralization and differentiation of settings and service offers, the establishment of residential group arrangements or shared apartments, an increase of psycho-therapeutical support, a stronger focus on parents and social networks as well an increase and implementation of participatory concepts and childrens’ rights-based approaches.


There were and still are diverse (sometimes competing) quality-improvement impulses and developments in the field. However, fundamental and conceptual debates often take a back seat to the methodical “how-to’s” and detailed descriptions of individualized forms of help, which sometimes closely follow the logic of social services. The general and critical questioning of institutionalized forms of upbringing has also become very clear from an international perspective at least since the so-called Stockholm Declaration:

  • „Resorting to institutional care only as a last resort and as a temporary response“

  • „Developing, financing, implementing and monitoring alternative systems of care based on the principles of providing children with a family environment.“

Similar to this, the EU’s opening doors campaign named goals such as “reducing out-of-home placement, development and securing as the priority of a new foster care including a (partially) professional foster child segment, the conversion of the family support system towards regionalization, family- as well as life-world-orientation.

In sum, the field of residential care gets “pressured” by an increasing demand for the abolition of forms of "out-of-home placements" in favor of family-analogous settings. These tendencies reflect in the German context, where one can find a critical and deficient-focussed public attitude towards residential child care in contrast to family-like fostering which gains much more social acknowledgement. In sum, these dynamics led to the fact that the already existing pioneering perspectives, innovative conceptual pedagogical debates and approaches as they are were developed in the manifold in (small) residential group arrangements, by care agencies, by professional and Care Leavers’/Receivers’ associations, in practical research as well as in care-related youth councils are passed over.


Finally, it must become clearer what constitutes a sustainable residential care in Germany in the presence as well as in the future. Quality and development impulses in the field - e. B. through forms of participation by young people and parents, new forms of care in between individual and group settings - need to become more visible by a broader implementation.


Future Impulses for Residential Child care in Germany (and beyond)

Based on the discussions in the participatory workshops of the future-forum with young people and parents and professionals’ and the exchange in the nationwide panel of experts, it became clear that developmental needs for the future of residential child care must - on the one hand - do justice to the (structural) characteristics and settings of residential child care as a specific type of educative setting setting. On the other hand, residential care as a specific place of growing up out-of-home/birth interlinked and positioned within broader social and socio-political debates and political developments, such as discussions on childhood, digitalization, inclusion, youth and education policies.


It is important to include young people, their parents and their social networks in the process of answering these questions: What does a sustainable resident child care look like nowadays - as a place of meaning, of social and personal life for young people? How can these places of growing up in public responsibility be defined through an explicit professional and socio pedagogical perspective? What makes a “good” home? How can it be conceptualized and framed professionally – through the lense of education and socio pedagogical research and theory? And how can this be transferred into practice with service users and professionals together? How can residential child care services contribute - together with young people as well as their parents and caregivers –to work against social disadvantage and discrimination and to improve the chances to socially participate and grow up equally? How can young people be empowered and guided when they face transitions and processes of leaving care into work-life or higher education?


If one follows the arguments and trends as shown - also against the background of critical and self-assuring inquiries of society towards residential care – future impulses and an analysis of the presence can no longer be gained solely from an institutional criticism (as witnessed in the campaigns for child care reforms in Germany and in the UK for example). 


This does not fail to recognize that institutional criticism is still necessary, but as a profession as well as an “ordinary” place for children and youth, residential care also needs other points of reference in order to identify the potential achievements, services and limitations of this special form of care among other institutions of growing up such as the birth family, schools, youth work.


Against these outlined backgrounds and based on numerous discussions, participation workshops and documented forums and expert reports as reference sources, the future forum home education proposes the orientation and concrete design of the following future impulses for the further development of »home education«


Realize the fundamental rights of young people and social rights of young people and their parents!

Young people are fundamental rights holders. Parents also have a right to assistance with their upbringing and education. A strong legal position is important and necessary in relation to growing up outside birth families. The tendencies and historical developments as outlined above shows how important this is. This so called “rights-based approach” brings a normative and legal framework for residential child care. As a consequence,

  • the legal status of young people must be significantly strengthened,

  • the rights of parents must be realized,

  • the right to protection against abuse of power must be strengthened,

  • forms of participation, ombudsman and protection concept must be strengthened.

Recognizing this means placing the protection, funding and participation rights of young people at the center. They must be the starting point of any educational approach and process.


Shape residential child care as a place that works against inequalitites and discrimination! Conceive residential child care as places of (educative) possibilities and potentialities – where the participation of children and young people is actively promoted!

Children and young people who temporarily live in residential groups often grow up in precarious living conditions and in poverty. Residential child care must therefore actively deal with social inequality and disadvantage. Residential child care settings should promote conditions, where young people can participate in a non-discriminatory way and stay connected with meaningful others, family and kin or other dimensions of their life-worlds (peers, friends, partners, schools, family and kin networks, hobbies)! The goal must be:

• fight social inequality,

• reduce barriers and social disadvantage,

• and to enable non-discriminatory social participation.

Residential child care must be measured by how it promotes the participation of young people. This applies to the field of how it contributes to prevent disadvantages and enables individual development education and training, but also to topics such as social relationships, health and living space. Professional actors in the residential care sector who are responsible have to ask themselves again and again: To what extent does the residential child care prevent social access or create discrimination? It is one of their tasks to locate and reflect themselves socio-politically.


Make the social responsibility of the organizational and service providers, agencies and structures clear!

Service- and organizational structures must be transparent and comprehensible - for the state community and its citizens. This also applies to the development of concepts and organizational structures. They are to be designed in a participatory manner.

