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Participation of children and young people living in institutional care


Background. The aim of this paper is to compare the ways in which young people accede to autonomy whilst growing up in institutional care in France, Germany and Russia (Milova, 2004). It looks at how participation of children can be used as a way for them to get skills for an autonomous way of life in adulthood.

Indeed, law makes it more and more compulsory everywhere in Europe, to give children and young people a chance to participate in decisions regarding their own life, thus making apply to them article 12 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. So it might be of some help for practitioners as well as for researchers in this field, to understand the educational and institutional mechanisms that make it possible or impossible to improve the situation for children in care, as regards their right to participation.

Purpose. In the field of institutional care, there is very little research about the ways in which young people decide upon themselves. This paper is focussed on possible ways of giving young people in institutional care opportunities to participate in taking decisions. How is this right put into practice? What are the limits of children's participation in institutional care? The methods used to make the comparison between countries were:

- ethnographic inquiries (observations, interviews) in children's homes in France, Germany and Russia,

- bibliographic research in the three countries.

Investigations of duration of 6 to 8 weeks were made in three institutions working with teenagers. This allowed for a detailed observation of interactions between adults and young people, and for knowledge about how young people manage their time and their activities.

Information found in scientific and specialized literature in France, Germany and Russia, made it possible to find out how far the results that were obtained in one institution, can be considered as applying in the country in its whole. This information was also used in order to draw out the legal and historical contexts in which institutional care is carried out.

Key findings. The comparative approach showed that the targets linked to children's education as well as the understandings of the notion of 'autonomy' are quite different in each of these countries (Milova, 2006).

It is in Germany that participation of teenagers is most practiced inside institutional care. Indeed, observations and interviews showed that it is considered as normal to involve youngsters into responsibilities both at the level of their individual and of the group life. In everyday life, each teenager decides when to make schoolwork, when to have leisure time, when to do his part of the housework (cleaning, cooking, shopping, laundriing etc.). Decisions concerning his life (for instance relations with his parents or his school orientation) are taken jointly between the teenager and his educators. Youngsters also contribute to decisions concerning group life: there is a weekly group meeting where they decide upon common life rules, about who will do what part of the common housework. All this is expected to give them skills for negotiation, autonomous way of life, making choices and so on (Winkler, 2000).

These kinds of practices are not so widespread in French and Russian institutional care. Here the field research showed a more traditional kind of care, where teenagers are told what to do and when to do it. They have fewer responsibilities in everyday housework: in the French home, they hardly ever buy their food. Decisions about their life, like where and with whom they should spend their holidydays, are mostly taken by adults. Educators first take the decision, and then try to convince youngsters that they are right. As a result, youngsters are often afraid of leaving institutional care and living on their own.

The comparison of the points of view of the educators shows that the difficulties about teenagers' participation are the risks linked to it. Indeed, if they are to decide upon themselves, teenagers might tend not to do their schoolwork at all; they might want to negotiate all the time about everything. They might go out late at night and find themselves in dangerous situations linked to drug abuse, delinquency or prostitution. In the russian and french homes that were part of field inquieries, the risks that are linked with giving young people the possibility to participate in decisions are still frightening for professionals and for the organizations they work in. Not only may these risks have an impact on teenagers' future, they also might be very significant for the educators' careers. As long as their mandate is exclusively to protect children from danger, they cannot allow themselves to take the kinds of risks that any parent has to take, in order to make its child grow autonomous. It appears that one condition that allows teenagers' participation in decision-making is that adults should feel free enough about their own decisions regarding teenagers' education.

Key references

Knorth, E. J., Van Den Bergh, P. M., & Verheij, F. (Ed). (2002). Professionalization and Participation in Child and Youth Care. Challenging understandings in theory and practice. Hampshire (GB)/Burlington (USA): Ashgate.

Milova, H. (2006). Autonomie et participation d'adolescents placés en foyer (France, Allemagne, Russie). Sociétés et jeunesses en difficulté, 2.

Milova, H. (2004). L'autonomie et les éducateurs de foyer: pratiques professionnelles et évolutions du métier en France, en Russie et en Allemagne. Unpublished dissertation, Université de Paris 8, Paris.

Winkler, M. (2000). Diesseits der Macht. Partizipation in "Hilfen zur Erziehung" - Annäherungen an ein komplexes Problem, Neue Sammlung. Vierteljahres-Zeitschrift für Erziehung und Wissenschaft, 1,189-209.

Contacts: Hélène Milova, Université Paris 10 Nanterre, Département des Sciences de l'éducation, UFR SPSE, 200 av. de la République, 92000 Nanterre, E-mail: hmilova@u-paris10.fr, Phone 00 33 1 40 97 59 92.

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