A study on child abuse led to a rare formal state apology in Finland

Submitted on 18.11.2016 - 13:39

 

Pirijo Markkola/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
Pirjo Markkola is excited and looking forward to speaking at the event organised on the Universal Children’s Day where the Finnish government will apologise to abused children. – I hope that this message will be taken seriously and that an attempt will be made to learn from past mistakes.” Photo: Jonne Renvall

A research project on child abuse directed by Professor Pirjo Markkola has resulted in a rare apology to the victims by the Finnish government. Markkola is professor of history at the University of Tampere.

According to Markkola, this is significant because Finland does not have much of a culture of apology.

The study on child abuse by child welfare authorities in 1937-1983 was funded by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and conducted at the University of Jyväskylä where Markkola formerly worked. On the Universal Children’s Day next Sunday, she will speak at an event where Juha Rehula, Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services, will express the state apology to the victims.

– I am excited and looking forward to the occasion because I hope something good will follow. The people we interviewed for the study also said that they wished that no child would ever have to suffer similar ordeals. I hope that this message will be taken seriously and that an attempt will be made to learn from the past mistakes, Markkola says.

Apart from correcting the mistakes and apologising, monetary compensations have also been brought up, but Markkola does not know if the government is planning to pay the victims.

Many kinds of abuse

The research group interviewed 300 voluntary Finns who had been abused while they were clients of child welfare services in 1937–1983. The number of interviewees was exceptionally large for a qualitative study. No exact figures exist, but it has been estimated that the number of children who were in out-of-home care was about 150,000 during the researched period.

– We did not try to get a statistically representative sample so we cannot say how frequent child abuse was. However, what we discovered with qualitative research methods is that many kinds of abuse took place in institutions and foster families,” Markkola says.
The interviewees were asked to talk about abuse and the failures of child welfare, not about the things that succeeded, such as how the welfare services helped to save their lives.

Is there a danger that the past is estimated by present criteria as can happen with truth commission type of scenarios?

– We must obviously be careful when we interpret the results. However, judged by the criteria and laws about child abuse at the period we investigated, there is no question that the victims suffered. They had to encounter things that were illegal and against all rules and regulations, such as brutal physical violence and sexual and mental violence. Such acts were certainly not accepted at the time, Markkola explains.

The researchers also analysed judicial questions together with the Ministry officials and found that the cases are too old for prosecution because of the statute of limitations. What is left is moral and ethical responsibility, which the state is attempting to bear with this apology.

Information on wrong-doing
is very hard to come by in archives

The interviews on child abuse were exceptionally difficult for both the interviewers and interviewees. The project anticipated such problems and organised counselling supervision for the researchers. Moreover, each interviewee was given the contact details of a professional whom they should contact if they failed to stop thinking about the vicious things they had told in the interviews.

The interviews were conducted one-on-one, and the interviewees’ stories were not compared to official documents.

– Our starting point was that the experiences were true to the people who told them and we did not set out to question that, Markkola says.

However, an extensive study of documents was also conducted with data consisting of professional magazines and guidelines and circulars issued by the Ministry and the National Board of Social Affairs, which painted a picture of what the child welfare services should officially have been like.

In the archive of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the researchers found complaints that had been written about corrupt institutions, which means that the authorities were aware of at least some of the problems and that attempts were made to solve them.

According to Markkola, the research project convinced the researchers that the research topic offers an opportunity to dig even deeper.

The research project on child abuse in child welfare services no longer continues, but several new studies are underway. Markkola herself is seeking funding for new projects and several doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers are investigating the issue.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli