Resource Centre for "A Child's Place is within the Family" Project
СРПСКИ | ENGLISH
From an Institution to a Family
Social welfare institutions have long been the only option for children in Serbia unable to grow up in their birth families, either because of disability, behavioural issues or due to a lack of parental care. In the system that existed here before the new millennium, it was believed that it was precisely these institutions that provided the best care to children outside their birth families. However, reform processes in the sphere of the social welfare system have gradually been initiated since 2001. At first, these constituted only individual projects and actions, but, over time, the approach has received a planned and strategic framework. Thus, the Government of Serbia adopted the National Plan of Action for Children in 2004, the Social Welfare Development Strategy in 2005, and the Strategy for Empowerment of People with Disabilities in 2006. In practice too, the picture has changed, and from 2001 to the present day, the number of children placed in institutions for children without parental care has fallen from 1,900 to 850, while the number of children in foster families has risen from around 1,800 in 2002 to 4,200 this year. Nonetheless, this applies little, or not at all, to children with disabilities and children in conflict with the law, while the very institutions where the children are placed are still neither able to provide optimal conditions for protection, nor are aligned with the needs of the child. The capacities of institutions for children with disabilities, housing around 1,100 such children, have remained unchanged. Moreover, babies and children of low calendar age still account for almost a third of children placed in institutions for children without parental care. The practice of direct placement of babies with disabilities from maternity wards into social welfare institutions is still a reality (70% of children in two specialised institutions for low-age children arrived directly from hospital). The system of early and continuous support for the birth family is still undeveloped, as is specialised foster care.
Noting the difficulties, sluggishness and challenges of reform, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy supported UNICEF’s external evaluation in 2006, resulting in short-, medium- and long-term recommendations and proposals for actions necessary to conduct a thorough and sustainable transformation of residential institutions. The Memorandum of Cooperation between the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and UNICEF of May 2008 presented a framework for comprehensive reform of the child support system. UNICEF’s project (that followed), “Transformation of Residential Institutions for Children and the Development of Sustainable Alternatives,” projected to run from May 2008 to November 2010, has thus become a foundation for support to comprehensive and coordinated change, based on empirical indicators of the present and a rational projection of the future situation.
In order for the impact to be long-term and sustainable, the transformation of institutions must include not only a reduction in placement capacities and the enhancement of the quality of protection in these capacities, but also support for the birth family, development of services in the local community, strengthening of foster care and the development of specialised foster care, as well as enhancement of the system of accountability and independent supervision, in order to ensure conditions for the protection of the rights of the child within the system. A number of activities have been initiated during the first year of the project’s implementation, the final results of which will be a reduction in the number of institutions and placement capacities therein, enhancement of the quality of work, and transformation of the remaining capacities into services aligned with the needs of the local community or region where the institutions are located. Furthermore, in the very first year of the project, the activities of the representative Working Groups led to the adoption of a draft five-year Comprehensive Institution Transformation Plan, which was created through discussions and different types of consultations with the institutions’ managers and employees. The Plan stipulates a 50% reduction in the placement capacities of institutions for children. In the 12 institutions selected as priorities, local community management, employees and representatives also actively participate in the preparation of detailed operational plans that will define specific steps, actions and time frames. As part of the preparatory activities, institution employees, as well as other stakeholders from the local community (a total of 109), have undergone training to empower them for this process, providing them with an impetus for a new approach to protection – the future of residential placement is seen only as a last resort, temporary and short-term solution until the return of the child to its birth family, preparation for a more favourable (alternative) form of protection, or until the child is ready for independent living. The institutions should become only support centres with a flexible approach in providing a response to the needs of the community and the individual needs of each child and family. As the first phase in a more long-term process of child protection, based on the principles of social inclusion and gradual creation of the conditions for complete deinstitutionalisation, the residential capacities for children with disabilities will be small (which ensures better quality and protection aimed at individual needs) and with an even geographical distribution (thus encouraging adherence to the principle of closeness and strengthening of ties with the family and place of origin). A transition to new forms of work also requires new knowledge and professional skills, and this will be in the focus of the next phase of the project.
Parallel to these activities, training sessions have also been organised for 87 professionals to work on the preparation and empowerment of foster families (a general preparation programme). 5,000 copies of a handbook for foster parents and 15,000 copies of an information brochure for potential foster families have been printed. During the next phase, the focus of the training will be put on more specific topics linked to specialised foster care, which would bring the total coverage of professionals from the centres for social work and centres for family placement to 300.
During the same phase, steps will be taken aimed at the training of medical staff from maternity wards in Serbia, as well as from other medical institutions, in order to empower them for the application of new procedures and methods in dealing with, and providing support to, parents of at-risk children or children with disabilities. The first year of the project saw the drafting of a model good practice guide for acting in these situations, and we have also started with the preparation of a plan to strengthen visiting nurse services as a very important utility of early support at home and a resource for the development of an integrated medical-social approach to child protection.
Part of the comprehensive plan for transformation also includes enhancement of the mechanism of work accountability and independent supervision over the work of the institutions. Protection of the rights of the child and provision of the best possible care require clear mechanisms for the prevention, as well as sanctioning, of actions within the system that are not in the interests of the child, be it in terms of non-acting (neglect) or direct endangerment of welfare (abuse). An inclusive model with proposals at the level of legal acts and by-laws, created during the first year, will represent a basis for planning activities in the next phase, geared towards capacity building of management boards and supporting the creation of a sustainable mechanism of independent supervision, including the institution of the Ombudsman and the civil sector.
Survey - Social Inclusion
Report on the results of the opinion poll on social inclusion of children with disabilities in Serbia