Youth Welfare in Austria

Youth Welfare Act (JWG) 1989 – Introduction

In the nineties of the last century, youth welfare underwent a notable improvement in Austria. An important basis for the re-orientation of youth welfare was the Youth Welfare Act (JWG) of the Federal Government. After ten years of discussion, this Act was passed by the Parliament in 1989. The extended debate was caused by disputes over the protection of unborn life, which resulted in a bill on the pre-emptive support of “mothers, mothers to be and their unborn”.  (JWG § 1(1); cf. STOCKART-BERNKOPF 1989, p. 56).

The Austrian Parliament has the authority to pass the basic laws in the area of youth welfare. Provincial legislature provides the regulations for the implementation of the laws. At province level, the laws were passed between 1990 and 1993. Communities are included in the development of proposals and in the financing of services at local level. In Styria, for example, sixty percent of the expenses are covered by the provincial state and forty percent must be covered by the communities.

The basic Act of 1989 tries to provide a careful balance. On the one hand, it intends to strengthen the rights of individuals with limited official intervention and on the other hand the classical approach to intervention can be observed. A very good example for this approach is article 1 which states the need “to secure the development of minors utilizing supporting systems for fostering and upbringing, and granting an education”. Providing a support system which emphasizes individual rights stands in contras with the term “securing” by means of mandated measures. This implies the right for the state to regulate. It can be interpreted as a disciplining element. This guarantees, however, that a higher degree of control options is left with the federal authorities.

In any case, the JWG of 1989 regarded the primary responsibility of youth welfare as strengthening the educational competence of the family (e.g. parents). It also postulated the basic principle of least possible interference. It favoured supportive measures over external placement outside the family.

Due to shrinking funds, this demand currently leads more and more often to undesirable consequences in that first and foremost the least costly measures are applied. However, according to legislation, the means that are applied should be the “mildest” with a view to the extent and intensity of the intervention. And these are by no means always the cheapest.

The independent agencies

The JWG 1989 also emphasizes (in contrast to the previous JWG of 1954) the subsidiary principle. Based on it, the Act supports the development of independent (private) agencies to work in the field of youth welfare, for example freelance educators, private apartment-sharing communities or privately owned homes. Admittedly, all these private institutions have to be approved by the governmental authorities of the province before they can work with adolescents in accordance with to the JWG. They determine the guidelines for establishing and running a facility, for example the size of the building, the ratio of the staff, training of the staff, financial planning etc.

In Germany, certain independent agencies such as the “Caritas”, the “Diakonische Werk” or the “Arbeiterwohlfahrt“ can be called social corporations. In comparison, independent agencies in Austria are rather small, except for the “Caritas” or the “SOS-children’s village – and to a limited extent also the “Volkshilfe”.
Therefore, they mostly work at a regional or even local level. To improve coordination, independent agencies merge into umbrella organizations in certain federal states. In this way they increase their power toward politics and authorities.

The decade of reforms in the home sector: 1990s  

During the sixties to the eighties, there were several attempts to reform the education in homes in Austria. A striking change has only been noticeable since the nineties. It is difficult for me to exclude the Styrian reforms (cf. Scheipl 2001, pp. 208), but the reforms of Vienna provide a better example. Based on numerous debates and reform attempts, the youth welfare system in Vienna has undergone a fundamental restructuring process under the title of “Home 2000” since 1995. At that time, homes in Vienna housed 2,746 adolescents. (In 1985 this number amounted to 4,097).

The slogan of the reform project Heim 2000 was, “Identify earlier – care for a shorter time – differentiate the support”, and by taking this line, a preventative approach was adopted (cf. Eichmann et al. 1997). This approach was also based on local social requirements. An important goal was the closure of large homes (up to 180 places).

As a second important goal, the city was divided into six socio-pedagogical regions. They were established around modified residential homes, but they are now social pedagogical points of support for the administration. The existing borders were eliminated. In this way the current social structure of the demographic development could be addressed much better. In addition, this regional specific approach provided better possibilities for the use of local and regional resources and support structures.

Each socio-pedagogical region contains the following:

  • One or more crisis centres
  • Several apartment-sharing communities
  • Potentially one small home
  • Socio-pedagogic information centres

The key component of each region is the crisis centre. This crisis centre offers short term accommodation (six weeks maximum) and a diagnostic clarification. It serves as an initial “clearing-point” in case of crises and as a networking centre for social workers, teachers and the police. A total of 17 crisis centres will be established. The idea of ambulant support and help with accommodation outside of the family are especially important. If outside accommodation is indicated, the children (age range 2 to 15 years) are sent to apartment-sharing communities or small homes.

