The time has come: Children's rights belong in the Basic Law
Prof. Dr. Gertrud Oelerich on the work of child and youth welfare
"...The world belongs in children's hands, an end to the gloom ... children to power" sang the German musician Herbert Grönemeyer in 1985, thus shifting the balance of power in favor of a group of today's approximately 10 million immature citizens in Germany: our children. This group of young people is particularly worthy of protection and requires constant support. Despite various state aid measures, many young people grow up in difficult circumstances. Currently, almost 50 thousand children and adolescents have to be taken into care every year.
Child protection is therefore of great importance. Prof. Dr. Gertrud Oelerich, a social pedagogue from Wuppertal, has devoted herself to this topic since many years. She works in the child and youth welfare sector. But where does child protection even begin? "Children have inherent rights," she says right at the beginning. "And child protection begins where their rights and growing up well are concerned." It must be ensured at an early stage that the children grow up well, she says. It should not just begin at the onset of problems, when parents are no longer in the position to ensure a good growing up. This can happen for various reasons, be it care bottlenecks, mental illnesses, addiction problems or economic poverty.
What is 'growing up well'?
Oelerich explains that it does not work to define this growing up according to the principle of 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Rather, she says, you have to find out about the individual possibilities that lie dormant in the children. And you have to promote their development in a productive way through which the world becomes accessible to them. "Of course, in addition to loving, appreciative relationships, this also fundamentally involves a secure economic existence for the family." Today, one in five children in Germany lives in poverty, Oelerich says. This means that limited opportunities in many ways exist, not least in terms of schooling and leisure. "If parents are able to read aloud to children a lot, do a lot with them, offer them a lot of encouragement, and have time, then children can develop very differently compared to the case that I do not have or ca not do all of that, for whatever reason." In this sense, Oelerich sums up, growing up well means: loving, appreciative social relationships and diverse support on the basis of secure economic conditions.
Children's rights in the Basic Law?
The children's aid organization UNICEF recently demanded that the government include children's rights in the Basic Law, because "child protection is systemically relevant". Now, one may ask, why has this not happened already? "That is a good and difficult question. You have to think about the extent to which children's rights are currently not secured in Germany. I would say that our legal system also protects the rights of children," she explains. However, the explicit inclusion of children's rights in the Basic Law would also have a signal effect, because "the problem is," Oelerich continues, "that the balance of power between children and adults is distributed in such a way that the rights that children actually have are not always implemented. You generate a completely different perception with an inclusion in the Basic Law. It takes on a whole different weight." Change, as we know, takes a long time. Oelerich knows that attitudes toward children also had to change first. "It was only 20 years ago that the right of parents to chastise children was actually abolished altogether. That is not that long ago." And the idea that the famous pat on the bottom never hurt anyone is still occasionally found today. "With such an attitude, it is difficult to write one's own rights into the Basic Law," the scientist emphasizes, but "I believe that now a social situation has finally arrived in which such an inherent right of children is also accepted. I would also support the inclusion of children's rights in the Basic Law, not because children's rights do not exist now, but it would attract a whole different level of attention!"
Are children really "under-age"?
It is the task of the state to ensure the protection of all citizens, especially those who have not reached the age of majority. However, Oelerich wonders, whether the concept of being under-aged actually applies to children. "If you take the legal concept or the Kantian concept, the inability to use one`s own mind without the help of others, then yes. A three-year-old child can have philosophical conversations, but not in the way that could take place among adults. But I think that does not make them under-aged in the sense that they can not say anything about their lives." At this point, the social pedagogue is very strict. Children could very well, very early articulate, they could certainly represent their affairs according to their development. But it is important to listen carefully and take them seriously. The state already has good legal protection mechanisms. The Child and Youth Welfare Act also provides a good legal structure in various places, but the number of 50 thousand children in Germany who were taken into care in 2019 also a different facet. "These are all cases where children and young people grow up in situations that endanger them and where they had to be protected by youth welfare!" These are above all structural issues that the Child and Youth Welfare Act can ensure. Reforms, such as those in the Social Code for Child and Youth Services (SGB 8), also support children in their rights. On December 2, the Federal Cabinet recently launched a draft for a reform of the child and youth service. It strengthens, for example, the supervisory obligations for children living in homes or foster families. It also calls for the expansion of resources and continuous improvement. In this context, for Oelerich, it is particularly important that decisions in child protection, too, are not made over the heads of the children, but with them. "I think what protects children very well is to take them along as those who can fundamentally participate in their affairs, whose rights need to be strengthened, heard and implemented." That is an important point in child protection, and this is where we are trying to further strengthen children's participation in the Child and Youth Welfare Act."
But there are still many problems, the researcher knows. An example might be when one consultant has to take over the conservatorship for up to 50 cases. A few years ago, the responsibility for conservatorship was reduced to this number. That was a clear step in the right direction. But, having to keep an eye on 50 young people as a legal guardian, being fundamentally responsible for them, is still far too much, says the youth welfare expert. Also in the general social service (ASD) much has already been done. At the same time, the case numbers per coworker are still frequently way too high. Besides thid, coworkers are urgently looked for. "On the other hand, there are only a few areas in child and youth welfare that have been expanded as much as ASD in the recent years," she explains. Likewise, the topic of sexual violence, which is widely covered in the media, requires a very close look. Some things are not easy to recognize, even by the youth welfare offices. "Attention is needed on many different levels. How are children perceived? How are they taken seriously? How are their rights perceived? That is not just a question of strengthening child and youth welfare, that needs broad, societal strengthening."
