Timely expert support is key for children with disabilities

Access to early childhood intervention is one of three areas of EU Child Guarantee pilot-programme

28 July 2022

For children with disabilities it is crucial to have expert support from an early age to develop their full potential. A key challenge for families living in precarious conditions is the unavailability of systematic care which leads to a lack of early detection of possible difficulties or developmental delays that often get discovered at school. UNICEF, in cooperation with implementing partners, as part of "Phase III: Testing the Child Guarantee" of the pilot-programme funded by the European Union, implemented in Medjimurje County, is working on early detection so that children can receive quality support as early as possible.

For the interventions to be properly directed, UNICEF conducted Research and Analysis of Early Childhood Intervention Services, in which paediatricians and family medicine doctors, nurses, professional associates and parents of children with developmental disabilities participated. The results showed that the current capacities of the health system and social welfare system and associations outside the network of social association providers in Medjimurje County can include only about 50 percent of the children who need such support.

UNICEF also established interdepartmental cooperation, and 44 experts were trained in this area. In addition, expert outreach teams and Point of access to early childhood intervention were established in cooperation with implementing partners Médecins du Monde and the Center for Early Childhood MURID. Outreach teams are composed of early childhood intervention professionals, psychologists, gynaecologists, paediatricians, Roma cultural mediators and assistants. The team provides support to families in their homes, which makes services more accessible.

“The goal of our team is to visit the homes of Roma families to see the environment in which the children are growing up.  We take note of all the risk factors for their development in order to understand the causes of problems and help them make use of healthcare services to ensure the social rights of children. So, this is a comprehensive approach to children in the environment in which they live”, said Paediatrician Marija Jungvirth, MD, MSc.

Outreach teams are providing support in six settlements to improve basic living conditions of children and families.  

Early childhood intervention is crucial. It’s key to direct those children toward programmes that can provide them with support, as well as to get closer to the family. Because the context of a child’s development is their family. That doesn’t lie in institutions, but in their own homes where they have daily activities,” explained ECI specialist Marijana Konkoli Zdešić.

Both children and parents are happy.

“It helps me a lot when the doctor comes. She’s great. I’m thankful to her. Whenever we need help, she’s here. She helped me with medication for my children and showed us how I should practice certain things they need with them. This helps not only me, but the children as well. It’s great,” said mother Slađana Lajtman, who has also received a lot of help from the other outreach team members.

So far, outreach teams supported 538 children and 415 parents or caregivers and provided 1.614 consultations related to health, nutrition, and early childhood development.

“We find it very helpful when doctors come to see my daughter, practice with her, assist us with translation, sign language and everything else”, said mother Zvjezdana Oršuš.

In addition to providing a coordinated and integrated quality service, the interventions also strengthen the knowledge and skills of experts, so in cooperation with the Academy for Developmental Rehabilitation, an online educational platform for health professionals was launched. The aim of the platform is to develop the skills of healthcare and other experts, and it’s organized through seven interactive modules.

"The educational platform is extremely useful, and I recommend it to all healthcare and other professionals who work with children. Its interactive content makes it easier to learn and understand the content. I am grateful to the experts for creating such a tool which gave me insights into new knowledge and made me interested in further education in order to perform my future job as successfully as possible", said Petra Švenda, medical doctor, specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

With the aim of ensuring the sustainability of early childhood intervention services, an integrated Action Plan for Early Childhood Interventions in Medjimurje County was developed, which is based on the mapping and analysis of early intervention services.

“When we see that our actions help directly, that is very rewarding. Resolving some issues requires the help of a wider system, so we’re working on that, as well as on introducing or changing some mechanisms in the long term because that has been long overdue here. There are changes – in the children, their parents, and in entire families, so this is important to us”, concluded psychologist Ante Župić.


"Phase III: Testing the Child Guarantee"  is funded by the European Union and is implemented in seven European Union countries[1] to ensure access to basic services such as health care, education, quality nutrition, quality housing and care services for children growing up in the most difficult circumstances. The Republic of Croatia was given the opportunity to model the EU Child Guarantee in cooperation with the European Commission and UNICEF  to address child poverty and social exclusion. This pilot-programme is aimed primarily at children with disabilities, children living in a precarious family environment and children from national ethnic minorities. It is implemented in seven municipalities of Medjimurje County, and through cooperation and knowledge of implementing partners interventions are taking place in three areas: integrated child protection services and family support, early intervention services and access to quality preschool education. 

[1] The seven pilot countries are: Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Lithuania.


© UNICEF, 2022 “The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

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