The missing hug

Caring for children in residential care institutions in Albania during the pandemic

Anila Miria and David Gvineria
 UNICEF Representative in Albania,  Roberto de Bernardi and the Minister of Health and Social Welfare greets the frontline workers at the residential care institution
UNICEF Albania
15 June 2020

While the COVID-19 lockdown may have brought many families together and closer than before, the reality for children living in residential care institutions has been very different.

Irma, the residential caregiver, and her fellow colleagues had to make a tough choice: Either stay at home or adhere to the lockdown at work to look after the children under their care.  Irma and her co-workers chose the latter, self-quarantining themselves for 52 days, away from their own families.

The UNICEF Albania team, led by the Representative, and the Minister of Health and Social Protection recently visited the institution where Irma works, and expressed gratitude to her and all the other caregivers for their professional dedication. Their dedication ensured the safety, wellbeing, and protection of children without parental care, while strictly following the public health guidelines.

“At the outset, the children simply couldn’t understand what was going on,” said Irma. “We never had such an experience before. We were all very concerned about our own kids and elderly relatives, but we decided to stay.”

“Days and nights passed by slowly and were filled with anxiety. I got swept up by the fear of catching the virus and passing it on to the children. We got overloaded by Information and news. However, we found strength in those little kids,” she added. “All this was rewarded.  Those kids needed us, and we felt more valuable than ever. Every hug from them reminded me of my own kids and how I had been missing them so much. I can’t wait to rush back to them as soon as the lockdown eases.”

Irma, frontline worker cooking for children at the residential care institution.
UNICEF Albania
Irma, frontline worker cooking for children at the residential care institution.

"Those kids needed us, and we felt more valuable than ever. Every hug from them reminded me of my own kids and how I had been missing them so much."

The Minister of Health and Social Protection, acknowledging UNICEF’s support, praised the caregivers.  “Serving children without parental care is a mission. You fulfilled this mission the best way possible and we are proud of that. We would like to thank UNICEF for helping us through these challenging days.”

UNICEF Representative in Albania, Roberto De Bernardi, said, “I am fully aware, that all of you and many more frontline child protection workers had to put aside your own needs and demonstrate the utmost dedication to those who needed your support. These choices are not randomly made, they are not easy, and I fully understand that while helping others, you never stopped worrying about your own families. Despite  all odds, you have shown outstanding professionalism paired with human kindness and that is the most powerful mix which will overcome this and many other challenges.”

As the pandemic eases, UNICEF will continue to focus on supporting family-based and community-based programs for children at risk of or separated from the family environment. The National Action Plan for De-Institutionalization has been already prepared, thanks to UNICEF’s support, and is now awaiting the endorsement by the Council of Ministers. The approval of the national plan will help Albania to put an end to the placement of children, especially those under three years of age, in residential care.

The UNICEF Representative also reiterated UNICEF’s readiness to support the Albanian government’s pledge to de-institutionalize children from all large-scale residential care institutions. “We must instead invest in empowering families and family-based alternative care,” he said, “because nothing hurts more than being away from a loving family environment, be it for a child, a parent or caregiver.”