“Better Futures for Children – Today”

A Message in the Theme

It is difficult to pick conference themes. If they are too narrow, some possible speakers and delegates may feel excluded; if they are too broad, they risk being meaningless. It is also increasingly difficult to obtain financial support for delegates to attend conferences with general themes; employers want delegates to pick up specific skills and knowledge.

But FICE-Finland picked a good title for the Congress in Helsinki. It is important both to give children and young people a good experience now, as well as to prepare them for their adult lives. This theme allowed speakers to contribute both about services for children and to look ahead. With over fifty workshop presenters, ten plenary speakers, visits to services for children and their families – not to count the social events – there was real variety and a lot of new and interesting ideas to be picked up.

This report can only give a personal view of the event : the book with the summaries of the papers is a hundred pages long. But to offer you a flavour of the Congress may help you to decide to make it to the next one, in December 2010, just over two years from now, in Cape Town.


The setting for this Congress was a large well-sited Conference Centre, the Finlandia Hall, set in the middle of Helsinki. A hundred years ago Helsinki (or Helsingfors, as it is known in Swedish) was the main city in an arch-duchy which was part of the Russian Empire. Now it is the busy modern capital of the most prosperous country in Europe. Helsinki is clean; the trams run on time; the food is good; there are interesting things for tourists to do; and the weather is not too bad, if you can cope with a bit of rain.

The Congress opens

The first session had the usual speeches, with a welcome from Ilkka Oksala, the State Secretary for the Minister of Social Affairs and Health, and an introduction by Professor Pentti Arajarvi, the President of the Central Union for Child Welfare, who were acting as hosts. Monika Niederle, as President of FICE-International, added her welcome.

The Loveliest Girl in the World

But the highlight of the opening session was Miina Savolainen’s presentation. She is both a professional social educator and a first-class photographer, and over the last ten years she had used her skills on a project entitled The Loveliest Girl in the World. She had worked with ten girls, enabling them to “become visible and accept themselves as valuable and unique”.

Children in care, Miina argued, often had been made to feel that they had caused their family problems and that they were of little value. Often, they had lost their childhood. Her project was designed to help the girls see themselves in a new light.

She had found that taking the girls’ photographs had changed the staff : girl relationship. There was more direct eye contact. The girls had to trust her as the photographer to portray them as they wished. The girls, for their part, controlled the situation, and modelled themselves as they wanted to be seen. Miina became their eyes, and found that in the process she was coming to focus on their inner world.

The photographs were set in the Finnish countryside – sometimes in little wooded valleys and sometimes on bleak moorland or making use of Finland’s many lakes and ice-worn rocks. These urban adolescents found themselves set against nature, and it was not always easy for them to have the confidence to gaze at the camera. Some did not recognise themselves, or rejected pictures which they felt were wounding. At times the pictures revealed things too complex to put into words, and they achieved emotional truth.

Miina argued that everyone had the right to see themselves as good, and the beauty of the pictures made the pain which the girls had suffered more bearable, offering a sense of hope. She tried to offer love and acceptance, in the hope that if the girls accepted their pictures, they were accepting themselves, providing a platform on which they could build their adult lives.

The photographs were very beautiful, but of greater significance, they provided evidence to the girls of how beautiful they could be, a reassuring record which could be looked at again later in life. Even if they had been abandoned by their parents, the girls could accept themselves as princesses.

The presentation was moving, the pictures were stunning, and the commentary was like poetry. Here was the work of a real professional, using a medium in which she was expert to relate to the girls and help them face and overcome their deepest problems. These notes are a poor shadow of the session, but Miina will be publishing The Loveliest Girl in the World shortly, and we hope to review the book when it is out.

FICE is Sixty Years Old

FICE was set up shortly after the Second World War in 1948. The intervening years have seen many changes globally, but some of the child care issues remain the same. To celebrate the anniversary, a history was prepared by Robert Shaw, in collaboration with a large number of contributors, and I gave a paper to speak of the history of FICE, to launch the book and to consider some of the issues raised in it. (The full paper is elsewhere in this edition of the Webmag.)

The formal opening ended, appropriately, with a contribution by children. A troupe of a dozen or so girls from the Linnanmaki Circus School did a variety of impressive acrobatics – impressive not only because of their skill but also because of the way they persisted, apparently unflustered, when something did not work out right.


It is perhaps invidious to pick out particular speakers from a full programme, but for me there was only one session which was a damp squib (which will remain unidentified) and there were several which I personally found most interesting.

Nigel Cantwell gave a broad overview of the way that the children’s rights movement had developed. Most of us are aware of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but not much else. Nigel has been close to the international scene for many years, and he had been able to see the trends, the developments, the political moves and the impact of particular countries and individuals on the United Nations.

He covered the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child, kidlib and pupil power in the 1970s, in the International Year of the Child in 1979, mentioning both the developments and the times when things seemed to take a step backwards. He drew our attention to the new UN document, which may emerge in the late autumn of 2008, concerning the rights of children in care. It has been pushed by Brazil, who are keen to see it adopted. Nigel urged FICE to monitor its implementation closely, as the fine words of such documents are not necessarily matched in practice.

Merle Allsopp, the Director of the National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW) in South Africa, gave a moving account of the situation in South Africa under the heading Raising Children in a Globalised Village, describing the support systems they offer such as Safe Parks, the provision of school uniforms, the creation of food gardens and benefits advocacy.

She spoke of the ten lessons which had been learnt – the need for progressive policy to take account of economics, reduction in residential care, providing high quality in residential services, the Isibindi model, the value of life-space work, the capacity of the ‘wounded healer’, the need for creativity, community-based workers, cultural awareness and keeping up the spirit to sustain workers informally.

