June 3 2005
At eye level with the children
Report on the European Congress "Quality4Children"
02/06/2005 - At the first European Congress "Quality4Children" on out-of-home care for children, which took place from 1 to 2 June in Gmunden, Austria, all participants agreed: without the participation of children and youths, the foundations for a project aimed at securing and developing binding quality standards for child care would be missing.
Quality for all children?
Through the project "Quality4Children", three large international organisations, practising out-of-home care for children, hope to contribute to improving the quality of this form of child care. This should not, however, simply involve satisfying a minimum quality standard for child care, but should aim to establish a high standard as the rule. "In the best interests of the child" establishes the framework within which high quality child care can be practised.
The goal of "Quality4Children" is to put into effect, throughout Europe, a child care method which focuses on the needs of each individual child, and to have the necessary guidelines implemented on the political level. The project's initiators are IFCO (International Foster Care Organisation), FICE (Fédération Internationale des Communautés Educatives), and SOS Children's Villages. Currently 32 European countries are taking part in the project.
At the congress in Gmunden, in which participants from 54 European countries were present, the idea "in the child's best interests" was once more clearly defined: children and youths who cannot grow up with their biological parents (there are approximately two million in Europe and Central Asia alone), are the true experts on their own situation. They play a key role in improving their opportunities for development.
This is why in Gmunden youths were also invited to share their views and personal experiences, judgement and concerns, and to bring in their expert knowledge, which will become part of "Quality4Children". A youth from Ireland got to the heart of the situation of those affected; "In market inquiries the consumers are asked, why is it that in the field of social work, the producers are asked?" A youth from the Netherlands said, "We are left out. They listen to what we say, but they do not act accordingly."
The living conditions and conditions for the development of children and youths in out-of-home care do not correspond to their needs. In many cases, this even applies to children growing up in their biological families. The youths explicitly expressed their wish to participate by saying, "We have the experience. We have the creative ideas. We have another point of view. We are directly affected by your decisions. We are the most important part of the system."
The German social educational expert Klaus Wolf agreed. Children have unalienable and unconditional rights from birth, and it not us who gives them these rights. It is not enough to proclaim these rights in soapbox oratory. Andrew Hosie, a university lecturer on children's home care in Glasgow, explained that to counsel does not mean to speak, but first and foremost to listen.
Quality for all children?
FICE President Theo Binnendijk, who opened the congress together with IFCO President Chris Gardiner and SOS Children's Villages President Helmut Kutin, stated, right at the start of the conference, "We want 'Quality4Children' to count for all children."
Social educational expert Heinrich Kupffer affirmed this conviction and provokingly asked why everyone questions the quality of out-of-home care and not that within families? In some families, according to Kupffer, it would be better if child care were approached like it is in some children's homes. Growing up in the biological family should in no way be equated with "quality". And if "child care quality" is a concern of the congress, then these demands for quality should be valid for all children, including those growing up in their biological families.
However, quality is not easy to work towards: educational experts have to be creative and free in their work, they cannot follow norms too closely, since what is good for one child can be exactly wrong for another. According to Kupffer, if needed, standards can be set and developed for organisational matters, such as education, and are important merely for the purpose of ensuring social approval or the understanding between colleagues from different countries. Quality in child care means more than following these standards, as it comprises a specific style of association, commitment of the co-workers, and a specific conception of man. Maturity is something one must develop.
Indeed, as educational scientist Eva Dreher from Vienna stated in her report, development should not be considered something pertinent only to children and youths, rather it is understood today as a process which extends though one's whole life.
Many topics were raised during the congress and many experts, organisations and initiatives met to exchange views and to work together towards a common goal. The need to join forces was also emphasized by IFCO President Chris Gardiner in his opening speech. In this effort, the participation of the youths may in no way be forgotten; "Let's put ourselves at eye level with the children", requested SOS Children's Villages President Helmut Kutin.