Reform of the state child care system is imperative if the most vulnerable children are to have the same opportunities as other children. First and foremost this calls for dismantling the system of child care institutions, and offering alternatives including more support both to families in need, and to families willing to provide foster care.
Since Soviet times, children whose family is unable or unwilling to take care of them have been sent to state homes. These are sometimes called “orphanages”, but around 90% of children has at least one living parent. Most often this is the mother who is alone and struggles to pay the bills, living on a low-paying job. Other children in institutions might have been born out of wedlock, which carries a certain stigma, or have disabilities, whose stigma is even greater.
State institutions often do their best to provide care, but - partly due to UNICEF’s lobbying and advocacy - government officials are convinced that nothing can replace the warmth of a home and loving parents. As far as it is possible, the main goal today is to keep children with their biological parents. If that is not possible, then arranging foster care and adoption are the optimal alternatives. In some cases, however, children suffer from severe physical and mental disabilities, and require many special services under one roof in which case a small group home giving a family-like environment is best.
In 2006, with UNICEF’s support, the government approved plans for deinstitutionalization and alternative care. The results have been dramatic, and in the past 5 years the number of children in state institutions has decreased from about 14,000 to 10,000 in 2010.
Azerbaijan’s children’s homes were once dilapidated and poorly-kept, a disturbing reminder that the country still struggled with the Soviet legacy. Also, the disabled carried a stigma that was often unbearable to many parents who often had few regrets about giving up custody of their children.
In 2010, NGOs – primarily the Heydar Aliyev Foundation - and Government have made major efforts to improve conditions in the two homes for severely disabled children. The children are proud of their new institutions. Take the case of Adalet Ishmailov, 16, who suffers from cerebral palsy. He has been living in Children’s Home No. 3 for as long as he can remember. While he cannot answer questions so easily, he loves to sing, and he made a special song about love that he sang at the re-opening ceremony presided over by the First Lady.
Adalet is one of the 58,000 Azerbaijani children registered with disabilities, which is 2 per cent of the total child population. Only about 6,000 of these children receive education in special schools and centres, and 7,750 at home. The others receive no educational help at all.
Currently, state support for children with disabilities is centred in two institutions in Baku. If a family from another part of the country sends their child to Baku, it often means losing all contact. Centralizing care in two large orphanages might be cost less money, but it entails other, more serious, costs. While some state care will be necessary for the most severe cases, the Soviet-style centralized system needs to be replaced by a more responsive community-based solution.
For children living with disability, the goal is to keep children in their community, and to remove the stigma of rearing a child with disabilities; to show that they deserve the same rights and opportunities as all other children. Precisely in partnerships with NGOs such as the Mushvig Society (see box), as well as government social agencies, UNICEF is making significant strides to reform the state child care institutions for children with disabilities and to remove the stigma that has plagued the disabled in the country over the past decades.
Together with the Ministries of Education and Labour and Social Protection and the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, UNICEF is piloting new models of child care, training social workers, and supporting local centres that provide families with support and counselling. Providing access to quality day care is one of the simplest, yet possibly the most far-reaching elements of de-institutionalisation. Day-care centres provide critical support to families that are at risk, and play a role in the prevention of street children and delinquency.
In 2008, Children’s Home No. 2 in Baku had about 165 children in full residence, under the care of the state. That number has since shrunk to 120, thanks to the opening of a day care centre on the Home’s grounds that now meets the needs of about 100 children who go home in the evening.
``As much as possible we’d like to phase out children’s homes, and transform them to day care,’’ said Munevver Ashrafova, from the department of De-institutionalisation and Child Protection Division under the Ministry of Education. ``This is a pilot project for such transformation and de-institutionalization. At first, many parents were concerned to mix the children with orphans, but we raised awareness and got them on board.’’
Pilot projects such as the one at Children’s Home No. 2 make it clear that spending a small amount on day care can have extensive impact on children from a high-risk environment. UNICEF and government officials intend that this experience will be replicated throughout the country.