From institutional isolation to a loving family home

UNICEF is helping Serbia to realise its policy of deinstitutionalisation – so that all children can enjoy the benefits of growing up in a family environment.

Guy De Launey
Ilija helps in the garden
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl

09 October 2014

Ilija strides up the garden with a tray of freshly-picked strawberries in his hands and a broad grin of delight on his face.

He has just selected the makings of a fine afternoon tea from the vegetable patch, along with rocket for a salad. Now it is time to entertain the guests.

His foster parents, Slobodanka and Rade Marčeta, look on with considerable pride, as well they might.

Not long ago, helping out in the garden would have been unthinkable for Ilija. So, for that matter, would have been walking any distance. 

Ilija is the personification of the progress that children can make if they live with a family.

For most of his twelve years, he did not have a place he could really call home. 

Ilija was born in a small town where no community-based services were available and at a time when the dominant view was that children with disability need specialized medical care – best provided in an institutional setting.  

This meant that Ilija’s biological parents gave him up at birth, and he grew up in a series of institutions.

One of them, Kulina, south of Serbia's capital, Belgrade, had such notoriously grim conditions that the children’s wards eventually closed in 2013. 

Ilija cuddles with his foster parents
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl
Ilija cuddles with his foster parents Rade (left) and Boka (right), feeling secure in a loving family environment.

But things only really started to change for Ilija when Slobodanka entered his life.

She was working as a volunteer at the Centre for Protection of Infants, Children and Youth, widely-known as Zvecanska, in Belgrade. When she met Ilija, she immediately felt a connection. 

“Ilija picked me, I didn’t pick him,” she laughs. 

“He saw me standing on a terrace and just walked over. He was physically weak and really pale, but the most important thing was that it was love at first sight.”

Slobodanka and Rade decided that Ilija needed a true family environment – and registered to become foster parents.

When the formalities were complete, Ilija came to live with them at their home in the hills outside Belgrade, with its fresh air and expansive, sloping garden.

Semi-rural family life has brought about remarkable changes in him, both physically and socially. 

“The first changes we saw were physical changes,” says Slobodanka. 

“In the first ten months of living with us, he has gained about 7 or 8 kilograms and grown 10 centimetres. When he came here we started going for long walks – and he physically improved as the long walks got longer.”

“Living with a family gives him a lot – the closeness, the warmth – I can see it in his eyes,” says Rade. “But we get much more from him than we can give back.”

Ilija cuddles with his foster dad
UNICEF Serbia/2014/Shubuckl

All this has been possible because of the Serbian government’s policy of deinstitutionalisation – in other words, taking children out of the residential care system and enabling them to grow up in a loving, family environment.

Children with disabilities are a particular priority.

Reform of the country’s social welfare system has been underway since 2001. But deinstitutionalisation received a boost in 2009 when UNICEF became involved with implementation.

“For us at UNICEF what is most important is that children remain in a family environment,” says UNICEF’s Representative in Serbia, Michel Saint-Lot. 

“UNICEF has been working closely with the government of Serbia to assist them in making the fostering system flexible and open for children with disabilities. All of that with the principle of children having the right to a family environment.”

“In Serbia, like other countries in the region, there used to be big institutions – now the whole process is to make those institutions smaller. But as far as possible [we need] to move children out of institutions and into foster families. When a child needs to go into care, the best approach is a fostering system.”

The Zvečanska centre where Ilija met Slobodanka is an example of the changes that have been taking place.

Some children still live here – although its dorm rooms and dim corridors are clearly not the place they would be in an ideal world. 

Increasingly, however, the children are just visitors – coming here for some of their care or to give their parents some respite.

Now the focus at Zvečanska – and other, similar centres across Serbia – is on helping families to stay together. 

“What is changing in the system of social welfare protection is that we are really trying to focus more on the prevention”, says the institution’s director, Zoran Milačić.

“We provide support to families so that they are strengthened and that a child is kept in a biological family and does not come to an institution.” 

Family outreach workers are a vital part of this support system.

These psychologists and social workers collaborate with both biological and foster parents to help them meet the challenges of bringing up children, including those with disabilities. 

The aim is to reduce the number of children going into care in the first place by giving families the support they need at an early stage. The outreach workers also help to reunite children with their biological parents.

This often involves rebuilding the confidence of people who may feel they have failed their offspring by putting them in care. 

“The emotions are the hardest part,” says family outreach worker Kosta Gajić.

“We deal with the organisation of everyday life – school, shopping, doctors – but also the emotions of the family – the feelings of failure and reconnecting.”

“There’s all the questioning about will they make it this time,” adds his colleague, Ana Radovanović.

“They have support but need confidence.”

Michel Saint-Lot says that Serbia’s commitment to deinstitutionalisation has been remarkable and that other countries in the region could learn from its approach and are, indeed doing so. 

“The innovative aspect is the family outreach worker getting to families to prevent family separation and ensure that they don’t split up. By keeping the family together, the outreach worker has already done three quarters of the job – so there’s no need for an institution.”

“Serbia has been able to put together the legal framework which was important for the next step to happen. In the past three or four years, Serbia has made a lot of strides. Making the system flexible – making sure that children with disabilities are accepted in the fostering system – is an area in which Serbia has pioneered.”

Back at Ilija’s home on the outskirts of Belgrade, it seems like this approach is working beautifully. He cuddles into his foster parents on the garden swing, secure in a loving family environment at last.

Deinstitutionalisation is a clumsy word – but Ilija is living proof of its value.