Tuomas Kurttila, Ombudsman for Children: we face difficult situations and problems in Finland in respect to children’s rights as defined by the UN Convention

ylakuvat-lapsiasiavaltuutettu-enSome days ago, Tuomas Kurttila, Finnish Ombudsman for Children since 2014, presented in front of Prime Minister Stubb the Ombudsman Yearbook, indicating that inequality among Finnish children has reached a critical point, and that a quick action is needed to prevent the erosion of equality. Prime Minister Stubb admitted that painful decisions made during the current parliamentary term have hit the children, too. M. Kuttila explains the situation in an exclusive interview for Finland Politics.

How did you become Children’s Ombudsman?

I have worked seven years, from 2003 to 2010, at the Ministry of Education. And I had some duties concerning children’s wellbeing, the wellbeing of families also, and issues in respect to civil society. The government had then a program on the wellbeing of children, families, and youth in which I was involved. After the Ministry of Education, I worked for a NGO called Parents’ League of Finland, and this work concerned home-school cooperation, in particular, and pupils’ wellbeing at the basic education. At the time, it involved a close cooperation with the children’s ombudsman, who started around 2005.

So, when the post was available, I knew what the duty was, and I thought then, and I still think, that the wellbeing of children in their everyday life is a very interesting and important topic. In addition, Finland being quite a small country, I knew many of the stakeholders, and the cooperation in my previous work with the child ombudsperson was very good, so it gave me another motivation to consider this position. All this concurred to motivate me, I was chosen and I started last spring.

Have you yourself children?

Yes, I have three children, quite little ones. Two are now at school, and one is in kindergarten still. So, my everyday life helps me also to understand what it is to be with the children, and also to integrate, for example, work and family life, and so on. That keeps you in perspective, absolutely.

What does an ombudsman for children do?

One main duty is to report to the UN, the Children’s Committee, what is truly the level of wellbeing of children in Finland, and how Finland is doing with the Convention (The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). I also report to the government and to the Parliament. Once a year, we give a report to the government, and we are evaluating how children’s wellbeing is developing in Finland, and how children’s rights are doing in Finland. And once in four years, also, we prepare a report to the Parliament of Finland. That reporting is our main focus.

We do not go into precise, detailed issues concerning children. We cannot tell whether an authority has done good or bad decisions concerning one specific case. We mainly give a general point of view on assessing the level of wellbeing and how children’s rights are doing. But of course, we also have a close cooperation with other authorities. My office work, mainly, the day-to-day work, consists also in giving advice to the government and to local authorities, municipalities, on how children’s rights should be taken care of, and how, for example, child impact assessment should be made—these kinds of topic.

We also have to raise up current issues, that we see, that we hear about. Citizens are quite active in respect to my office. For example, last year, we had around 650 letters, emails, contacts, concerning various topics concerning children and their wellbeing. We also have this information. The law, the act concerning child ombudsperson, gives us a certain possibilities to get information from the authorities, if we need, if we want, and that is also important.

So, with the five persons working at the office of child ombudsperson, we assess the situation, and we make children’s voice heard at the municipalities, and at the governmental level.

Are you visiting municipalities or authorities?

Yes, every week. Mainly, it is work done by the whole office, of course. But every week, we visit certain municipalities. We go to institutions, to schools, to exchange and gather information. What we have been dealing with, quite much last year especially, is the indicators of children’s wellbeing in Finland. We need this kind of information, if we want to perform a knowledge-based work, and we are promoting this approach and then collecting this information, with the other authorities, such as the Institute of Health and Welfare, and also with the various ministries. But these indicators are one aspect, because what we are seeing today in Finland are also differences between municipalities, and those are quite huge, in respect to children’s lives and services, for example.

If a child is writing to you, what happens?

Children that we are dealing with are always under 18 years old. And that is the age limit, in this case. When a child contacts our office, we take a very careful and precise look at what the issue is behind it. Of course, as we have to do, and as we are willing to do, we advise and serve these children, we define what would be the right way to handle the issue, and which authority would be the right one.

We can also, if a child gives us permission, put the issue to that right authority, for example. But there are not that many contacts that come for children—very seldom. Often, and normally, those are from professionals, teachers, for example, youth workers, and also and especially from the parents or grandmothers/grandfathers, not that much from children themselves. It might be a good indicator that children are not taking that many contacts. It can tell us that children are not that aware of their rights in Finland, or that they find the right authority very easily. I would personally say that there is a lack of information for children on their rights.

