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Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, people with disabilities or mental health challenges, people experiencing homelessness, and older people still reside in long-term institutional settings. These settings often mean they are cut off from the rest of society.  

The key message from our seminar Social Services Leading Care in the Community’ earlier this month was the need for countries to transition from the traditional institutional model of care towards one which is person-centred and based in the community. To emphasise our plea for change, our speakers and presenters highlighted compelling and diverse examples from different countries already successfully putting community-based care for children and youth, people with disabilities, and older adults into practice.

Community-based child and youth care

Critical components of community-based child and youth care should involve, among others, a holistic and collaborative approach that engages multiple agencies. Several pivotal elements emerge as crucial, including family support, foster care, kinship care, and active child and parental involvement. Collectively, these components form a holistic and child-centred approach to community-based child and youth care and protection, with the ultimate goal of fostering a safe and nurturing environment for children who may be at risk.

As Malin Johansson, Head of Social Services at City of Härryda in Sweden explained: “We first try to work with the family, providing day-to-day support. If this is not feasible, we look for solutions involving the child’s relatives. If this is not possible, we look for foster families.”

The discussion brought to the forefront an important observation regarding foster care. While it is a pivotal component of community-based child protection and widely practiced there needs to be further work on quality assurance. Daniela Reimer, Lecturer for Child and Youth Welfare, Zurich University of Applied Science, Switzerland said that “EU Member States bear a responsibility for the quality of placements in foster families.”

Community-based care for people with disabilities

Speakers also explored different types of social services tailored to people with disabilities, with a particular focus on services geared towards community empowerment, the prevention of social exclusion, living in their communities with personal assistance support, and safeguarding their fundamental rights.

Mr. Josep Maria Solé, Director of Foundation Support Girona in Spain presented the project ‘Deinstitutionalising Mental Health Support.’ He highlighted that ‘Support-Girona is undergoing a transformation, aligning its practices with the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). SUPPORT's mission is to empower individuals to exercise their rights fully. Mr Sole said: “We achieve this by facilitating social inclusion, enhancing autonomy, and delivering robust social support. Our commitment extends to supporting individuals in their decision-making process, enabling them to live in the community, and uphold their right to legal capacity, alongside other fundamental rights.”

Luis Alberto Barriga Martín, Director of the National Social Services Institute (IMSERSO) in Spain stressed how both the European Union and Spain are currently at a time of in-depth analysis and transformation of their care model. This does not only imply a change in the place where people live or reform of care facilities. “This is a profound transformation of the way in which support and care are planned and developed for everyone.”  

Community-based care for older people

Older people requiring support should have access to a high-quality, person-centred care tailored to their unique needs and personal preferences. Today, most older people prefer to grow old in the familiarity and comfort of their own homes. Interdisciplinary community-based teams are therefore pivotal in delivering quality care for older people. This was highlighted through four notable projects: Barcelona's neighbourhood community care teams; Innsbruck community nursing; Masovian day centres for people with Alzheimer's in Poland; and Dual Case Management in Amposta, Spain.

Making the case for community care

Despite the intricacies of managing the transition to community care which are both complex to navigate and politically sensitive, ESN remains resolute in its commitment. We will continue in our efforts at national, European, and international levels to advocate for person-centred community care, through the provision of evidence-based expertise and practical guidance to facilitate the transition towards community-based care models. There is a compelling argument for prioritising community care, as seen through the lens of people with experience of care and the many social services professionals who are championing community care and community-based social services across Europe.