A major aim of this concept is, however, the avoidance of external accommodation.
The above mentioned apartment-sharing communities are co-educative, house children at different ages and work as decentralized groups. This means that this reform offers more spatial proximity by regionalization. The creation of smaller entities offers more personal closeness.

Conceptually, one would like to provide differentiated services especially in these apartment-sharing communities. Here, the people in charge of the projects are not yet fully satisfied. Currently, one attempts to establish socio-therapeutic communities. In this project, up to two especially difficult children/adolescents are integrated into a group of eight children, looked after by six specially trained social pedagogues. In addition, specially focused groups will be established.

Moreover, it has to be pointed out that the placement of children with foster parents has become increasingly difficult. Apparently, “normal” families cannot provide appropriate care for these children. Therefore the number of professional foster homes has increased. There is no uniform training for staff working in these homes, however.

The socio-pedagogical centres, an important part of the Viennese concept, underline the regional character and accentuate the ambulant aspect of the entire reform (cf. WINKLER 2001; FLEISCHMANN 2001).

With the beginning of the year 2004, the last measures in this respect were taken, and the final report following this major reform bearing the name Heim 2000 was published in October 2004 (cf. Stadt Wien-MAG ELF 2004). Staff were asked what they made of the new reformed working conditions. However  – and this is, unfortunately, somewhat typical of the Austrian youth welfare situation – comprehensive accompanying scientific research activities were not carried out, a fact that one could almost call negligent. This meant that, triggered by the reforms carried out in Vienna, the opportunity was missed to establish a comprehensive youth welfare research project in Austria.

Youth welfare planning in Austria

In the Youth Welfare Act 1989 (article 7), all provinces (federal states) were advised to establish a research-oriented youth welfare plan. A similar attempt was made in Germany. There, the Children and Youth Support Act of 1991 also suggested mandatory planning for youth support.

In Germany, a high volume of publications appeared on this topic – especially on participative planning. In Austria, on the other hand, not much happened. Here a more pragmatic and very hesitant approach was taken.

Despite the legal requirement only two federal states dedicated their energy to the development of plans for youth welfare – those states were Styria and Salzburg. These two federal states acknowledged the importance and included the planning for youth welfare into their federal laws. All other seven federal states remained vague on this issue (cf. Scheipl 2001, p. 285). Therefore these two federal states have established the most detailed planning documents. However, the two approaches are very different.

The example of Salzburg

In 1997 a discourse-oriented and participative approach was chosen for Salzburg (cf. ibid. pp. 290). Representatives of the independent agencies were involved as well as experts and employees of the authorities. The planning guidelines were developed based on the methodology of product description. Thereby every single service that offered “educational support” or “sheltered living” was described by means of several criteria – for example goals, basic principles, target group, personnel, expenses, basic standard, and others. Based on these aspects, the current status of youth welfare measures and facilities was determined (“actual” product description) and a “target” product description was compiled.

Ultimately, a package of measures was developed. This package of measures includes a detailed description of activities to be initiated in order to reach the “target”-standards (defined responsibilities, time frame, expenses). These measures seem to work satisfactorily. The youth welfare plan dating from 2000, periodically updated, is a confirmation of this circumstance (cf. Land Salzburg 2000).

The example of Styria

In Styria, a more “top-down“ approach was attempted (ibid. pp. 292). The first youth welfare plan was already initiated by a single expert working for the authorities in 1992, based on a survey of 166 social workers (cf. HENGSBERGER 1992).

The current Styrian youth welfare plan (1999) was developed by a group of external experts. This group of experts surveyed the “actual standard” in its first comprehensive analysis. In detailed studies that followed, a “target”-concept was developed which was based on interviews with experts, international comparisons, data analysis (for example risk assessment for illegitimate children, children from single parent homes, children from divorced parents etc. to end up in youth welfare institutions).

This concept is based on statistical variables (mean, standard deviation – for demand estimation). Thereby a quantitative prognosis can be determined which would be easy to reconfirm. Strange to say, this quantitative prognosis has not been evaluated so far during the preparation of the Third Styrian Youth Welfare Plan. (cf. Amt der Steiermärkischen Landesregierung 2005).

It has to be added that complex connections and the qualitative dimensions of problems, trends and professional requests are also included in this plan from 1999 – for example in the form of 17 proposed projects (e.g. collaboration of youth welfare and youth psychiatry, collaboration of youth welfare and penal system, development of social work at schools etc.)

