Reaching out to families in need

David (4), was born with disabilities which affect his intellectual and physical development and is receiving medical treatment for a heart complaint.

Guy De Launey
David (4) and his sister Aleksandra (9) playing in their home
UNICEF Serbia/2015/Shubuckl

16 July 2015

When Zoran Jovanovic apologises to his visitors for the basic conditions at his home in Jakovo, it is not just the usual display of a host’s humility. The 40-year-old and his family live just half-an-hour’s drive from the centre of Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. But the way they live seems a long way removed from the comforts and conveniences of a modern city.

To have horses, with the accompanying straw and manure, in the yard in front of the house, could be written off as semi-rural charm. But not the lack of many of the basics which most families in Serbia take for granted – mains electricity, an indoor toilet, and a kitchen.

“We cook, eat and sleep in this one room,” admits Zoran, drawing aside a fly curtain to reveal a stained carpet, shabby sofa and battered stove.

Bojana Brkic, the family outreach worker, has struck up a rapport with the family – especially its youngest members, David and Aleksandra.
UNICEF Serbia/2015/Shubuckl
Bojana Brkic, the family outreach worker, has struck up a rapport with the family – especially its youngest members, David and Aleksandra.

Living this way would be difficult and stressful for any family. But Zoran faces additional complications.

His 4 year old son, David, was born with disabilities which affect his intellectual and physical development and is receiving medical treatment for a heart complaint.

Aleksandra, Zoran’s 9 year-old stepdaughter, also has disabilities.

Support within the local community is hard to find. He says that many of his neighbours are elderly and complain about the noise David involuntarily makes – from exuberant cries of happiness to screams of frustration.

Finding friends for the children is also problematic: “No-one wants to play with the ‘Roma kids’,” says Zoran, ruefully.

No-one wants to play with the ‘Roma kids’.

Zoran (father)

When a family is facing social exclusion, extreme poverty and the difficulty of caring for children with disabilities, they can find themselves at breaking point. In the recent past, many children like David and Aleksandra would have found themselves in residential care at some stage.

But Serbia’s government is committed to reducing the number of young people who live in institutions. In fact it is doing better than most other European countries in that respect.

In the first decade of this century Serbia put policies in place which halved the number of children in residential care.

Zoran Jovanovic, playing with his children, David and Aleksandra, in the yard in front of the house.
UNICEF Serbia/2015/Shubuckl
Zoran Jovanovic, playing with his children, David and Aleksandra, in the yard in front of the house.

This is a significant result. But the country still has five large-scale residential institutions dealing with children and young people with disabilities.

These are not the kind of places for anyone to grow up in – as residents often miss out on education, one-to-one human interaction and lifelong relationships. Children in care also suffer from irregular contact with their parents and too little time outside.

These detrimental effects run contrary to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Serbia has signed. In fact, article 23 of the convention includes a commitment to offering support to the families of children with disabilities, with the aim of keeping them together.

In the recent past, many children like David and Aleksandra would have found themselves in residential care at some stage.

Now UNICEF is working with Serbia’s government to support a programme which is putting those ideals into practice.

The Family Outreach Workers initiative is funded by the European Union, while the Republican Institute for Social Protection is managing the modelling of this service, including regular staff training. 

The idea is to identify families in need of assistance – then send the outreach workers to collaborate with their clients to create a tailor-made support programme.

Prevention and early intervention are the keys to success in keeping families together – once they have split up it is usually difficult to reunite them.

“I place the emphasis on building up a relationship with the family and children. We do everything together – with them and for them.”

Zoran's family are near the beginning of their relationship with their outreach worker, Bojana Brkic.

She works for the Centre for the Protection of Children in Belgrade, an institution locally known as Zvecanska, and collaborates with the city authorities' Centre for Social Work, which identifies a family in need and refers them to the Family Outreach service.  This consultation could last for as long as nine months.

As she arrives at Zoran's home, it is clear that Bojana has already struck up a rapport with the family – especially its youngest members. David happily initiates a ball-game in the yard with the outreach worker, before the adults move indoors to discuss business.

“I place the emphasis on building up a relationship with the family and children,” says Bojana. “We do everything together – with them and for them.”

In this family's case, they need specific help connecting to medical and social services. But the outreach workers are able to assist with a range of issues – from parenting advice to limited financial help.

Above all, the goals are to advocate for vulnerable families within their communities, help them to access the services to which they are entitled and give them the confidence to demand their rights in the future. Zoran is already delighted with the changes Bojana has helped to bring about.

“Bojana has ensured better cooperation with doctors,” he says. “Because she works at Zvecanska she knows exactly where to refer us.”

Zvecanska is in the process of transforming from a residential institution to a family support centre with resources which will help families to stay together. And Bojana is optimistic that the Family Outreach Workers programme will play an important part in achieving that aim.

Zoran insists that he never would have considered putting his children into residential care. And looking at the affectionate relationship he has with David and Aleksandra it is hard to imagine such a scenario. But he admits that caring for two children with disabilities is a considerable challenge.

Now thanks to Bojana's weekly visits, he should get better access to the resources he and his children need.