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Participatory planning: Involvement as an outcome


Aim. This paper describes the working practice of the Cooperativa Animazione Valdocco onlus, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1980 in Turin by a group of social operators who acted in the street work on the outskirts of Turin. Cooperativa Animazione Valdocco is a social cooperative which operates in integration with other cooperatives, voluntary organizations and public institutions and aims to promote, plan and manage various health, educative and social services, targeted to prevent risks and effects of exclusion and social disadvantages.

The participatory planning - as described in this paper - has got two main goals:

  • to increase effectiveness in planning learning activities and educational activities for children in foster care accommodated in community home;
  • to involve guests of community home and stakeholders of the wide context in evaluation and re-planning of the community home activities and daily life.

Method. Foster care in community home, managed by professionals or by families combined with professionals, is a practice frequently used by social services in Piedmont; the last regional data mention that out of 2412 children in foster care at the date of 12-31-2011, the 43% (1048) are in community home (Regione Piemonte 2013). This kind of foster care is not only important for numbers, but also because community home might be the most appropriate temporary foster care answer for specific needs of some children - as those working in community homes strongly affirm (Bastianoni, Emiliani 1999), these services are the relevant temporary answer for children who are victims of sexual abuse, serious ill-treatments, abandonment by parents etc.

One of the criticisms often directed to community home is: these are institutions (Illich, 1981), you can't find there the kind of familiar ambiance that all the children needs.

This is a crucial topic that we face in training and supervising professional staffs of community home, but we also learn from experience that a specific key to face the concern of «impersonality» in community home is participatory planning involving children in foster care.

To build a process of participatory community home planning it is necessary that operators and managers of the community home are available to give real power (Dolci 1973) to the people they want to involve, so when the method is started it might be not occasionally used, but it might become an ordinary praxis in managing the community home. The steps are as follows:

  • identification of group of stakeholders in community home daily life (first of all the children in foster care accommodated there);
  • codification of a simple structure of interview that will be used (with different languages and approach but same contents) with all the stakeholder's group - the main frame is given by: what do you like/unlike of the community home? Why? What do you expect/desire from community home? What do you suggest?
  • meetings with group of stakeholders, recording and reporting the entire meeting; drafting of documents that can be returned to the people involved and that can be combined in a common plan for the community home life;
  • implementation of the plan.

Findings. Participatory planning has a wide range of outcomes with effect on quality of foster care experience in community home. On a general level, it allows to increase the compatibility between children and community home ambience, bringing children to a personal «belonging» of community home environment and daily life.

But the most interesting outcome is that by the participatory planning it is possible to reach a level of common assessment between professional operators and children in foster care. Using appropriate communication patterns related to age and specific needs of children in foster care, it is periodically possible to:

  • analyse with children why certain outcomes on «co-planned» goals have been reached or not;
  • if methods and activities has correctly worked functionally to the plan built together;
  • which innovations and changes could help the plan to have a better impact on quality of foster care by community home.

If this method is regularly used for the general planning of community home - on common life ambience, group activities, common rules etc. - , the competence in participatory planning becomes a skill of children that are welcomed in community home and for operators that work in there, and so the approach is good also for individual educative planning. In this case, the operator and the child in foster care get deep into the single situation of the child and connect his specific needs with the general draft for the community home. The question is: which are the outcomes that you might reach in this community home related to your educative and growing needs? (Dewey 1993)

When you switch on participatory planning from the beginning of the foster care in community home, and you use this kind of planning not occasionally but regularly, you can use the outcomes as a common drive (for the operators and the children) to refine planning and increase the positive impact of educative activities.

Conclusion. This kind of involvement of children in planning their own life is unusual in families that are able to face the growing challenges of their sons. So two warnings, also in references to other contexts of foster care for children and families:

- first of all, for a children in foster care to participate in his plan doesn't mean that he/she has to think and to act as a «small adult». Participatory planning also includes a strong role of adults charged of foster care as facilitators of communication (in «way out» mode, from adults/community home to child, and in «way in» mode, from child to adults/community home), shaping the issues of planning on the age and conditions of the child hosted. Furthermore the child does not have to be charged with too heavy individual responsibility about the plan; in terms of responsibility, the charge must be on adults operator's shoulders, and they have the hard duty to define what and how to share responsibility with children involved in a sustainable way for them;

- if participatory planning becomes a really significant experience for child hosted, it is appropriate to worry about the level of consistency about the other life's area of the child, especially thinking about what will happen at the end of the period in community home. For most of the children hosted the next step after community home will be foster care in other families, someone else will get back to their own families: in any case there is a high probability that they will not found a context that will work on participatory planning with the same intensity as they experienced in community home, and this might cause a kind of psychological displacement in children and a sense of inadequacy in adults who welcome the child. So the «non consistency» about participatory planning across different contexts of foster care could increase concerns in the global process dedicated to child in foster care.

The method has been partially experimented in community home «Hobbes» in Pianfei (Cuneo, Piedmont - Italy) in the last two years. Between the effects:

  • when you give a sense of «real power» to stakeholders in children protection services, they participate with enthusiastic contributions;
  • increasing the participation of children guests in community home means also to involve them deeply in personal case planning;
  • if the process becomes ordinary, the community home become a resource for the entire local community.

Key references

Bastianoni, P., Emiliani, F. (1999). Una normale solitudine, Percorsi teorici e strumenti operativi delle comunità per minori. Roma: Carocci.

Dewey, J. (1993). Esperienza e Educazione. Firenze: La Nuova Italia.

Dolci, D. (1973). Chissà se i pesci piangono. Torino: Einaudi.

Illich, I. (1981). Per una storia dei bisogni. Milano: Mondadori.

Regione Piemonte, (2013). Minori in presidio, minori in affidamento famigliare - Elaborazione dati anno 2011, Rapporto Regione Piemonte. Torino: Direzione politiche sociali e politiche per la famiglia.

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