56. Casas Amigas
56.1. Short description
Casas Amigas (friendly homes) is a child care service for children under the age of three that is provided at the carer’s own home. Two associations (one in Pamplona, one in rural areas in Navarra) provide the service, which is regulated and subsidised by the regional government. It is officially considered as a care service, as opposed to an infant school. Regulations set a minimum of space that must be available at the home, some requirements as to the training and experience of carers and a maximum ratio of four children per carer.
Casas Amigas has its origins in a 2003 (EU) EQUAL project run jointly by several regional and local government agencies, several employer’s associations and three foundations, Gaztelan amongst them. It included several actions aimed at favouring the labour market integration of women. Gaztelan (a foundation that had been working since the 1980s in the field of labour market integration of underprivileged groups) had the idea of setting up the care service. The idea was to kill several birds with a single stone. Access to training activities for women with children usually required some kind of child minding service, some of the participant women had training and experience in child care and had a home (the needed infrastructure) and it was an opportunity to create jobs for them. The idea of a home child care service was taken from a previous experience in rural areas in Catalonia.
The service was created inside the project and funded with EU and regional government funds. Once it showed its potential, an association was created that took over the service. It started with six homes, and by 2010 it had fifteen homes and 50-60 children. The regional government subsidises half the cost.
The project was controversial from the beginning. Inside the organisations that promoted the project, there was a debate between those who saw some clear advantages and opportunities in the idea and those who thought it might reinforce stereotypes about the role of women as carers at home and the ways children should be cared for.
There was a public controversy as well. The Plataforma del Ciclo Educativo 0–3, a coalition of associations and practitioners who defend a public and free universal infant education service for children aged under 3 years was very vocal against the project. They argued that all services for children aged under 3 years should be conceived as educational services (not as care services), and be run by the government. They believe that these kind of “soft” services are unable to guarantee acceptable quality standards. On the other hand, the regional government and part of the media felt much more comfortable with the idea that parents should be able to choose whether they want to take their very young children to services or care for them at home themselves, and if they choose to use services, they should be able to decide what kind of services (care or educational, etc.) they prefer. In fact, services like Casas Amigas were seen as some kind of middle ground between institutional and family care.
56.2. Conceptions and ways of addressing users
The nature of the care offered doesn’t seem to be too different from other care services for children of the same age, and it combines some educational elements with basic personal care. The key difference as regards the relationship with users is the time flexibility. Since parents take their children to the carer’s home the availability of the service is much more flexible, and picking up the child earlier doesn’t disrupt the service.
Although the service is not classified as “educational” but as a “care” service, there is an educational project and some educational training of the carers. It is thus quite similar to other care services for children, in which, although the care role is the main one, it is usually accepted that there is an educational side to caring for children.
The other specific element is the fact that care can be much closer in a much smaller group of children (four, exceptionally five per home and carer). This is affordable due to much lower fixed costs. There is no need for a strong investment to build the premises, and basic utility costs are more or less the same as the private home would have had in any case.
Critics of the service insist that all child services should be educational and that for this reason “carers” should be in fact educators, and preferably college graduates in infant education. There seems to be a clear difference between a “hard” conception of child care, that insists in educational professionalism and an institutional environment, and a “soft” vision that would think in a diversity of service options (more or less educational, more or less formal) and that would have a soft spot for services that would actually look little different from a private home. Whatever the merits of each position, it is clear that the Casas Amigas has been conceived according to the second vision.
56.3. Internal organisation and modes of working
Casas Amigas has drawn much of its attractiveness from its apparent ability to build up synergies and obtaining several results from one single action. Innovation in the mode of working seems to be more in this combination than in the radical newness of any specific component of the project.
It is more flexible than traditional infants’ schools and care services. The need for flexibility was especially obvious in the case of people trying to find jobs and to improve their chances of finding it through training. If you have a stable job it is possible, if often complicated, to build up a schedule that adjusts your known working times to the availability of care. But when you are looking for a job that you still don’t know, and that may be a short-term job, schedules are much more difficult to foresee. The usual clients of services like Gaztelan may find themselves working one weekend, then without work for a few days, until they get an afternoon job for another few days. Availability for such jobs is expected, and making care arrangements with short notice for a few days is no easy task. Usually, when available, family fills in the gap, which is not always the case. A much more flexible care service is thus especially adequate for jobseekers.
Secondly, while care is similar to that offered by other care services, it is much less capital-intensive than standard services. Carers provide space at their apartment, and toys and other tools are relatively inexpensive. So it is possible to think of unemployed or low-income people who have an adequate home providing the service. So, after all, some of the potential users are potential providers as well.
Of course, they must be fit for the job. Some of the people involved (clients and potential providers) have experience (being mothers themselves, having worked in care services) and have some training, or, at least, such training could be provided by the project itself. So it helped create jobs for some of the very people they were helping to train and find jobs for, and training could be tailored to the very service that was being created.
56.4. Interaction with the local welfare system
Casas Amigas doesn’t show much difference from the usual governance patters for services run by private providers regulated and sometimes subsidised by the regional government. There doesn’t seem to be much innovation in this field.
It may be perhaps more interesting to look at the origins of the project itself. Gaztelan, the TSO) had the idea, but it was made possible in the setting of an EU EQUAL project involving local and regional government agencies, employer’s associations and other stakeholders. This involvement helped the TSO to think in larger terms, to dare into more complicated fields of job creation, to get support from experts in fields quite different from social work. At the same time, the TSO offered ideas in the field of labour market integration that were much more original, creative and adapted to specific needs of certain users than those envisaged by other stakeholders. This process is not specific to Casas Amigas, but it certainly tells something of the factors that help social innovations.