German Youth Policy and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. Click here to access the article.

In 2015 and 2016 about 97,000 unaccompanied minors (UAMs) were taken into custody by the child welfare system in Germany. Since German youth policy does not distinguish between immigrant and non-immigrant children, this influx of UAMs constituted a sudden and massive increase in service demand. This paper documents how the adaptive responses of the child welfare system in the city of Nuremberg created a seemingly arbitrary service process while also enabling the system to serve an unanticipated number of children. At the same time, these institutional responses also provide important implications for the possibilities of restructuring child welfare services under non-crisis conditions.

Although popular wisdom and social science alike suggest that crises provide important opportunities for change, there is in fact little agreement on how and why crises should lead to what type of changes in policy. Based on the experiences of child welfare workers and administrators, this paper explores how the child welfare system in Nuremberg responded to the refugee crisis and the extent to which these responses effectively changed the content of child welfare policy. The data for the analysis consists of 29 qualitative interviews with child welfare workers and administrators, teachers and translators and 26 interviews with UAMs in Nuremberg. Nuremberg was chosen as a field site due to its accessibility to the researcher, the city’s location in the southern part of the country however also placed it at the forefront of the recent refugee crisis.

Before the crisis, the average number of new child protective cases in Nuremberg was 2-3 per week. Under normal circumstances the provision of services for neglected children or UAMs follows a highly structured process: A formal intake is conducted, typically on the same day the department is notified. During this intake basic demographic information is collected and a case file opened. Next, the child is transferred to a clearing agency that provides residential housing, conducts a formal needs assessment and provides initial schooling and language instruction. After 2-3 months the agency compiles a formal report that includes recommendations for follow-up care.

State legislation strictly regulates staffing ratios and qualifications as well as the building requirements for these residential clearing units. Such units are expected to provide 12 to 15 slots and a continuous presence of a minimum of 2 social workers. Since 2013, the Nuremberg Department of Youth Welfare has been contracting the operation and staffing of its clearing and residential follow-up units out to the “Rummelsberger Diakonie”, a large, statewide non-profit agency.

Although UAM arrivals started to increase in early 2015, in June there were 90 children taken into custody. This number increased to 148 in July and peaked in September at about 250 children. While the numbers of new arrivals started to decrease in January 2016, the demand for follow-up services continued to increase. The dramatic increase of newly arrived UAMs led to a quick exhaustion of available resources and a break-down of established institutional routines. This break-down was characterized by (1) the expansion of residential clearing units that were not always in compliance with the statutory staff-client ratios or occupancy requirements, (2) the establishment of a holding pattern that preceded the clearing process in order to quickly house new arrivals and (3) the informal delegation of critical clearing tasks from the municipal youth department to local agencies.

In order to manage and coordinate the flexible and often pragmatic provision of services to the great number of UAMs during this time, several working groups were formed between different government and non-profit agencies as well as actors not typically involved in the provision of youth services, such as the police department. While this continuous exchange of information between different institutions created trust and transparency, it also allowed for a pragmatic management of the high numbers of new arrivals during the peak of the crisis through a flexible handling of established responsibilities and tasks. These working groups provided a form of institutional scaffolding for the coping strategies of front-line workers such as ‘desk management’ of cases, where in-takes were not conducted in person but relied on information provided by front-line workers in the clearing and emergency units.

These adaptive responses on the front-lines of child welfare services that included new forms of interagency collaboration and flexible assignment of responsibilities and tasks during the peak of the crisis allowed the system to serve a much larger group of vulnerable youth than anticipated, but on the other hand also created the impression of an arbitrary process among refugee youth who arrived during this time. Although the clearing process seems to have largely returned to a pre-crisis mode by now, the experiences and responses during the crisis introduced new actors such as the police department and professionals to the work of child welfare. Finally, the un-bureaucratic cooperation between different institutional actors continues in the form of monthly meetings and also arrayed the possibilities of different modes of coordinating the implementation of child welfare policy in the future.

About the author

Florian Sichling is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.


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