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Convention on the Rights of the Child
Each child is entitled to a good, safe childhood. All children have the right to grow up and attend school, as well as play and participate. Every child is also entitled to protection and care. All the children’s rights are set down in the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention is a generally accepted understanding of the rights of all children regardless of their background, such as nationality, religion or family wealth. The Convention applies to all children under 18 years of age.
Almost every country has adopted the Convention. In Finland, the Convention on the Rights of the Child became law in 1991. The Convention is legally binding, so it obligates states, municipalities, authorities, children’s parents and other adults just like other laws. Together with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Finland’s national laws protect children’s rights. Finnish legislation has a number of laws, according to which children must be treated equally as individuals, and responsibility for all children must be taken equally.
Child welfare is based on law
Parents or guardians are primarily responsible for a child’s care and upbringing, but they are entitled to receive help from society. If parents or guardians for some reason are unable to take care of their children’s wellbeing, Finnish society is obliged to intervene. In this case, the task of child welfare services is to guarantee the child’s wellbeing. So, help is not always voluntary, but the Child Welfare Act prescribes that child welfare authorities must act in certain situations to protect the child.
In Finland, child welfare is defined in the Child Welfare Act. This means that the activities and decisions of child welfare authorities are always based on the law. The Child Welfare Act applies to all children in Finland regardless of their background. In Finland, municipalities provide child welfare services. Social workers are responsible for child welfare in municipalities.
The best interests of the child is most important
Child welfare is always about the best interests of the child. This means that in all decisions concerning a child the workers must decide on the best solution regarding the child’s current situation. The Act contains a list of issues to which a child welfare social worker must pay attention when evaluating whether the best interests of the child is realised. For example, consideration must be given to how different solutions guarantee the maintenance of a child’s close and continuous relationships, or support a child’s linguistic, cultural and religious background.
It may be difficult to define the best interests of the child because people may have very different ideas about what would be beneficial for the child. A child’s best interests does not necessarily mean that decisions and solutions are always what a child or his or her parents would like. The child’s opinion is important when weighing the best interests, but the child’s opinion and the child’s best interests are not necessarily the same thing. A worker evaluates a child’s best interests in accordance with the Act, so sometimes child welfare workers must make decisions, with which the parents or child disagree.
The child may participate
An important principle for the best interests of the child is that the child may be involved in dealing with and planning matters that concern him or her. The issues, which are about to be decided and why, must be adequately explained so that the child can form and express his or her own view. Everyone, including the child, is always entitled to participate in handling of his or her own affairs. There is no age limit. The child and his or her opinions and wishes are heard so that his or her age and level of development are taken into account. For example, a small child’s feelings can be clarified by observing his or her behaviour or play. The workers must be able to explain the matters to an older child so that the child is able to understand them.
According to law, a child who is 12 years old or more has freedom of speech in child welfare. Freedom of speech means that a child’s opinion must be taken into account in matters concerning child welfare in the same way as adults’ opinions. A child has a right to access the documents that concern him or her, and he or she must be officially heard when decisions are made. A child can apply for help, require services and oppose decisions that concern him or her. A child must be notified about the decisions issued and must be given an opportunity to appeal the decisions. The fact that the child participates in the handling of issues that concern him or her does not mean that the child can decide. It is the adults’ duty to decide and be responsible for the decisions.
Briefly, child custody means deciding about the child’s affairs. A child’s guardian or parent is responsible for the child’s care, upbringing, supervision and other nurturing. Only a guardian or parent is entitled to obtain information about the child from various authorities. Both parents of a child born in a marriage are guardians of the child. If the child is born in a cohabiting relationship, the mother is the child’s guardian, unless the parents agree otherwise. In this case, paternity of the child must be established separately.
If a child’s parents divorce, they must agree on custody of the children. Divorces are common in Finland. One or both of the spouses can file for divorce. The divorce will be confirmed after a six-month reconsideration period, when it becomes legal. Joint custody is the most common arrangement after a divorce. This means that parents decide together on important issues concerning the child, such as upbringing, health care or travel. The person, with whom the child resides daily, decides on the child’s everyday matters. A child, who is in joint custody, cannot be taken abroad without consent of the other parent. If a passport is applied for the child, the other parent must also sign the passport application. If joint custody does not work after the divorce, one of the parents may apply for sole custody of the child. It means that a parent with sole custody of the child may decide alone on issues concerning the child without negotiating with the other parent. However, it must be taken into account in all circumstances that a child has a right to meet both parents.
Parental rights and responsibilities
In Finland, the same rights and duties apply to both parents equally. The parents have a right and duty to safeguard their children’s wellbeing. The parents’ duty is to care for and raise their children in a safe and stimulating environment, as well as enable the child to receive an appropriate education. Use of corporal punishment is not allowed in Finland. Children should be raised so that they receive understanding, safety and affection.
As a rule, parents have the right to decide on the child’s care, upbringing, place of residence and other matters relating to the child. When deciding, the child’s opinion should also be taken into consideration. During support measures in the open care of child welfare services parents have the right to decide on all matters relating to the child. The legal principle is that when there is intervention in the child’s affairs, there must be co-operation with the parents. The parents are always entitled to decide on their child’s religion and religious education.
Parenting does not end with the child being taken into care and placement, but in this case, the parents’ right to decide will be restricted. The parents are still the child’s guardians, but the municipal social services decide on the child’s place of residence, upbringing and care. Still, the aim is to decide in co-operation with the parents. During taking into care and emergency placement, the parents have the right to obtain information on the child’s affairs and communicate with the child. The parents also have the right to learn what is recorded about them and the grounds for the actions taken.
Parents have always the right to express their opinion on child welfare measures. Sometimes child welfare measures are such that parents disagree with them. The law prescribes when an official decision must be issued and who can issue the decision. The law also prescribes whether the decision can be appealed. For example, a decision on taking into care or on emergency placement is such that parents may appeal. The appeal must be submitted within 30 days after having been notified about the decision. Authorities are obliged to inform parents about their rights. If the parents feel that they have been treated wrongly, they have the right to contact the municipal social ombudsman. The Parliamentary Ombudsman monitors that authorities comply with the law. One may file an appeal for nullification regarding the matter to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.