Support and services for children with disabilities in Croatia: situation analysis and recommendations

Early intervention services unavailable to many children in Croatia

09 November 2020
Girl playing with her mom
UNICEF Croatia/2020

Zagreb, 13 October 2020 – UNICEF presents the results of the first comprehensive “Analysis of early childhood intervention services in Croatia”, conducted by the RISE Institute (USA), with the support of the Ministry of Health. The aim of this analysis is to provide information on the needs of children with disabilities and their families, the quality and availability of early intervention services, to identify existing policies and legislative framework, as well as recommendations for improving the existing situation. For children with developmental disabilities, it is crucial that they receive professional support from the earliest age. Receiving timely support makes the difference between having a chance to develop their full potential and be active members of society and living on the margins of the society.

Early childhood intervention services support families of children with disabilities and developmental risks. Access to high-quality early intervention services is crucial for the development of children with disabilities because these services include coordinated, intensive and individualised support expert provided to children and their families.

The main findings of this comprehensive analysis show:

  • 24,169 children in Croatia aged 0-5 are potential users of early childhood intervention services
  • Only 1 in 8 children who are potential users receive early childhood intervention services
  • 47 early childhood intervention programmes in Croatia support 2,914 children aged 0-5 years
  • 15 out of 21 counties have at least 1 ECI programme
  • 10% of families receiving services live in rural areas
  • For 85% of families, services are located too far from their homes
  • 45% of families do not access services due to the stigma related to disability
  • 15% to 25% of families who receive early childhood intervention services live in poverty.

These extremely valuable research findings present the basis for planning future policies aimed at improving the lives of the youngest children (0-6) with developmental delays and their families. The analysis showed that the advantages of early childhood intervention services in Croatia include highly qualified and experienced professionals and a growing trend in the allocation of annual funds for early childhood intervention, which demonstrates the national commitment to provide services to children with developmental delays and their families.

Prof. Vili Beroš, MD, PhD, Minister of Health announced: “Perinatal brain damage is not progressive, and the process of maturation and plasticity with the early application of therapeutic procedures enables its functional recovery. Therefore, it is very important to recognize and include these children in the program of early diagnosis, early intervention and habilitation depending on the deviation (in physiotherapy, occupational therapy, logotherapy, sensory integration therapy, psychological therapy…) in order to reduce the risk of disability.

The first years of life are extremely important for the development of every child, especially early development and early intervention in at-risk children, regardless of biological factors such as perinatal brain damage, a rare disease or social risks. Early development and early intervention require close inter-departmental cooperation, each system can do more and better by itself, but together we can do much better, using existing resources and knowledge.

Aware of the need for an interdisciplinary approach and finding a systematic solution, the Government of the Republic of Croatia established the Commission for Early Childhood Intervention and the Executive Working Group for drafting the National Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Intervention, which will be the basis for establishing and developing early childhood intervention, development of professional guidelines, standards and procedures for early intervention programs.

This research is of great importance because it gives us an insight into the current situation and provides guidelines for building an early intervention system. We believe that, in phases over a period of five to seven years, full national coverage of early intervention services could be achieved and the availability of these services could be ensured, closer to the home of families of children with developmental disabilities and developmental risks."

Current availability of early intervention programmes indicates that there are geographical inequalities and a significant need for their expansion.

Regina M. Castillo, UNICEF Representative in Croatia, said: “We have the great advantage of having highly qualified and experienced early childhood intervention experts in Croatia. However, early intervention services are still unavailable to many children with disabilities. These children do not have the appropriate opportunities to develop their abilities further and to participate in daily life, cannot tell their parents how they feel, play with their friends, attend kindergarten or school, nor build their future. Together, we can change that.  Children require timely support and high-quality early intervention services that address their specific needs. UNICEF is here to support all such efforts, so that no child is left behind.

“We have been warning for many years that failure to provide adequate professional support to children with disabilities in terms of early promotion of development is non-compliance with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but also discrimination against children on the basis of health condition. Similarly, experts and parents have for many years strongly advocated for changes in the field of early intervention. Although the Republic of Croatia cares for children with developmental risks and developmental difficulties through the health, education and social systems, so far, we have not developed an early intervention system that would be based on contemporary scientific knowledge, contemporary approach, service integration, intersectoral cooperation and availability.

The analysis of the situation in the field of early childhood intervention as a result of a unique and comprehensive research gives us an overview of the state of needs, policies, existing early intervention programmes, but also indicates the worrying data on the number of children who will not develop their full potential. UNICEF's analysis, which, in addition to presenting the situation we have today in the Republic of Croatia, also contains a number of guidelines and recommendations valuable to childcare policy makers and decision makers. The analysis is also an aid to the Government and the Early Childhood Intervention Commission and the adoption of a national strategic plan for early childhood intervention that will help the development of an Action Plan, guidelines and standards for early intervention services while devising ways to connect the sectors at the national and local levels. We are grateful to UNICEF for its long-term contribution to improving the care of children with disabilities, changing the paradigm of action, encouraging the system to focus on children and their family and successful cooperation, "said Anka Slonjšak, Ombudswoman for Persons with Disabilities.”

Helenca Pirnat Dragičević, the Ombudswoman for Children said: “The Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasizes the right of children with disabilities and their families to early support. Early childhood is a period in which a developmental disability is identified and begins to affect the well-being and development of a child. The priority of the state is to provide children with developmental disabilities and developmental risks with equal opportunities to participate in upbringing and education and life in the community! The best interests of the child should always be the starting point for planning, creating and providing services and creating policies and measures aimed at early childhood intervention. This includes actions that directly affect children as well as those that affect children indirectly. Although in Croatia we have developed a good foundation for early childhood intervention services, additional efforts are needed to develop early intervention programs that provide quality, effective and equally accessible services that address the needs of children, are adapted according to child age and circumstances in which individual children live and are provided in the family. Therefore, early childhood intervention services need to be seen as high priority services with the main goal of developing coordinated and multisectoral strategies based on children's rights. We must not forget that a child's smile must not depend on his/her difficulty, but on the opportunities that society provides and enables.”

Media contacts

Marin Ilej
Communication Officer
UNICEF Croatia
Tel: 099 3494 579
Chulho Hyun
UNICEF Regional Office Europe and Central Asia
Tel: +41 22 909 52 86

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