This means:

  • Young people, parents and self-advocates must be included,

  • Inclusive child and youth welfare planning must take greater account of residential child care,

  • Plannings of new residential forms/services that are done in public/state responsibility must be accessible for thirds and must be verified empirically,

  • A comprehensive data infrastructure for home education needs to be built.

Financial security is essential for this. It enables flexible support. And it secures day-to-day work in residential groups in a binding and supraregional manner.


Implement and transform structures in residential child care that are inclusive – together with young people with disabilities!

Young people with disabilities have the right to self-determined social participation. This means that they can freely design their living and living situation. Thus, access to forms of living and growing up outside the birth family, as given within residential child care, must be ensured. Residential child care should offer places of (self-)educative possibilities, potentialities and abilities .


For this it is important:

  • to open up existing offers for new target groups,

  • to develop new inclusive forms of living,

  • to reliably involve young people and parents in the design of inclusive spaces,

  • to establish reliable standards for accompanying and supporting help,

  • to create reliable databases.

Young people with disabilities must not be forced into special forms of living due to a lack of offers - because this often leads to lifelong institutionalization. This is to be prevented. It is important to ensure freedom of choice in and support of community-based services and infrastructures.


Strengthen self-advocacy and self-organization for young people and their families

Children, adolescents, parents and care leavers must be able to represent and contribute to their own interests. This is not only central to democracy-education and personal development of care receivers but also to be seen as a process of democratization within the structures of residential child care. Institutions where democratic concepts and structures are promoted experience greater acceptance both of professionals and service users. The following applies:

• The basic right to self-organization is to be recognized and promoted.

• Residential care must enable and support self-organization.

• Residential are must also include self-advocacy in a binding manner.


The strengthening of self-advocacy and also possibilities to make use of independent complaint and counselling facilities must therefore be legally safeguarded - also for parents and care leaders. It must be anchored in a mandatory concept. This applies to the facilities themselves as well as on a supra-local level.


Recognize the development of skilled and professional staff as a political field of action!

Residential child care requires well-trained specialists to meet the complex challenges and needs that are constitutional to this form of child care. To do this, it must develop into a socially recognized and attractive field of work for social care professionals.


The goal must be:

  • to actively pursue personnel development and to open up creative freedom,

  • to provide the specialist staff with methods and concepts,

  • to align the educator training with home education,

  • and to better remunerate specialists as well as to increase time resources.

A further development of home education must do justice to the basic rights of young people and parents. This includes promoting their opportunities to participate. To this end, the work and training situation of the skilled workers must be given greater focus.


Systematically improve knowledge and data on residential child care!

The research landscape for home education is diverse and scattered. In order for residential child care to develop further, it must make use of empirical research. The decisive factor here is the transfer between empirical knowledge and practice. Research results should be meaningfully linked with conceptual developments and forms of training for upcoming social care workers or professionals.


Basically it is important:

• to organize the scattered research, to bundle it and to ensure a transfer,

• to build a high-quality data infrastructure with suitable standards,

• to sustainably promote participatory research approaches,

• and to develop and implement new research priorities for specialist developments.

Residential child care must legitimize, control and develop its actions and inherent logics. Scientific support is essential for this. Service users, Care Leavers and Receivers, specialists and institutions must benefit from these results.


Demand social and political acknowledgement of residential child care!

Residential child care settings must develop into “good places to grow up”. To do this, residential child care must be socially acknowledged and valued. At the same time, residential settings must have an appreciative effect on the young people and their parents themselves.


It is important

• to upgrade the public perspective on residential child by showing its societal and individual relevance to counter stigmatization,

• to create an educational place that takes young people and parents needs, issues and wishes seriously,

• to enable co-creation and participation in residential care,

• to support specialists in the design of residential care settings as a “pedagogical space” of educative possibilities.


Residential care and the education “happening” in these settings needs more public acknowledgement. This also applies professionals’ tasks and services in the on-site structures and cooperations. But also, residential child care must not deny its ambivalences. Instead, it should use them as an impetus for further development.


Conclusion

In summary, the future of residential child care will have to be based on the following coordinates “ rights - participation – acknowledgement/validation – sustainability”. A starting point for professional action must be the question of how residential care realizes basic and social rights in society  - for and together with young people and their families.


With regards to the future, the results of the future-forum have shown that it will be crucial to establish inclusive forms of organization and access-procedures which enable non-discriminatory social participation, especially young people with disabilities and their parents. Service users with and without disabilities must have access to be supported by other, low-key and validating family support services. As “checkpoints” for a “good” place to grow up, residential care has to answer the questions how and if young people can sustainably shape a self-determined life within these places and if they are able and encouraged to stay connected with their social life, family, friends, peers and other elements of their social spaces outside care. It is crucial that residential child care provides resources and perspectives that over time strengthen a self-determined life.


The realization of non-discriminatory social participation depends on a strong local social policy that is not only sensitive towards intersecting and multifaceted ways of social discrimination but also actively willing to works against these barriers through corresponding policies. Therefore, residential child care should follow up on (participatory) research which involves children, young people and parents more closely in order to identify social barriers and develop appropriate policies. Residential child care has to become aware and make use of its socio-political, so-called “voice function/mandate” in the municipalities and supraregional structures. It must dismantle its own mechanisms and structures where exclusions and obstacles are reproduced.

Residential child care must therefore be more closely integrated into the communal infrastructure - schools, training, health services, leisure activities, etc. with offers that orientate towards the social space and lifeworld of young people - with and without disabilities.


Multi-professional approaches and specialized support concepts and care provisions must be geared towards strengthening the non-discriminatory social participation of young people. Shaping the future of "home education" is a task for society as a whole.