Each child in need should grow up in a safe and stable environment

Society has an obligation to support abandoned children and offer them a positive home environment – also when budget resources are limited

[28/12//09] The notorious large-scale institutions for orphans and children with disabilities are being phased out, including in the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This process of de-institutionalisation must continue, but it has to be pursued with care in the best interests of the child. Suitable alternatives must be developed and supported by the authorities – also in a period of economic crisis.

An extreme example of a distorted attitude towards children was exposed after the fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania some twenty years ago. Steps had been taken there to prevent people from using contraceptives and as a result unwanted children were born. Parents who could not care for their children were asked to hand them over to state institutions.

These collectives functioned badly. Contacts between the parents and the children were actively discouraged or even prevented. The staff were too few to cope with the many children. They were untrained for their task and badly paid, which gave their job a low status. I visited some of these homes at the time and was struck by the difficult material conditions and the depressed atmosphere.

Some of the institutions, especially those for children with disabilities, were hidden far away from population centres and were hardly given the bare minimum of staff and material resources. No efforts were made to encourage the development of these children – no schooling, no organised play, no love. Some of the children were kept tied to their beds, day and night.

The situation in Romania was extreme but large, inhumane institutions also existed in countries such as Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and Russia. It became a major task for the new rulers to start the process of de-institutionalisation. Progress has been made during the past two decades, though major problems remain and require further efforts.

It has become widely recognised that a family environment is generally much better for children than institutional care. The adoption of the 1989 UN Convention of the Rights of the Child – and the discussion about its consequences – strengthened this understanding. Recommendations from Council of Europe bodies have contributed further to a child-friendly approach which could be summarised as follows:

  • Placement of children in institutions should as far as possible be avoided. In particular the old-style, large institutions have a negative effect on children and their development. They tend to neglect children’s need for affection and to be recognised as individuals. In such institutions cases of abuse tend to be common – both by adults and by other children.
  • A first line of defence would be to give a strong, sustained support to parents so that the rights of the child can be protected in the home environment.
  • Unfortunately, there are situations in which it is in the best interests of the child to move somewhere else. The aim then should be to seek a good family environment – foster care might be the best option.
  • For each child in this situation there should be an individual plan based on his or her needs and the family circumstances. The principle of the best interests of the child should guide all decisions and the children themselves should be able to influence.
  • If an institutional placement is necessary, it should be as family-like as possible. Staff should be well-trained and professional.
  • The spirit in such child centres should be clearly child-friendly and education seen as a right for everyone. There should be clear and effective complaints procedures.
  • If at all possible, the child should be able to communicate and see the parents – reintegration into the family should be an aim.
  • Monitoring of the situation of each child is of key importance. All forms of alternative care should be regularly reviewed. There should also be a serious follow-up review of the situation after the period of alternative care.

The fact that these principles have been recognised does not mean that they are automatically applied. Some of the old-style institutions are still there and suitable alternatives have not been sufficiently developed. Also, too little is being done to strengthen families and thereby prevent the risk that children become abandoned.

It is of paramount importance that the current economic crisis does not undermine the process to support children at risk. Unfortunately, budget cuts have already been made which will inevitably damage the best interests of children.

There is an obvious risk that the number of abandoned children will increase as the social support for troubled families is reduced. Families break down under the pressure of poverty and unemployment. Too many children are forced to grow up in families where alcoholism and other drug abuse is part of daily life. These factors are root causes which place children at risk.

Most of the children in the orphanages have at least one parent alive. In her Korczak lecture, the Russian social policy expert Marina Gordeeva called them “social orphans” and explained some of the background:

“Traditional family ties between generations are disrupted, the number of divorces is growing, the level of material support of families with children is lowering, many parents lead an asocial life and avoid their parental duties.”

She argued for a policy which would combine determined efforts to support vulnerable families, step-by-step closure of the old residential care institutions and creation of support services to substitute guardians, such as foster families. She stressed that the main aim is not to close down the residential institutions but to achieve a successful family placement of each child in need.

These steps would require strong political backing and sufficient budget resources. In addition, local authorities must take their share of responsibility for the efforts to provide support services for children. I have noticed that there are shortcomings in this regard in several countries, including in Russia and Bulgaria. Coordination between ministries also tends to be insufficient in family policy matters. Marina Gordeeva spoke about “a gap in managerial decision-making”.

The financial and managerial gaps cannot be closed only through the work of civil society groups. Non-governmental initiatives should in general be welcomed, but unpredictable charity is not the solution, this task is primarily a government obligation.

We know now what to do to protect children in need. The programs are not controversial and they are backed by all available expertise. What is needed is the political willto turn them into reality.

Thomas Hammarberg