Hope for Armenia's vulnerable children
By Mervyn Fletcher
This was the reality for too many vulnerable children in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, where for years the police ran a children’s holding-centre; a centre for children no-one wanted to care for.
By all accounts it was a tough place, one where children were deemed to bear a responsibility for their own misfortunes. UNICEF Armenia Representative Sheldon Yett said: “No child wants to be homeless. No child is born a criminal. Vulnerable children require a safe environment.
“We need recognition at a government level of the importance of investing in child protection systems, to ensure all children are given the support they need when their families are unable to provide it.”
The Fund for Armenian Relief Children’s Support Centre is a beacon of hope for some of the least fortunate children in Armenia. Here, highly vulnerable children are given shelter, food and expert support as they try to repair their lives. It’s housed in what had been a police-run children’s holding-centre.
Suren, aged 16, is a resident of the centre. He’s enjoying the security it offers of shelter and food. He’s hoping a foster family can be found for him.
Bridging the gaps
The children’s support centre director, Mira Antonyan, said: “Armenia’s child welfare system has many gaps. It’s like a head with no body.
“Nationally, there is a new child protection system established , which does not yet function as well as it should. We don’t have properly trained social workers. We desperately need preventative approaches to child protection, rather than trying to be reactive to the serious problems in this country, many of which stem from poverty.”
The current children’s reception centre was transformed from a former police centre for children at risk in 2000 and already more than 800 needy children have benefited from its support services. The centre can provide: accommodation for up to 30 excluded children, direct support to needy children and families, a hotline for the counselling of families and children at risk and a foster care network for children unable to return to their families.
Most of the referrals come from the police, who are also learning new ways in which to handle children in need. A new corps of properly trained social workers is also being trained.
Advocating for a functional national child protection system is one of Mira’s priorities. She is leading a child protection NGO network. This network submitted its proposals to government officials in May 2007. Despite repeated phone calls to the government to discuss next steps, Mira is still awaiting a reply.