Mobile teams: Reaching out to child victims of violence and abuse
SMEDEREVO, Serbia - Ivan is a happy 8-year-old boy with a shy smile and sparkling eyes.
"I got five (the best mark) at school yesterday," Ivan says proudly and runs for his book to show us. Then he runs back into the small house to take his schoolbag. His father walks him, hand in hand, to the door to see him off to school; an ideal picture of a father's love for his son. "Thing's have settled down now," his father says. But only nine months ago, Ivan's little world was completely different -- dark and painful.
Ivan's mother left the family over three years ago. They do not know where she is and she never contacts them to ask about the child. The father, Milovan (34), was an alcoholic, who beat his wife regularly. When she left, he turned his anger onto the little boy. He would beat Ivan every drunken day, and regret it every sober morning.
"I'd beat him up in the evening, and when we went to bed - we sleep in the same bed - he'd put his arms around me and say: -Dad, I love you more than anything in the world. - I'd wait until he fell asleep and then I'd turn away from him and weep. But it meant nothing, because the next day I'd do the same", Milovan tells his story in a trembling voice.
Ivan's grandmother, who also lived with them, was either incapable or unwilling to take any responsibility for the child. She would often leave the house for days to find peace with her daughter in a nearby town. "My mother didn't want to intervene in my life. She did not care whether I drank or not - she didn't want to know about it", Milovan explains.
This kind of life went on and on, with the father spending all the money on alcohol. Sometimes he even worked for alcohol as payment.
One evening, almost a year ago, a police patrol found the boy wondering through the streets of his village, badly beaten. The police filed charges against the father, and notified the "mobile team for child protection".
And all of a sudden, the chance for a new life opened up for Ivan.
"After consultation with the centre for social work, we concluded that the only chance for the boy was to help the father become capable of parenthood, to empower him to quit drinking and take proper care of the child," explains social worker Vesna Emersic, a member of the mobile team established by the local non-governmental organisation "Amity" within the UNICEF-supported project "Outreach Mobile Teams for Child Protection".
Ivan was emotionally attached to his father, and even blamed himself for his father's outbursts of anger. The professionals decided to try everything they could to make the family functional again.
"We try out all the possible solutions before even considering placing a child in an institution. Such a measure is recommended only as the last resort in the most drastic cases," Emersic says of family improvement procedures.
She and her colleague, psychiatrist Dejan Zivanovic, gradually became the best friends of the family and were always there to give support when it was needed.
"For the last nine months, the father has been in stable abstinence, without a single breach. The child is now well fed, nicely dressed, and cheerful. The father has got a proper job, which has provided additional motivation and greater economic security," Zivanovic says. "Furthermore, the trust between the family and the mobile team has strengthened, which is invaluable."
Since their field work started in mid-2001, the mobile team, consisting of just two members, has managed to identify 292 abused and neglected children in the area of the central Serbian town of Smederevo. Regular and continuous visits to the families are essential for the success of their efforts.
"Violence against children does not last just from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the social care institutions are open. In most cases, these people need help late in the afternoon or evening. Our goal is to provide them with assistance 24 hours a day," Emersic says. Such teams of professionals are more flexible and able to react fast in an urgent situation.
Violence against children does not last just from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the social care institutions are open. In most cases, these people need help late in the afternoon or evening.
Many children in Serbia are victims of abuse, neglect and violence. Only 10,000 cases have been reported but the real numbers are much higher. Over 143,000 children live with different types of disabilities – the majority of whom have no access to school, medical doctors or social care. More than 5,000 children are deprived of parental care, 2,000 of whom live in institutions which cannot provide an optimal environment for their psychological, emotional and social development. Children have the right to grow in a family.
Centres for social work, that identify and assist children in need of social protection, have registered about 150,000 children from families with disrupted relations, 5,000 children without parental care, and 10,000 families with juvenile delinquents. Due to their limited or inadequate human and material resources, these centres cannot reach all children in need.
Serbia went through a difficult decade of great economic crisis and poverty. The period was also marked by a deterioration in values and family relations. To make matters worse, at the end of the socialist era in the early nineties, the oversized, bureaucratised and impoverished social welfare system had almost ceased to function.
“Inter-family violence and child abuse are considered in many countries to be a private issue. Even when cases are known, the social services system often does not have the means to provide comprehensive response to assist the child in its recovery and very few cases exist of the successful prosecution of the perpetrator. It is the responsibility of everybody to ensure that the rights of children are protected. The support of neighbours or of the community can be the most effective. This is a success story of the change that an outreach service can achieve. We hope Ivan and his father will be able to continue this good life. With support from their community it might be possible,” says Ann-Lis Svensson, UNIECF Area Representative.
In 2001, to help bridge the gap between growing needs and the incapability of institutions to respond adequately, UNICEF, in partnership with JEN, a Japanese non-governmental organisation, and three other local NGOs - "Amity", "Horizons" and "Sun" - began a pilot project entitled ‘Outreach Mobile Teams for Child Protection’". The objective of the project is to build the capacity of professionals from the non-government and government sectors to better identify and develop local responses for children in need of protection. So far, 12 teams of professionals have been established, consisting of social workers, psychiatrists, medical and educational experts, who work in the field in different parts of the country, identifying and assisting the most vulnerable children.
"It was one of the first projects where the governmental and non-governmental sectors worked together to ensure that children in need of protection are reached and benefit from the care and support to which they are entitled. In accordance with the reform outlined by the Ministry of Social Affairs, this project promotes partnership between governmental and non-governmental sectors. It extends the professional assistance of the centres for social work to previously unreached children who are victims of abuse and neglect, disabled, deprived of parental care, in conflict with the law or disadvantaged on ethnic grounds," explains Stephanie Schwarz, a UNICEF project leader.
"A total of 1,622 children at risk have been identified in different parts of Serbia thanks to the enthusiasm of the mobile teams - and there must be great enthusiasm involved if you have just 27 people altogether. They also work with an additional 780 children who've already been registered at the centres for social work. It is a great success because the mobile teams, with UNICEF's support, have managed to network the centres for social work, health care centres, schools, the police, the judiciary, and neighbours to work together on the same assignment - to ensure a protective environment for children living in their communities," she says.
The mobile teams are also working on raising awareness and sensitising local communities for child protection. It is important to dispel the prejudices and taboos, and help people overcome the traditional principle of not interfering in other people's "private" family affairs or bringing out their own "dirty laundry".
"People can approach us more easily than they can approach an institution. When they take a problem to the centres for social work, they have to knock on several doors before finding the right one, and to tell their story to three or four people. That's why they often give up. An institution always seems cold. We have the advantage of being able to enter people's homes; we're not the ones who can sanction them," says Vesna Emersic.
Ivan is one of those children whose fragile childhood story has become much happier thanks to the help that reached him. However, there are still thousands of children in Serbia, abused and neglected behind the closed doors, who need to be reached and provided with assistance.
By Ljiljana Cvekic