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The Practice of Using Support Persons in the Finnish Child Welfare Field: Towards a Relational Analysis

Johanna Moilanen, Johanna Kiili, and Leena Alanen

Introduction and Overview

The delivery of public services, including services for children and families by volunteers or non-profit organizations, is a widespread phenomenon. Recent analyses argue for a kind of re-invention of voluntary work: an increase in the use of voluntary agencies in the provision of welfare services with a push towards market reform and reducing state obligations for welfare provision (e.g. Hogg and Baines 2011; Jegermalm & Grassman 2013).

In the Nordic countries, voluntary workers (lay persons) have been used in delivering municipal child welfare services for several decades (e.g. Andersson and Bangura Arvidsson 2001). Voluntary work has, of course, played a focal role in child welfare ever since the nineteenth century and the establishment of charity organizations to help and to educate poor children. Various mentoring programs, in turn, are well known in the US, where they have a long history, and are also on the increase in Europe (e.g. DuBois and Karcher 2005). However, in many countries, mentoring programs are run by private organizations, whereas in the Nordic countries similar work is done as part of the public child welfare services (Andersson and Bangura Arvidsson 2001, 9).

This chapter1 focuses on the practice of using support persons in Finnish child welfare. The explicit purpose of this practice is to provide 'support' to children and young people who are clients of municipal child welfare services, which implies the forming of an interpersonal relationship between the child and a support person. During the maintenance of the child–adult relationship, the support persons are supervised and their support activities controlled by municipal social workers.

The practice is an established part of the current state-organized child welfare institution in Finland. However, because the work is performed by volunteers, it can also be regarded as a form of civic activity, based on a 'contract' between the

1 The article is a joint effort stemming from the research project 'Intergenerational Partnerships: Emerging forms for promoting children's well-being', funded by the Academy of Finland (grant no. 134922). volunteer support person and the child. Moreover, in recent years an increasing number of private enterprises have been providing social services (SVT 2010), including support person services (Moilanen 2011). The market therefore has to be regarded as a third, increasingly important party in shaping the provision and operation of the use of support persons.

The practice of using support persons (hereinafter PSP) is not new in social work. Yet the social, economic or political conditions of its emergence and implementation, and its ideological and political justifications have rarely been considered. In this exploratory study on a local case of enacting the practice, we aim to place the practice in its wider social, political and cultural context. First, we ask how the relationship between voluntary support persons and the children they provide 'support' for actually emerges and develops, what the volunteers 'invest' in the relationship, and what the 'support' comprises – in short, the 'how' and 'why' of PSP.2 We envisage the practice as a relational one embedded not only in the broader field of child welfare but also in fields beside and beyond child welfare, especially those of the economy (market) and politics (the state).

We start by briefly describing the history and the current positioning of the support person practice in Finnish child welfare. After that we present our data and methods of analysis and the empirical results. Before concluding we deepen the analysis, applying the theoretical work of Pierre Bourdieu, and set our findings within a wider analytical frame.

Studies of social work and welfare issues have only rarely adopted a Bourdieusian perspective (exceptions are e.g. Peillon 1998; Houston 2002; Fram 2004; Emirbayer and Williams 2005; Garrett 2007). Our rationale so doing in the present study is the relational nature of the practice as a dynamic social process that unfolds on both the interpersonal level of the engagements of its actors − social workers, voluntary support persons and 'supported' children − and the broader level of the interrelated social fields involved in its daily (re)production. A relational approach, and specifically Bourdieu's conceptual tools, will enable us, at least tentatively, to explain and inductively theorize our empirical findings.

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