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Effective social services: protecting the most vulnerable children

Child poverty is not solely a matter of income

by Mihăi Magheru – Child Protection Officer, UNICEF Romania

Almost everyone understands what child poverty means: when children are deprived of the resources they need to grow and develop, they are living in poverty. But too often it is defined only in terms of income, which means that help often takes the sole form of financial benefits.

Benefits have played an increased role in social services and much research has gone into whether this truly alleviates poverty. All the conclusions suggest that financial support alone is not enough to take children out of poverty and a much broader approach is needed.

What do children need?

Children’s rights and needs are complex, so our approach must tackle the different elements involved. It must comprise basic social services, the social welfare, educational and health services meant to guarantee the rights of all children in Romania.

These rights include:
i) An education that enables children to develop their skills and personality, free from discrimination,
ii) Growing up with their parents with a standard of living that allows for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, as well as their right to social welfare and security, and
iii) The best health status they can reach and access to the necessary healthcare services to attain it.

To achieve this, the social protection system must be geared to children’s specific needs. As well as financial help for children and families, this requires policies and laws to protect them and community services to help them overcome their problems.

Why is this necessary?

Research indicates that the same things that get households into poverty also prevent the most vulnerable from accessing the support which could get them out of it.

Poor allocation of benefits hurts vulnerable children in many ways:
• Children who are most vulnerable to poverty-associated risks, such as abuse, neglect, exploitation and inadequate living conditions for normal growth, may not get the benefit of financial aid either because their families are not aware that it is available, or because the adults spend it on other things;
• The benefits system may have unintended negative consequences; for instance, if the benefits for children in foster care are much higher than for those cared for by their birth families, biological parents may leave their children with foster families;
• The payment of benefits may put pressure on the system, supplanting the role of services at local level and diverting attention and money away from services at national level.

Education and health are vital aspects of children welfare

All this confirms that service development must address the needs of the vulnerable more comprehensively, and in a way which can improve the benefits system.

Improvements could include informing families of their rights, educating them on how to access and manage resources, harmonising and balancing benefits with the appropriate services and making the overall system more efficient while bearing in mind that effective prevention is less expensive than protection and its impact on beneficiaries more positive.

Furthermore, basic social services should not make vulnerable people chronically dependent on the state, but reintegrate them into normal life through:
• Helping them take action, by making them more aware and providing concrete measures to help them change their lives,
• Strengthening their coping skills, by broadening their understanding and providing them with sustainable assistance from specialists to help them overcome their problems effectively,
• Helping them deal with their problems through their own efforts, by developing their proactivity.

How can this approach be effective and efficient?

Strategic planning at community level requires valid information and data to be gathered, stored and used to help forecast future events, or, at least, guide the essential steps to prevent various problems.

Local cooperation (between professionals and institutions), which should be as fluent and conflict-free as possible, requires a formal institutional framework, the details of which should help everyone to understand each other’s roles.

Community based social services (the minimum package) must be designed and adjusted to people’s actual needs, its implementation capacity must be fine-tuned and it should be set out in detailed legal provisions for the benefit of those in need.

The continued disregard of the importance of prevention and basic social services both impacts the construction of the social protection system, and also deprives it of one of its essential pillars. This neglect results not only in an inefficient system, but also in one that cannot develop appropriately, as it lacks an essential ingredient: awareness of the situation and, consequently, the ability to make effective predictions.




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