At Sofia Consultation, governments in South East Europe embrace child-care reform
Greta and Julia, both 12, live at a shelter for street children in Tbilisi, Georgia; more than half of all children deprived of parental care in the region live in institutional rather than foster or family-based care.
SOFIA, Bulgaria, 30 July 2007 – “I would describe it as a paradigm shift,” said UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Dita Reichenberg, referring to outcomes from the first regional consultation on child care system reform in South East Europe. “Compared to where we were five years ago, we are now really seeing progress for vulnerable children and the systems which support them,” she adds.
Held earlier this month, the Sofia Consultation drew 120 social welfare officials, including Ministers and Deputy Ministers, and NGO delegates from countries across the region. Representatives from the UN, the World Bank and the European Union also participated.
“For a long time, social welfare issues weren’t a priority for governments in the region, but since 2000 they have really begun to focus on this sector,” Ms. Reichenberg noted. “What is happening now is that all governments have embraced reform, agreeing that the old system of institutionalizing children was dehumanizing and counterproductive.”
Reforms and innovations
At the opening ceremony of the consultation, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS), Maria Calivis, told delegates: “There is no longer any questioning of the fact that the family is the most appropriate environment for children to grow up in, and that the focus of our support must be on families.
“Ongoing reforms are beginning to show encouraging and at the same time remarkable transformations in this region,” she continued, citing 50 examples of promising innovations that represent “just a snapshot of the wealth of information and experience that we can benefit from.”
Ms. Calivis asked the delegates to address key questions: “Today, where do we stand? How far have we come? What lessons have we learned? And is it fair to say that in every part of South East Europe, attitudes towards child care systems have changed?”
© UNICEF Bulgaria/2007/Draganov|
UNICEF Regional Director Maria Calivis (left) and Bulgaria’s Minister for Labour and Social Policy, Emilia Maslarova, at the opening session of the South East Europe consultation on reform of the child care system, in Sofia.
‘Focusing on the family’
The consultation took up the challenge, and each government participated in examining a wide range of issues involving children who are deprived of parental care.
“The big policy shift that the consultation adopted is the individual case management approach,” Ms. Reichenberg says. “This is a milestone for reform, a massive change in thinking from an era when the state assumed all responsibility for the welfare of the vulnerable – but did it in such a way that it categorized and institutionalized people, stripping them of their independence and dignity.
“Each country over the past decade has left this approach behind without losing their commitment to the vulnerable,” she continues. “The individual is now the centre of the system’s response, and that means focusing on the family.”
According to Ms. Calivis, the challenge now is to make sure that reforms have a visible impact on the lives of children. The data show there is still some distance to go.
The number of children who are in the care system has increased consistently since 2001, and today as many as 126,000 children across South East Europe are growing up in public care. Although 44 per cent of children in the system now grow up in family-based care, 56 per cent are still placed in residential institutions. “This ratio must change,” Ms. Calivis asserted.
Growing consensus for reform
A bonus from the consultation was a strengthening of the consensus among international organizations to support social welfare reform.
“We are seeing a complementary approach by the major international players,” Ms. Reichenberg said. “UNICEF comes at the issue through a child rights perspective, which puts the child at the centre of the response. The World Bank sees the issue through the prism of reducing poverty, while the European Union seeks to ensure that there is social inclusion.
“When you put these approaches together, it sends a very powerful message of support to governments undertaking such reform,” she added.
The Sofia Consultation was organized by UNICEF’s CEE/CIS Regional Office in conjunction with the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, and the World Bank, with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Among the countries and provinces represented were: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, UN-administered Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Turkey.