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Former children in care are student mentors

Contributing to the education of the child welfare workers of the future. 

“How was it for you?” “What did you think then?” “Why did it get so bad?” She has heard many of the same questions so many times, but answers openly and thoroughly nonetheless. She has this issue at heart on behalf of vulnerable children, and can perhaps tolerate a little more even than this.

“I want the children’s voices to be heard, considering that mine was not heard,” says Kristine Nilsen.

The 23-year-old has had the Child Welfare Services in her life from the time she was six years old until adulthood. As a three-year-old, she was placed in an emergency shelter home. At four years of age, the journey continued into a foster home. After a court hearing, it was decided that the girl, who had now reached eight years of age, should move back to her mother. Nobody asked what she wanted, so she did not say anything either. 

“I hated the child welfare services for many years,” says Nilsen.

Not measuring up

Winds of discontent blow stiffly around the Norwegian child welfare services. From one side, it is attacked by parental campaigns in Norway. Foreign families, especially those from Eastern Europe, move in from the other side. The European Court of Human Rights has, according to Dagbladet, as many as ten child welfare services cases under review as of 5 May 2019.

From within, staff have become whistleblowers, in part through the #heierna campaign about full-to-bursting flexitime accounts comprising of well-meant extra hours spent, and a considerable lack of available resources. Staff work themselves to desperation and find themselves in tears when they find that they still cannot measure up to what is required, as revealed in an opinion piece in Adresseavisen from 22 May 2019.  

Preventive measures seem like a distant dream when the only thing one has time to do is to put out proverbial fires. 

Strong voices within child welfare services wish that contacts in child welfare should not have responsibility for more than 15 children. If this is to be the case, we lack 1250 such contacts, according to figures that the Minister of Children and Family Affairs has received from the Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs. 

Searching for a critical sense

The Child Welfare Service for the Kristiansand region is the largest in the country. The 200 staff follow up over 2000 children in the municipalities of Søgne, Songdalen, Lillesand, Birkenes and Kristiansand annually. Their most important job is to prevent neglect and to protect children. 

Monica Brunner

Monica Brunner leads the Child Welfare Services for the Kristiansand region. 

They do this through home visits, foster home work, milieu therapy, 24-hour emergency child protection centres, and by running an emergency telephone helpline for children and young people, 116 111. The particular focus is upon the smallest children. 

Almost half of the messages that they receive concern violence. The days are tough. There are many intense experiences and stories mixed in with the administrative and collaborative tasks. The cases handled are more complex than those that have come earlier, they say. It is difficult to make the right decisions and easy to become exhausted. 

There is a considerable degree of changeover amongst child welfare officers whose length of service has been short. Children and parents have new people to relate to when the ones before them either take sick leave or quit. 

“The new staff who come here can very easily get something of a shock when they meet real practice, especially if they have not been out in the field,” says the leader of the Child Welfare Services, Monica Brunner.

There is a need for skills development in the child welfare services. In addition to the major priority focus area Skills Development for Child Welfare Services in Agder, in which 450 staff are set to increase their levels of expertise, there is also the need for the injection of new, expert impulses.

Brunner simply does not get well enough qualified applicants for the positions advertised. 

“We need more staff with up-to-date expertise, and who know what they are actually going to be working with when they come here. The ability to critically assess and analyse the messages coming in is important,” says Brunner.  

Trust takes time

Kristine Nilsen has now become an adult, and is able to reflect well upon her own experiences. Now, she is able to influence the child welfare services of the future. Together with six other former child welfare services children, she meets students taking UiA’s new master’s degree programme in child welfare services every month. 

The first year-group started their course of studies in August 2019. The child welfare professionals, as they are known, are to function as mentors for the students for all five years of the programme. 

“The most important thing that I can teach the students is that it takes time for a child to build a level of trust to unfamiliar adults. This demands that one treats the child with respect, is honest, and allows them to influence how the contact with the child welfare services is to be,” says Nilsen.

A university child welfare services in development 

Siri Merete Reisvaag Johannessen

Coordinator Siri Merete Reisvaag Johannesen is the connecting link in the collaboration between UiA and Child Welfare Services in the Kristiansand region. 

In addition to theoretical knowledge and practical skills, the students shall get to know themselves and what they themselves take with them into their work. “Growth” is a key term. 

“The professionals tell their own stories from real life, and in this way add important knowledge to the education of the students,” says Siri Merete Reisvaag Johannessen. 

She is the coordinator of the collaboration between the child welfare services for the Kristiansand region and UiA. Reisvaag Johannessen is employed 50-50 by UiA and Kristiansand municipality respectively.

The collaboration is in development, and the new master’s degree is its new basis. This focus area is known as the “University Child Welfare Services”. 

