Decision of the Intergovernmental Committee: 18.COM 8.C.4

The Committee

  1. Takes note that Belgium has proposed Safeguarding foster care heritage in the merciful city of Geel: a community-based care model (No. 00622) for selection and promotion by the Committee as a programme, project or activity best reflecting the principles and objectives of the Convention:

The Belgian town of Geel is known for its tradition of hosting people with mental disorders in the homes of foster families. A form of psychiatric care, the community-based practice encourages the social participation of mentally-vulnerable people while destigmatizing mental illness. Over time, the practice has evolved into a scientifically and medically supported programme, with laws and decrees defining the conditions, responsibilities and rights of foster families, guests and the Public Psychiatric Care Centre. Despite its resilience, this tradition is challenged by changes in modern society and mental health care. To respond to these challenges, local organizations and councils work together on a multi-layered safeguarding programme aimed at: (a) transmitting the practice and its history; (b) researching the model from historical, medical and anthropological perspectives; and (c) cultivating a caring ecosystem. The programme highlights the complementarity of diverse health care approaches by nurturing a warm-hearted ecosystem where cultural and health care practices and medical institutions merge. It is an inexpensive model that leverages existing community assets and generates strong health outcomes for the mentally ill.  It is a cost-effective mental health service which ensures healthy lives and promotes well-being for all at all ages.

  1. Considers that, from the information included in the file, the programme responds as follows to the criteria for selection as a best safeguarding practice in paragraph 7 of the Operational Directives:

P.1:   The programme presents the model of foster care heritage, which combines a rich cultural tradition with innovative methods. The safeguarding programme aims to transmit the practice of Psychiatric Family Foster Care (PFC) within the context of intangible cultural heritage and to promote a caring culture and ecosystem. Research, identification and documentation are crucial measures to safeguarding the practice. In 2007, an oral history project specifically related to the element was launched. The measures to transmit, enhance and enshrine the foster care heritage rely on intergenerational connections within families and the wider community. Awareness-raising, education and transmission efforts have been carried out through festivals, art and storytelling. By implementing these measures, the programme aims to ensure the vitality and relevance of the intangible cultural heritage associated with a community-based care model in the merciful city of Geel.

P.2:   The safeguarding programme has national support and local coordination. It has been under government authority since 1850. Medically and culturally, the programme is deeply rooted within Geel’s heritage covenant and the organization Stuifzand. At the same time, knowledge is built and shared through many international contacts and regional networks. Geel is actively involved in international networks that connect communities with the Saint Dympna cult and tradition. In the 1980s, an international research network was established, comprising representatives from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Canada, Ireland, England and Sweden. This network initiative has contributed to the dissemination and development of the practice in Europe, as well as the formation of national-level networks. Openbaar Psychiatrisch Zorgcentrum (OPZ) Geel staff members and families contribute to workshops, articles and research projects and visit similar programmers abroad. These collaborative efforts have strengthened the programme’s impact and facilitated its growth and development on both national and international levels.

P.3:   The Geel model demonstrates the importance of intangible cultural heritage in bringing people together, ensuring exchange and fostering understanding, as stated in the 2003 Convention’s preamble. The programme follows a community-based safeguarding approach, involving various stakeholders such as foster families, medical staff, cultural organizations, heritage workers and researchers, fully aligning with Article 15 of the Convention. The Convention’s principles of transparency, dialogue and mutual appreciation are reflected through projects such as ‘Among People’ and participatory programmes developed by the Hospital Museum and City Archives. The Geel model emphasizes the importance of respecting privacy rights and ethical approaches, exemplified through measures like the participation council and media representation monitoring. The Convention’s objective of ensuring inclusivity and equal access to cultural heritage for all individuals is proved through the acceptance and integration of people with mental disabilities. Intergenerational transmission of heritage is ensured within foster families. Community centres, schools and museums organize educational projects, transmitting knowledge and contributing to the Convention’s objective to promote education and awareness about intangible cultural heritage.

P.4:   The Geel PFC model is based on an integrated approach with three pillars: research and reports, multiple benefits generated, and strong community participation and awareness. Extensive research and reports on the Geel PFC model span back to the nineteenth century. This highlights the effectiveness of the model and has led to international recognition of the practice. The safeguarding programme has generated multiple benefits for all actors involved, including mentally vulnerable people, foster families and the broader community. Participatory processes, community projects and critical reflection have strengthened respect and awareness at local, regional and international levels.

P.5:   The file demonstrates the inclusion of various stakeholders in the decision-making and planning process. The foster care heritage system relies on the consent and engagement of families, guests and the community. The positive attitude of the respondents towards community-based care, as indicated in a 2010 study, demonstrates their willingness to participate in the programme. Participative methods are integrated into the practice, as the guest, the foster family and the mental healthcare professionals all need to agree to implement the practice. Their collaboration promotes and enhances the practice. The voices and thoughts of mentally vulnerable individuals are not only considered in councils and policy plans but also through non-formal methods. This highlights the efforts to include their perspectives and ensure their free and informed consent in the programme.

P.6:   Geel’s community-based care model has had a significant impact at the local, regional and subregional levels. This model of integrating mentally ill individuals into community life extends its community-based care approach to other marginalized groups (including poor, socially vulnerable and older people). Geel’s success in preserving and transmitting its tradition and values is based on the contemporary interpretation of the ‘Merciful City’ concept, which emphasizes compassion and inclusion. Participatory projects and empowerment play an important role in integrating vulnerable groups and fostering their active participation. Professional archivists and museum conservators are involved in monitoring the quality of care provided and providing trainings to ensure the quality of storytelling and cultural festivals. Geel’s approach to ethical principles and quality monitoring serves as a model for other initiatives and programmes worldwide. The quality monitoring system implemented in Geel can be adapted and applied as a model for similar initiatives and programmes in other countries, promoting sustainable development and the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage.

P.7:   The programme demonstrates a strong willingness to cooperate and disseminate its practices. There is a concrete plan to establish a Dympna and PFC intangible cultural heritage safeguarding platform. This platform will include representatives from PFC and Saint Dympna heritage communities and organizations, alongside intangible heritage experts, care professionals and researchers. Professionals and volunteers will collaborate equally within the platform. The commitment to UNESCO and recognition received will be integrated into the strategic plans of the city of Geel, OPZ Geel, vzw Pas-sage, Hospital Museum Geel and Stuifzand. The Flemish Government has demonstrated a clear willingness to cooperate in disseminating practices and sharing experiences at both regional and international levels.

P.8:   The Foster Care Heritage in Geel, a community-based care model, is listed in the Inventory of ICH in Flanders, which resulted in reporting on implemented and planned safeguarding activities every two years. The programme’s safeguarding projects are integrated into policy plans at the local, regional and subregional levels. Geel’s intangible cultural heritage programme is included in strategic heritage plans supported by neighbouring municipalities and the Flemish Government. This model may be replicated by other local governments. The PFC system in Geel has attracted extensive research, emphasizing its significance and contributing to knowledge dissemination. The Hospital Museum Geel highlights high-quality standards in conservation, research and community participation. Recognized with the Flemish cultural award Ultima in 2017, the PFC programme demonstrates effectiveness in safeguarding local living heritage and enhancing regional and sub-regional cultural cooperation.

  1. Decides to select Safeguarding foster care heritage in the merciful city of Geel: a community-based care model as a programme, project or activity best reflecting the principles and objectives of the Convention.