Currently there is open discussion as to which services should be provided by independent agencies and which services should be seen as basic services, provided by statutory bodies. There is a tendency that difficult problems remain the responsibility of the official social work institutions. Independent agencies focus on cases that are “easier to handle”.

This does not necessarily have to be that way. Special offers have been made by independent agencies but these are very expensive and the government is careful not to pay these high costs to private bodies. If these expensive services stay “within their own home” the costs can be “obscured”.

Another important aspect in the discussion in Styria is the privatization of youth welfare facilities (e. g. homes) which are operated by the authorities. The employees’ opposition is massive.

In addition, Styria gave rise to a fairly interesting development in 2004 which had an impact on youth welfare planning. In the context of a ruling on the “determination of services and service remunerations” (cf. Landesgesetzblatt 2005), a comprehensive catalogue listing detailed descriptions of individual services provided in youth welfare was elaborated. This “catalogue of services” described in detail the individual services offered in the context of mobile, ambulant and institutional care according to crucial aspects, such as function and objectives, quality standards regarding structure, process, result and controlling (cf. Landesgesetzblatt 2005, appendix 1).

In this way, the services offered in youth welfare have, on the whole, been standardized and made accessible for quality assurance. In connection with time schedules and costs projections, this specification allows for more transparency in youth welfare planning as far as client orientation, regional supply and the financial side are concerned. The services that have been in existence up to now will have to be adapted to match the new specifications in the course of one year. The “catalogue of services” follows in a modified form the idea of participatory quality development in a communicative way, which was undertaken by the youth-office of the city of Graz (cf. Stadt Graz 2000). This approach has proved to be one of the most remarkable initiatives in the field of youth welfare in Austria during recent years (cf. Pantucek 2005, 9).

The advantages of the procedure of the “catalogue of services” will be that the public service commissioner will clearly outline the services to be rendered in youth welfare and will lay down the relevant costs, thus making the situation transparent for the providers. This certainly represents progress compared with the situation we have had so far, which did not allow for a comprehensive overview of the practices or individual concepts and subsidies.

One has to point out in principle, however, that the idea of subsidiarity is undermined. It is largely based on the principle that social services can be provided and supported largely by responsible citizens including voluntary services without direct governmental control. The exact guidelines of the government which are now issued regarding services and the financing for youth welfare do not allow much room for private organisations undertaking independent activities. The current practice resembles an outsourcing programme for governmental services instead of the government providing resources to encourage private entities to develop creative solutions for the challenges of youth welfare.

However, problems are likely to evolve if the system is not applied in a flexible manner. It is necessary to develop new services, aimed at making youth welfare work more flexible without undue difficulty despite the specified standardization. A certain fear in this respect is nurtured by the fact that individual services offered are extremely differentiated or “tight”.

So, for instance, the following forms of communities, etc. have been defined as separate target areas: “children and youth community”, “socio-pedagogic community for children and young people“, “family-like community“, etc., whereas due to the specific patterns at present their combination is not possible. Perhaps a modular concept providing flexibility within a predictable structure would have been the better option. In any case, it must be guaranteed that the standardization established does not act as a “suffocating structure”, and that it does not get stuck in this way.

This would limit the discussion about services provided by social work to discussing financial issues only. Thereby, the government would deprive itself of the constitutive, socio-political dimension. Youth welfare has the socio-political responsibility to demand the task to shape the social structure of the state.  In any case Styria has, together with Salzburg, occupied a pioneering role in Austria with its approach.

What is remarkable in this context is that the specified package of services no longer includes the youth welfare classic,  the “youth home“. Considering that it was the large homes in the seventies of the last century from where the reforms of youth welfare in Austria originated – especially so in Vienna and Styria – the  abolition of homes can be seen as the provisional end of a reform movement.

Whether or not the end point has been reached by replacing the classic homes by various living communities remains to be seen; more likely not. It would actually have done more justice to the variety of the services offered not to abolish the smaller homes. Overall, neither in Salzburg nor in Styria is there inclusion of the clients or users of youth welfare services. But such an aspect would emphasize the co-producer aspect of service provision, at present a very important approach.
Furthermore joint research cooperation in youth welfare planning, involving all the nine federal states, has not been realized either.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Josef Scheipl
Abteilung für Sozialpädagogik
Institut für Erziehungswissenschaft
der Karl-Franzens-Universität
Merangasse 70/II
A-8010 Graz

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