Public social services must be central if the Child Guarantee is to deliver for vulnerable children.
Last year was a milestone in efforts to improve the lives of children in the European Union at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The European Commission launched two major initiatives: the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child, the first policy framework for Europe-wide action to promote and protect children’s rights; and the European Child Guarantee, the first union instrument, endorsed by the Council of the EU, devoted to supporting children’s social inclusion.
With these two landmarks, the commission has placed support for children and the fulfilment of their rights at the core of EU policy-making. That national governments are called upon to tackle child poverty—to guarantee access to basic rights and services for children in need—represents a commitment to their public social services, to break the cycle of disadvantage for vulnerable children.
The European Social Network (ESN), a growing community of more than 160 public authorities responsible for social services, welcomed these two initiatives. Considered as a victory by many non- and intergovernmental organisations advocating children’s rights, one of the Child Guarantee’s objectives is to ensure compliance with principle 11 of the European Pillar of Social Rights. This sets out a child’s right to care and education in early childhood and to protection against poverty.
The Child Guarantee focuses on four specific groups—children in institutions, children with disabilities and others with special needs, children of recent migrants and refugees, and children living in precarious family situations, including Roma children from vulnerable communities—and otherwise socially vulnerable children known to be particularly exposed to poverty and wellbeing risks. It works towards closing the gaps in access to quality services, fostering social inclusion and promoting equality of opportunity. Yet is its implementation in danger of being lost, as new crises beset the EU?
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Under the guarantee, each country must identify targeted measures for children at risk of poverty or social exclusion and establish a national action plan, running to 2030. In addition, each member state should appoint a national co-ordinator, focused on putting EU policy into practice for every child in need. Co-ordinators must have the resources to accomplish their role and must involve children and relevant stakeholders.
The content of the action plan, in the main, should be drawn from the constituent elements of existing policies, strategies and programmes in relevant government departments. Effective implementation of the guarantee should involve all key agencies and funding provided for programmes should be consonant with its aims.
Member states were required to share their action plans with the commission by March 15th. Yet none did so and only 14—around half—have done so as yet. At first glance, though, it does seem that the action plans submitted to date have identified within the target group children in need, and the multifaceted challenges they face, as well as providing focused actions to ensure their access to key services.
The plans from Croatia, Ireland, Finland and Malta offer useful information on stakeholders consulted and Croatia’s plan is notable for the detail of its consultations with children and young people. Many of the published plans do not however provide such detail on who was consulted, including within the social services, before drawing conclusions.
Public social services have a key role in delivering most of the targeted measures in the domains covered by the guarantee—for instance, access to high-quality care and to adequate housing. Our review (out next month) of the European Semester macroeconomic monitoring process and progress on the implementation of principle 11 by ESN members has highlighted the need for better co-ordination of services among the various levels of government and the different agencies involved in supporting and protecting children: social services, education, healthcare.
ESN respondents highlighted the need to build on the national plans, not only through better co-ordination but also, for instance, by establishing common standards within social services. There is particular concern among members about the increased prevalence of mental-health problems, especially among children in the care system.
Access to—and the adequacy of—services for marginalised children and young people should be improved. National plans should thus include evaluations of the current situation and specific measures to address potential gaps in provision.
Member states should also ensure that co-ordinators have the resources they need to accomplish their role and involve children and relevant stakeholders. EU funding can provide support and member states most affected by child poverty and social exclusion must spend 5 per cent of their allocations under the European Social Fund Plus on fighting it.
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ESN and its members will continue to call on the commission and national governments to:
- release their plans and work to ensure that these help end child poverty and social exclusion,
- recognise, and invest in, the essential role of public social services to ensure equal opportunities for all children, and
- address child social exclusion as a matter of overall policy priority.
ESN members hope national co-ordinators will reach out to them to ensure that their concerns, views and proposals are taken into consideration in the process of delivering and monitoring implementation of the guarantee. The network will itself continue to monitor the plans and their implementation.
The transformative potential of the European Child Guarantee will only be realised if all relevant public social-services stakeholders are involved in its key aspects: funding, engagement, monitoring and evaluation. With the recent adoption of the European Care Strategy, ESN and its members hope conjoined and reinforced efforts to support the most vulnerable children from disadvantaged backgrounds will now be pursued.
Elona is a policy manager at European Social Network (ESN) and co-ordinates the EU policy ‘Children, Families and Youth Support’. In recent years, her focus was on ensuring the protection of children in migration, including asylum-seeking and refugee children, from violations of their rights.