In fall 2017, School of Social Work Research Assistant Professor Mary Elizabeth Rauktis served as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Porto in Portugal. In addition to teaching about human rights and child welfare policies in the United States, she spent her time in Portugal examining out-of-home care for children and youths there and measuring restrictiveness in group homes.
One main cultural difference Rauktis found in her research is a higher level of reliance on long-term residential group homes. “Portugal does not have an extensive range of options [e.g., foster care, kinship care, subsidized guardianship, intensive parenting interventions] the way that other countries do,” she notes, nor is the rate of adoption, particularly of older children, sufficient. She points out that according to a 2016 report by the Portuguese social security agency, only 3% of children in out-of-home care placements were in foster care while 90% were placed in some sort of institution.
Rauktis’ study of out-of-home care in Portugal was focused on looking at why the rate of institutional (rather than private home) placement is so high and what could be done to address it. Here, she found very strong cultural differences.
“Culturally, there is a religious history of institutions here, and there is a strong culture of family—by this I mean who you bring into your family home and family life. There is no history of people being paid to make children family members,” she says. “I don’t know that I can change it, and it would be a mistake on my part to think that I can. Instead, I’ve tried to better understand the cultural, structural, and economic reasons and try to suggest ways in which data can be used to better understand what is ... and what interventions could be adapted to Portuguese culture.”
Rauktis worked with colleagues at the University of Porto and the University of Kassel in Germany to translate and adapt a restrictiveness measurement tool she developed for use in Europe. “The term ‘restriction’ … is very American and very to think of how to talk about it in Europe. It is more about the structure of how a ‘home’ functions. Based on interviews with counselors, educators, and psychologists in Portugal and Germany, we have not only translated it but [also] tried to include items that are culture specific.”
Now that she is back in the United States and has had time to reflect upon her experience in Portugal, Rauktis says that her thinking of the concept of home and her views on residential care have changed. During her time in Portugal, she says, “I began to think more deeply about human rights, specifically child rights, and not in my formerly restricted way of treatment and outcomes. I was able to think about the right to a home when you have left your family and your family home behind in another country or if your family cannot safely care for you. I realized that the right to have a place that you feel is home is a universal right.”
Whereas she previously held a somewhat negative view of residential youth homes, her time in Portugal showed her a different side of this type of out-of-home care.
“I have come to think of a residential home as a home—not a facility, not a treatment, but a home. Even the language used [in] Portugal ... is different. In Portugal, it is ‘welcoming home.’ I began to think more about how to make a place a welcoming home.”