But the normal issue to face comes from everyday services, such as school, for example. Also, childcare can be there, and those issues. But many times, those children that are in very vulnerable environments or situations—it can be that they are not, in a way, able to make this contact to the child ombudsperson, for example. And that is the reason why I think, and my office’s everyday work is, to go and see those environments, where children are, for example in childcare, in hospitals, for example—those places that are not all that open to the public, for example. School is, in a way, a good environment, because it is, in Finland, public, always. Whoever you are, you can go to class and see the teaching and those situations.

But when you think about those hard services, such as hospital environments, those are closed. Therefore, what we have been seeing, which are also problems of children’s rights, are in many ways raised from those environments. And we have had cases where children’s rights, for example to access to basic education, is not working correctly in hospitals, for example.

So, mainly we are contacting the children, more than the children are contacting us, but we focus on those places that can be the most difficult ones.

And what is the basic situation of children in Finland, compared to the rest of the world?

That’s a very good question. Of course, our office’s work is to be quite critical, because we always have to see the children’s rights from a Finnish perspective and work to improve them, even when the majority of other countries might be behind Finland. So from a global perspective, there are a lot of good things in Finland, in respect to services, how children are heard, how they live—for example the access to clean water, housing, food. Also, in respect to minorities—for example, Roma children—their access to education is absolutely there and open.

But still, we face difficult situations and problems in Finland, in respect to children’s rights as defined by the UN Convention., which may be due to a lack of budget money for education, for example, at the municipalities or at the state level, which raise the question of how much we are seeing children as an investment, which is a very crucial question.

For example, we like to think that we still have absolutely the best basic education in the world, or one of the best, but still there are approximately one-eighth of the boys 15 years old who cannot read properly, when they are finishing their basic education. And this is according to PISA results, 2012, for example. So, one-eighth of the boys aged 15 cannot read properly! So, of course, we are seeing that a huge majority is doing fine, better than ever, and it’s very good. But still, this minority is there, and that has to be a political question and a problem of our society. So, the question remains of how to build a society of a whole.

That is one aspect. Another is that still, when we go to, for example, a school environment, children are doing fine in their academic skills, but still they are saying that adults at school, for example teachers, are not interested in their everyday lives, or the adults are not having enough time for their questions or their issues. School bullying is one of the basic issues in this case: if adults do not have time for children at schools, then they are not dealing with those problems that children have such as bullying. 70% of those children that are bullied or that are bullying say that adults at schools do not see, do not care, and that is a huge problem. Even if their academic skills are fine, there are big problems in that social environment.

Another aspect concerning how child issues are addressed and how child policies are functioning, is that there is no impact assessment of government’s work and legislation on children which is a major difficulty. There should be this kind of child impact assessment on all new legislation examined in the Parliament, for example! Only 3% of government’s proposals to the Parliament include this kind of child impact assessment. In fact, there are a lot of legislative acts which impact children and their families, but nobody examines this legislation from the point of view of children’s interest.

It should be known in Finland that the UN committee has said, for several times—last time in year 2011—that Finland should make, absolutely, better work in this domain and that the government should present these child impact assessments with each new law. But it’s not there, when it should, even in matters such as labour and employment issue: it always comes to children, how families are doing, and how much time, for example, parents can have with their families and with their children

In addition to the child impact assessment, what would you like to see as measures taken by the Parliament in the next few years?

The first thing is that we have more and more information in respect to children, and it should guide the action and government proposals as well as municipalities’ policies. We know what should be done in respect to early prevention, for example, at the municipal level, we have success stories, but we are not using that data, those indicators, national indicators of children’s wellbeing, for example.

Another element is that there should be, also, great concern on how children are heard in those processes. I do not mean that the government has to listen to 1.1 million children in Finland. Of course not. But there should be close consideration of how children are seeing those everyday issues, and there are surveys that can be used.

What we are seeing also is that there is also a lack of knowledge, in respect to government, and to Parliament, on how children’s everyday lives can differ in Finland: it is very easy to say that the majority is doing fine, but then, you should have a close look at seeing those who are left aside, the minority, for example those boys who cannot read properly when they’re finishing basic education. And if you are not taking this kind of point of view on children in legislative proposals, you are not facing the question of how to take into consideration all the situations that children have in today’s Finland.