“We are aiming for an extensive and flexible collaboration through studies, research and development in line with the university hospitals. The study has been developed with funds from the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs and UiA. The choice was between a model with a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s, or a single, integrated five-year master’s. We chose the latter option and have no doubt that this will provide us with the best candidates for work in the child welfare services. We get to work with the same students over a longer period of time, they get to have more practice, and we gain a more obvious common theme running through the study,” says Reisvaag Johannessen. 

A long-awaited master’s degree 

Solveig Botnen Eide og Sigrid Nordstoga

The 35 students get to taste a rich range of items from the child welfare menu of reality. In total, one of the five years comprises learning in the field of practice, primarily in the child welfare services, but also in schools and kindergartens. They are also to observe and contribute in the work there. 

During the fourth year, they take part in reflective practice in which they more or less ruh back and forth between the library and the field of practice. The theories should challenge the practice, and the practice should challenge the theories. 

“The encounters between theory and practice are invaluable in vocationally oriented education,” says professor of ethics in social work, Solveig Botnen Eide. 

She is the programme coordinator has worked intensively to get the contents of the study programme in place together with UiA colleagues and collaborative partners. The professor raised the issue of the need for a five-year master’s degree as early as in the year 2000 when she was a member of the committee “Befringsutvalget”, which delivered its White Paper “Child Welfare Services in Norway”. 

“Since that time, we have discussed this repeatedly. This is a disparity between the expertise requirements and the serious and complex questions that the staff in child welfare services are engaged to deal with”, says Eide. 

Sigrid Nordstoga is a teaching professor at UiA, and has also been a central figure in the development of the study programme. Her field of expertise is in particular how child welfare services officers can develop their profession in the collaboration between practice and academia. Child welfare services staff have to be humble and able to get involved in people’s lives, lifestyles, values and cultures, she believes.

“Some of what we have to teach our students is that they take their own experiences with them into the way they practice their occupation. We take our own understandings of what kind of a childhood and adolescence is good enough – one which might perhaps not be in harmony with an understanding of other cultures. We have to be open to the idea that other kinds of circumstances connected to growing up than the ones that we are used to in the Norwegian culture can also provide children with a good life,” says Nordstoga. 

Two out of two Norwegian Child Welfare Services professors

There is both a deep and a broad level of expertise in child welfare at the Department of Sociology and Social Work, of which the students reap the benefits. Research is carried out into the consequences of moving child welfare services children, child welfare services ethics, interdisciplinary collaboration, immigrant mothers’ use of digital technology, and how things end up being for foster parents’ own children when one or more foster children moves in. 

Most of the researchers have worked in the child welfare services themselves. In addition, other specialists from UiA are enlisted in this multidisciplinary educational programme, for example from within Law. 

Reidun Follesø

Professor Reidun Follesø strengthens UiA’s child protection team. She has previously been employed by Nord University. 

The department has also added to the teaching team with new, hand-picked partners from other universities, both in Norway and abroad. The biggest new signing is one of Norway’s two child welfare services professors. Reidun Follesø has worked for 24 years with child protection research at Nord University, but registered her transfer to UiA at the start of studies in 2019. 

“The University of Agder has an exciting academic environment which is characterised by commitment, generosity and considerable competence within the child protection field,” says Follesø. 

In her research, she has emphasised what child welfare professional Kristine Nilsen is so concerned about: The participation of the child.

“The Norwegian child protection services are not good enough in this regard. We talk and write about it a lot, but little happens in practice. Significant shortcomings have been uncovered within child welfare, and much of them are about precisely this issue,” says Follesø. 

She notes that there is pressure from the surroundings to achieve with regard to the new study programme. 

“There are many people who are paying attention to us. Not everybody wanted to have the five-year model, but there are a lot of us here, and we have a sense of ownership in such a way that it will be positive. In a few years we will be able to say ‘that was what we said’”, says the professor. 

The other Norwegian child welfare professor, Bjørn Øystein Angel, already works at UiA. 

Despite many negative reports about the Norwegian child welfare services, there are still many who wish to become a part of the solution. The fact that 358 applicants had to fight for the 35 available study places has made the study an applicant winner at UiA. 

Unique combination

When Kristine Nilsen was a pupil, she finally got to move to where she wanted: Home to her grandmother – the safest place. She had to become a teenager before she finally got a contact in child welfare services with whom she could really confide. He got involved in what the teenage girl was interested in, and did not beat about the bush. He fought for her case. 

Now, Nilsen holds lectures for child welfare staff, is part of research projects, and contributes to the training of the child welfare services officers of tomorrow at UiA.

“I think that those who study here, with the combination of good theoretical knowledge, learning through practice, and their own personal development through their studies, are going to be fantastic at working with children,” says Nilsen.

She could see herself taking the master’s course too at one point or another.