Mrs Eeva Ahtisaari, opening address

European Forum for Child Welfare Conference, April 18, 1997

It was the American writer and journalist Hodding Carter who wrote: "There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other wings".

This inspiring thought has lingered in my mind. When he wrote it, Carter was probably thinking mainly of the family, of the child's parents and relations. I, however, should like to extend the concept to the whole of the human community, to the whole world.

We will soon be at the end of a millennium, and there is already a sense of great historic change in the air. Though our positive expectations are high, we feel there will also be greater fear, uncertainty and insecurity in the final years of the 20th century. Researchers talk about 'the risk society', that is, a society marked by individual and collective panic, by awareness of potential risks and catastrophes.

This year, the conference of the European Forum for Child Welfare, the EFCW, is being held in Helsinki. The theme chosen for the conference is 'Exclusion and Other Risks Facing Children in Europe'. Through this theme, child welfare professionals hope to demonstrate that the child's viewpoint and interests are too often forgotten, despite the many excellent steps forward that have been made this century. Clearly, we need not only our own national approach, but also a joint European strategy and all-pervasive influence, a pooling of know-how, and better forms of cooperation.

Today, we have every reason to ask whether we are forced to accept uncertainty as a permanent basis for life. To develop Carter's idea still further, we could say that at the moment the wings of too many children and young people are at risk of being clipped. For many, the future outlook is bleak, even hopeless. Their parents and the other people around them do not have enough faith in the future or give young people enough support. We face a paradoxical situation: standards of living have risen, technology has made great strides, and welfare is more evenly distributed, but at the same time psychological problems, insecurity and exclusion have increased.

It is typical of our times that both home and school have lost their influence over our children. Young folk are subject to enormous pressures from elsewhere in society. The media, popular culture, music, videos, computer games - all these contribute to building their view of the world. But there are also other, more dangerous, attractions - street gangs, alcohol and drugs. Childhood is getting shorter all the time, while youth culture is taking an ever firmer grip. Indifference to how children spend their time is a characteristic that marks the whole of society.

One feature of this time of change, however, is that we are again interested in the role of the home, and in the standing of the family. Greater social uncertainty also provides a good foundation for a renaissance of family relations. Children need a sense of continuity and a secure community to bond with. The child sex cases that we have learned of in the last few months show that there is danger lurking everywhere. At the same time, we have learned that such crises also prompt a new kind of political collaboration, a collective desire to improve child protection and welfare.

The dream of a happy family and the actual reality are often at odds. Though material welfare has increased everywhere, the European family picture is marked by rising divorce rate, and a crumbling of the traditional form of family - the nuclear family - and the roles associated with it. Single parents and new-style families have come to stay. Growing international interaction finds reflection in the fact that marriages between people of different nationalities and religions have increased. Regrettably, custody disputes and child kidnappings are an everyday reality in many countries.

Uncertainty about the family livelihood finds immediate reflection in its children and young people. Children are the weakest link in the chain, and show the first symptoms. Unemployment, debt problems and even real poverty cause great concern in too many homes all over Europe these days. Many families are sorely pressed. It is estimated that there are two and a half million homeless people in the EU countries. More and more children live in the streets, on the fringes of organized society. Most have had to leave their homes because they did not feel safe, because their parents were unable to care for them and bring them up properly, and because of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

All too often, parental unemployment and difficulties with coping overshadow the child's life. The new poverty is not just an economic problem; it causes social exclusion, too. Secure boundaries are shattered, leaving the child exposed; life makes no sense and problems accumulate. Instead of a hunger for life, we find anger and aggression. Stressed family life, where family members do not have enough time for each other, leading to poor interaction, may also cause problems in families where both parents work outside the home.

Though the prospects may sometimes seem bleak, even hopeless, it rests with us parents and adults to encourage and support our children, and to give young people faith in the future. The family, a good home and a sense of belonging to a chain of generations can provide a framework of deep love, tenderness, caring and joy of togetherness that no institution can offer. The power of the family lies in its ability to adjust to whatever circumstances society faces it with.

There is also talk today about extended parenthood. The model set by each adult is important. Children need to bond with and become attached to an adult. They need good care, upbringing and adults who care about them. The very basis of growth is confidence in an adult. It is the soil in which faith in the future grows. As today's child shows, responsibility for good upbringing rests with both the family and society.

When family structures give way, we need child protection, action from society, impartial and disinterested intervention in the child's situation. Child welfare work succeeds best if the helpers represent several different parties, including volunteers. Child welfare has slightly different traditions in the various countries of Europe. In some, energetic child welfare work is carried out and maintained by private bodies (for instance, the church and charity organizations) and even private individuals. In other countries, this work is the job of the government and local authorities.

Most countries, however, follow a middle way: child welfare involves both the public sector and private associations and bodies. At best, child welfare is also supported by a huge number of enthusiastic individuals, from skilled professionals to dedicated ordinary citizens, both men and women. At different times, their work may have had a different focus. But though the work and the challenge do not get any less, problems large and small have been solved in cooperation, and a durable national strategy has been built up.

As history shows, the need for European child welfare has grown in times of crisis, after heavy migration, urbanization, famine, political and social upheaval, recession, war, catastrophes or major disasters. In the last few decades, the view has gained ground that the main guideline for child welfare work must be children's rights. The basis here is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child passed in 1989. This Convention recognizes, for the first time ever, that children have the same universal human rights as adults, and that respect for these rights will ensure children balanced, secure growth and development.

The central principle of the UN Convention is that the child's interests must be given priority when official decisions, laws and social policies are formulated that concern children. A new development is the idea that children must also be consulted in matters that concern them. All this means that issues related to children must be studied more. Really reliable research data promote and help the cause of young people and children. Research provides the tools both for implementing a good national child policy and for laying down the main lines of European policy on the subject.

Child welfare work has aroused great interest in the media recently, both here in Finland and elsewhere in Europe. There have been some tragic cases that have shaped a powerfully emotive, but one-sided, picture of child welfare work. The interests of the family and those of child welfare work have been forced into confrontation in a way that can only damage the overall goal - what is best for the child.

We need a true and honest picture of child welfare work. Not all parents want to cooperate. In the case of the authorities, both overreaction and total indifference make good food for the media. The relationship between child welfare and media publicity must be analysed more fully. All the parties involved should learn from their mistakes. Turning out the wrong images can damage child welfare work as a whole.

The welfare of the child is the message of the future for every European nation. Our present values must be ordered accordingly. Even if we have to compromise over many issues, the precondition for a better future is that the foundation for the lives of our children and young people is firm. No one party can guarantee our children those roots and wings. But by combining forces and seizing eagerly on opportunities for cooperation, we can do a great deal.

I believe that this European conference will play its part in building that foundation for cooperation. I offer the 'European Forum for Child Welfare' conference my warmest good wishes. I wish you all successful and fruitful seminar days here in the Helsinki spring.