Also, the family structure is changing rapidly. We see that one-fifth of the families are single-parent families, for example. That is one aspect that should be always there. What are we talking about when talking about families? For example, specific child poverty issues are there. We see that suddenly, it can be that some reforms can be very hard on very poor single-parents families, if those issues are not taken care of in making new legislation.

These are the main issues: using all the data, all the information already there, hearing children’s voices, and those different voices that children have… Then, there is the fundamental question of how the administration is working, how cross-sector cooperation of ministries is doing. And what we are seeing is that there is not that kind of a common vision, shared between different ministries, on how to take into account children’ wellbeing and children’ rights in order to arrive to a common vision, a common perspective. If you take for example the cooperation between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Affairs, it is often said that the gap between those two ministries is one of the largest that there can be in Finland. These ministries are not working together in the interest of the children.

But we are having, in a way, also, a change in this culture. There was a proposed program of the government, in respect to children’s/families’/youth wellbeing, and it was aiming at a unified view, but it was not including the necessary changes of structure needed in today’s world to have as a core issue the children at the centre instead of the administrative structure. In a way, there is the question of leadership, how to lead these processes concerning children, and the same question goes for the municipalities. Youth work and school life can be much separated, for example….

This is something that we want to promote, also: to understand what kind of resources we have, how they can be combined together in a child’s perspective, because a child’s perspective can help, because seeing things from the perspective of a child is the only way to arrive to a better coordination and more efficiency.

Is there a need for a legal evolution of your role?

That’s a good question. I was quite satisfied when the Parliament, last autumn, went through and made changes for the legislation concerning the child ombudsperson. And there were two reforms. One was to put there into the legislation that this authority, the children’s ombudsperson, is independent, and that was very, very important. Because there was, in a way, a question, “Is this an independent authority or not?” There was also the transfer from the Ministry of Social Affairs to the Ministry of Justice from the beginning of this year. And that is very important, in respect to how this office is seen. And that was an important reform.

Another was that I was only giving the report to the government, once in a year, but now also to the Parliament once in four years. And that was also a new line, which is important, to see that the Parliament has this kind of discussion. It is good also that the Parliament not only assess government policies through government eyes, but also have an independent authority doing it, so that the Parliament could ask the government to act on certain issues—I’m very satisfied that these changes were made and seen as important ones. The interesting thing was that this idea of the ombudsperson reporting to the Parliament was something that the government didn’t propose. But finally, the Parliament considered that it was necessary. After these changes, I see that we have now an independent space to work and that this is much clearer to the stakeholders.

So, I am quite satisfied, also because at the European level, in almost all of the European countries, there is some kind of children’ ombudsperson that are independent authorities, and that is something that is now very clear also in Finland. And still, it’s good to remember that this office is now 10 years old, so it’s quite new in Finland. I am just the second one to be in this office. In Norway, this was established just at the beginning of the 80s… so the issue is still is in process, in a way.

What will be the next reform?

There are two major elements I already talked about. I absolutely see that, in respect to government’s work, the key issue is investment thinking, how children are seen as an investment. I want to promote that, even if we tend to talk also about their rights. We have to be clear, to put also the ideas into practice, into euros, through this investment idea. For this, I am working quite closely with the Ministry of Finance, for example. And that is very, very important.

Another topic is still evidence-based policy-making, which is, in a way, a clear case. But for example, last year, we have seen that there have been many decisions where you can really say that we have the evidence that proves that, to achieve the goal, we should have done just the opposite of what was decided. And that is a shame. I have a strong intention to promote an evidence-based approach, and push for the generalization of child impact assessments

Have you covered everything you wanted to present?

Yes, I have. But maybe there is still one issue. My work, because of the UN Convention, is quite international, and I am in close contact with child ombudspersons in Europe, and also in the United Nations. That is really the basis of my work. And because of these relations, I am happy also to be able to show Finland’s strengths. We could do more, and we should evaluate better our strength, I think in particular the wisdom of having universal services, serving everybody in the same way, and not different services for different categories. And that is something that wise societies, strong societies, should understand, even if in Finland, there may be voices indicating that we shouldn’t have this universal coverage, because it is too expensive, or for whatever reason. I feel for my domain that it is something which we should not change, that this is something we can rely on for building the future.

If you want to know more about children’s rights

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