Laszlo Csokay from Hungary described their Parliament for children in care, which had encouraged children to speak up for themselves and be confident, as well as contributing useful ideas for improving the services – both specific and general.

Soeren Hegstrup from Denmark gave a paper on What is Holding and what is hugging in social pedagogical work? about responsible and ethical work – a paper I had to miss, but which appears to have been memorable.

Sandra Burger and Christian Honold described the progress of Quality4Children. FICE is one of the organisations, together with SOS Children’s Villages and IFCO, which prepared the standards for children’s services, based on extensive consultation with children and young people. These standards are now being widely adopted and have been translated into 19 languages.

Youth Congress

There have been parallel Youth Congresses at most of the recent FICE biennial events – Maastricht, Glasgow, Sarajevo and now Helsinki. The pattern has varied; in some there has been quite a distance – literally – between the adult and the youth Congresses. In Sarajevo they were blended in together to create the noisiest Congress in living memory. In Helsinki there was some separation and some blending, and it worked well, with about fifty young people from a dozen or so countries, plus accompanying adults.


The variety of workshops was one of the strengths of the Congress, offering reports on projects, research, and new ways of considering issues. Subjects included family group conferences, art-based work on children’s rights, support for foster carers, trafficking children, changes in practice concerning restraining children, community-based services, listening to children in court proceedings, work with challenging families, goal setting and strategies to develop leadership, society as protector of the child, parenthood, child and youth participation, and lots lots more. The sheer variety made choice difficult.

Among others, I chose a session on aftercare, where there were three speakers. Veronique Lerch and Sandra Burger, both from Austria, reported on an international project. Varda Mann-Feder’s paper is included in this issue of the Webmag.

Site Visits

Delegates were offered a choice of seventeen different services for children and families in the Helsinki area to visit. I went to the Domestic Violence Centre (Paakaupungin turvakoti), partly because I had known Sari Laaksonen, the Director, for many years when she was one of the Finnish FICE Federal Council members, and partly because I had once been responsible for a women’s refuge and I was interested to see how the Finns managed this type of service.

The unit, sited in a suburb of Helsinki, was large, with places for 10 families and supported living for 19 more. They provided all the types of practical help which the families required, including some central eating, together with supervised parenting. The building had rooms where children could meet non-resident parents under supervision. The staff also had a programme to help violent men. All in all, it appeared to offer a useful service, to be well-managed and to have a well-thought out programme.

Other visits included children’s homes, a play park, a family counselling clinic, a mother and baby home, a family support centre, foster care and a legal advice centre.

Social Events

There was a reception hosted by the City of Helsinki in the Student Hall, a large and splendid building used by the University of Helsinki for ceremonies and other large events. There was a Congress Gala Dinner in the smart Crowne Plaza hotel. The dinner started off as normal but after the meal it was transformed by a rock group made up of fifteen-year-old girls who felt that their message went over best at maximum volume. This went down well with the members of the Youth Congress.


In the last session, the young people from the Youth Congress made an excellent presentation, with every one of them contributing as individuals, but also having an impact as a total group. They had had many activities in the week they had been together, and had made some strong friendships.

Sari Laaksonen, who had acted as a very effective compere throughout the Congress, decided to get immediate feedback in the last plenary and passed the microphone round the hall to see what the 300 delegates would take away from the Congress back to their 30 countries. It had clearly been a brilliant event, with a wide range of happy memories.

South Africa

The finale for the Congress was the invitation by FICE-South Africa to join them in Cape Town in 2010. The theme will be Celebrating the courage to care in a diverse world, and the South African delegation underlined the diversity by greeting delegates in their country’s seven main languages, and getting everyone to sing along together.

The FICE National Section is the National Association of Child Care Workers, a very busy, vibrant and influential organisation. Although it is a professional association, they have done much to get workers trained and to help children and their families directly. The social and health problems and the poverty with which they have to cope are daunting, but it is truly heartening to see the low-cost solutions to problems which they are finding. There are 160,000 households headed by children because of the impact of HIV/AIDS, for example, and so through the Isibindi programme they have devised ways for these young heads of households to get support and carry on their schooling as well as care for their brothers and sisters.

Child care is not a profession where those countries with the most money always have the best ideas and the best services. There will be a lot to learn in South Africa, and a lot to experience. Apparently Congresses there are liable to revert to dancing sessions if the audience feels moved to do a bit of singing and swaying, but it’s good for the group morale.

And of course, while you’re there, you can always add on a safari trip, go up Table Mountain, visit the wineries or swim with sharks.


Nothing to do with the Congress : Footnote about FICE Hotels

In the late 1980s at the St Gallen Congress I stayed in a hotel where a notice in my bedroom told guests to remain in their rooms in the event of fire and wait to be escorted to safety by a member of staff. Unusual, I thought. On the first evening, chatting to the barman, I found out that when he went home, there were no staff left on the premises overnight …..

In Moscow, my guide book said that our hotel was run by the mafia, but FICE was looked after royally with splendid views across the city from the 25th floor.

Then there was the one in Trogen, which they opened specially for us to sleep in. There were no staff, but when we opened the front door in the morning, there was snow, which had fallen overnight, half a metre deep right up to the front door, and which we had to wade through to get to the road. Just one of the sacrifices of being a FICE Federal Council member.

And there have been the less salubrious spots, where there have been bad drains, cockroaches, rats or howling packs of dogs, though the personal welcome of the National Sections who have been our hosts has always been warm.

In Helsinki, the hotel was fine, but perhaps it was only in the rooms of English guests that there was the notice, “The client is responsible for all eventual mischief concerning his room.” Perhaps they had experienced a visit by Millwall FC.

Sadly, unlike Gerard Hoffnung, I never stayed in a hotel which promised “French widows in every bedroom, affording delightful prospects”.

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