However, the support and protection of children and young people goes far beyond the issues of violence or neglect of young people. Among other things, it is also about the issue of equal rights in education. The switch to digital learning media in the so-called 'homeschooling', brings many challenges along with it. "Youth welfare/school is one of my main areas of work," explains Oelerich, and digitalization naturally affects this area as well. "Social inequality has not gone away because of Corona, rather, growing up in social inequality in Corona times means that the problems of Corona are added to everyday challenges." She does not like to use the term homeschooling, "because what happened in the first lockdown at home often was not schooling, it was an attempt to somehow replace or somehow still cushion what could not take place in school." She describes what social inequality can mean here in very concrete terms: "There are kids sitting at home in a small three-bedroom apartment without the ability to access playgrounds, public youth services, or only with very limited access to their normal social support system. Maybe two children, the mother is in home office. The children are expected to work on the course material quietly at home, presumably without a room of their own. Digital media may be missing or consists only of a smartphone with a prepaid card, there is no printer and only few opportunities for exchange and support from a patient adult. It can be quite different in a family where each child has their own room, good digital resources are available, and parents may be able to provide more intensive support." But, the researcher knows that support can reach its limits. For all parents, even those with a good educational background, she says, "teaching a first grader to write is a highly complex matter. It is not just drawing letters. How can someone who lives with two children in confined living conditions, works from home and has financial worries do that well? Despite all the strength the families have shown, that can quickly lead to a mix of existential worries, confined living conditions, only a few opportunities to retreat, constant stress and being overwhelmed in a crisis."
Unknown dangers on the web
Internet and cell phone usage of children represent another challenge in child protection. Many parents do not even know what their offspring does in the web. How can you offer children support that is worth protecting? Oelerich's answer is simple and obvious. "By using the medium together with them. By being on the Internet with them and taking an interest in what the kids are doing there." Offering time for conversation and also taking a closer look, even seeking conflict when necessary, Oelerich advises. And if none of that bears fruit, or if you are less knowledgeable about this than your own children, also reaching out for help from outside. She knows that all of this sounds simple in theory. Oelerich also knows of cases where parents have simply put their children in front of the Internet in Corona time, in order to get a little peace. But in the matter she remains firm. "The only way to deal with the issue is to talk to the children."
In child and youth welfare, the smartphone has sometimes become a problem on the part of the parents. It takes so much attention away from the parents, which then no longer benefits the children." Children often prefer playing directly with their parents to using their cell phones.
The pandemic and its consequences on child and youth welfare
Due to Covid 19 there are changes in child and youth services as well. Facilities in the stationary setting have to deal with similar issues as larger families, Oelerich reports. Contact restrictions, isolation after infection, etc. "It was completely different for the ambulant areas. Counseling centers first closed and outreach support options were significantly reduced." The contact restrictions for social workers made the conditions of visits in families more difficult. In the beginning, these visits were often conducted outside. Meetings in open spaces and walks thus enabled face-to-face conversations despite Corona restrictions. There were initially significantly fewer reports of child welfare risks from the school side than before. The teachers could no longer met the children directly as a result of the distance teaching. Therefore, fewer risks could be identified and reported to the Youth Welfare Office during this time. And those who wanted to contact the Youth Welfare Office themselves, were faced with a more difficult access for them as well.
Youth Welfare Day Wuppertal
Last year, even before Corona, another Youth Welfare Day took place in Wuppertal. It was the already the fifth. It is organized every two years as a cooperation project between the Youth Welfare Office in Wuppertal and the University of Wuppertal. Oelerich (co-)organizes this event on the part of the university. Over 750 people participated and dealt in various groups with the topic of "Structures of Enabling". Oelerich commented: "Sounds a but unwieldy and not very tangible at first. But if you take a closer look, it becomes exciting: what enabling structures are actually need for a good growing up and good youth welfare?" Digital contexts, gender diversity and working conditions in child and youth welfare itself were discussed through the various areas of children's lives. The co-organizer was very pleased about the incredible diversity of Wuppertal's Child and Youth Welfare Offices, which is always evident at the Youth Welfare Days in Wuppertal.
Optimized child protection through good networking
Prof. Oelerich himself worked for a few years in a responsible position at the Youth Welfare Office of the City of Wuppertal and says: "I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for what the people in youth welfare do. I think that the employees of the Child and Youth Welfare Offices in Wuppertal do a very good job overall. But it is not an easy work at all."
She sees the good networking between educational institutions, schools, daycare centers and youth welfare among themselves as a further improvement in the work of child and youth welfare. "I think youth welfare should develop further in this networking area. And it should think even more strongly in terms of social infrastructure. Creating spaces of opportunity for children, young people and families in district centers or securing them in youth work. Or, combining open offers with the possibility of direct counseling, increasing accessibility in meeting and contact opportunities, that can significantly help to further secure a good growing up of young people."
As a scientist, she has an external view on child and youth welfare. However, she repeatedly finds that youth welfare institutions have a clear interest in the exchange with science and want her scientific advice. Therefore, the exchange and transfer can contribute to improvements and changes in child and youth welfare as well. And at the same time, she emphasizes, the exchange with practice is extremely inspiring and productive for us scientists in research and teaching.
Perhaps it is still too early to leave "children in charge," as Herbert Grönemeyer demands in his song. But a legal strengthening of children's rights would certainly mean a high level of social acceptance. Educationalist and social pedagogue Gertrud Oelerich is continuously researching and fighting for this.
Gertrud Oelerich studied Pedagogy at the University of Bielefeld and earned her doctorate at the University of Heidelberg. She worked for several years for the Youth Welfare Office of the City of Wuppertal. She has been working as an extracurricular professor for Social Pedagogy / Child and Youth Welfare at the University of Wuppertal since 2011, and has been Dean of the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences since May 2020.