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Many Czech children end in institutional care over poverty-press

Prague, 26.6.2007 16:58, (CTK)

Czech social authorities often place children from low-income, often Romany families in institutional care in unnecessary cases instead of providing material and social aid to their parents who have ended up in financial difficulties, but want to look after their kids, the political weekly Respekt writes in its latest issue.

In some cases, even small babies have been sent to homes directly from a maternity hospital, though their mothers would rather need a proper social aid.

The weekly refers to rough estimates provided by NGOs monitoring such cases as exact official figures about the children taken from their biological families for poverty reasons are not available,

According to them, 8,000 children were sent to institutional care in the 10-million Czech Republic last year, which is hundreds of cases more than last year and the year before. This is the second highest figure in the EU, after Bulgaria, Respekt points out.
From the purely economic viewpoint, this social policy is also "very expensive" since the costs of a child in institutional care are between 200,000 and 300,000 crowns a year, while the necessary financial aid to a family in need would amount to some 70,000 crowns a year, including the subsistence level along with expenditure on education, the weekly says, referring to NGOs.

A targetted social aid would solve problems in a number of cases where the parents, though often unemployed, with a low education level and not well-versed in legislative and administrative issues, love their children and are willing to improve their social situation to be able to keep them.

The weekly cites the case of Barbora and Mirek Viola whose four- and three-year-old sons suffer from serious health troubles - allergy on dairy products and asthma. As the parents had no job and no convenient housing and the first son's health conditions deteriorated, the social authority concluded that they were not able to take care of they boy and he was taken from the family. His little brother was sent to a children's home right after the birth.

The desperate parents have been striving hard to get their sons back home since January, when they found a little flat where they could live together, but in vain. At present they can only see the sons in a children's home during official visiting hours and sometimes they may take them home, but never both together. The kids are not allowed to stay with their biological parents overnight either, Respekt writes.

The social system apparently failed in this case. Instead of the radical solution harming both the parents and children, social workers should have cooperated with NGOs to help provide a provisional housing for the family and explain to the uneducated parents how to look after the allergic children, Hane Zurovcova from the NGO Hnizdo (Nest) told the weekly.

Respekt writes that clerks from Czech social authorities mostly do not work with a family in need at first as they are often in charge of too many cases and have no time, and sometimes even no will, to take an individual approach to the parents.

If a suspicion of a wilful neglect surfaces, the clerks without hesitation decide to place children to an institution instead of trying to solve often only temporary problems of the biological family.

A more systemic solution to the problem is also prevented by the fact that the family agenda is split among local authorities that supervise social workers and three ministries - of health, education and of labour and social affairs, Respekt says.

Moreover, the poor parents are often frightened and do not know where to seek help and how to defend themselves. Their case is then assessed on the basis of official documents submitted by the social authority and courts often decide upon their recommendation.

One of the few Czech NGOs that offer help to parents who want to "win" their children back is Hnizdo, headed by Zurovcova.
She recalls in Respekt that the impulse to set up her organisation was a shocking case of the Sivak family from Ostrava, north Moravia, whose all children gradually ended up in homes unnecessarily.

The authority reacted first to the behaviour problems of their older son who started to skip school, which "disqualified the parents in the clerks' eyes" so they started to take all children in their pre-school age from the family, including their newborn daughter who was sent to institutional care directly from a maternity hospital.

Zurovcova told the weekly that with the aid of her organisation, the little girl returned to her parents after five months, and the Sivaks also succeeded in the "fight" for their youngest son. However, the second son is still in a children's home and his older brother is on the run.

Thanks to the NGO, the Sivaks are now living a "normal family life," Respekt adds.

"During the time we were providing help to the Sivaks, we realised that this is no rare case and we started to prepare a project. At first we helped some 27 families, now is up to 120 families, two-thirds of which are Romanies," Zurovcova told Respekt.

To take children from their biological parents should be an extreme solution under law, yet in the Czech Republic it has become the quickest solution due to a inefficient mechanism, the absence of social housing, a low number of social workers and insufficient information about NGOs that could help in such cases, Zurovcova said.

"Institutional care can cover children's material needs, but it will at the same time completely break up the family bonds," she stressed.

Nevertheless, it seems that these problems have at least attracted attention thanks to people like Zurovcova, and the Czech Labour and Social Affairs Ministry has started to seek solutions.

The ministry admits that a comprehensive programme for deprived families in need is lacking, Kristyna Kotalova, head of the children's social and legal protection section at the ministry, told Respekt.

Labour and Social Affairs Minister Petr Necas (senior ruling Civic Democrats, ODS) therefore wants to establish the National Office for Employment and Social Administration that would also coordinate the work of social workers. The government could thereby influence their number and train new ones if need be.

The ministry also intends to introduce the method of "conference on the case," that is to organise meetings of parents, NGO experts and social authorities to agree on an individual plan of help to a particular family.

"The most important step is probably to unite the agenda under one ministry from which it would be controlled and monitored consistently," the weekly quotes Petr Bittner from the Human Rights League as saying.

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