Czech Supreme Court: Poverty not a good enough reason to take children into state care
The Czech Supreme Court has issued a new unifying opinion stating that a family's poverty and poor housing circumstances cannot be the sole basis for removing children from the home and placing them in state care. Children may be removed and institutionalized only in cases where other measures, such as assistance provided by the authorities and municipalities, has not led to an improvement in the children's living conditions, or in cases where other serious reasons exist. It is also necessary to interview the children concerned and determine their opinions.
Supreme Court spokesperson Petr Knötig announced the opinion to the Czech Press Agency today. "A family's material deficiencies, especially poor housing conditions, cannot in and of themselves constitute a reason for ordering the institutional care of a child," reads the opinion, which was released to civil rights and commercial law committees.
According to data released last May, about 21 000 children live in institutions in the Czech Republic. Experts in children's rights claim that roughly one-third of those children end up in institutions unnecessarily, while another third of that population is kept in institutions longer than necessary. The Czech Republic is one of the EU countries with the highest numbers of children in institutional care.
Last year the Czech Constitutional Court also ruled against the unnecessary breakup of families in cases where it is not absolutely necessary. Constitutional Court judges say it is only possible to remove children from their families in serious cases of a total absence of care or in cases where the child is in immediate danger.
The aim of the Supreme Court opinion is to unify conflicting rulings by Czech courts in cases where children have been living in impoverished families and in conditions of poor housing or hygiene. "When courts decide to place a child in institutional care, it is necessary to document all of the serious facts justifying family breakup. A family's insufficient assets (particularly those of the parents) resulting primarily in inappropriate or insufficient housing conditions may never in and of itself be considered such a fact," Knötig said.
Courts must first determine whether the state authorities and local municipalities have offered sufficient assistance to the family and what the results of that assistance have been. A municipality can sometimes manage to arrange for substitute housing, including temporary shelter. The state can provide material aid or at least advice as to how the family can improve its situation and find a solution to its problems. "An offer to adequately resolve the housing situation can also be made by other entities besides a state body or municipal government, such as churches, non-governmental organizations, etc.," the opinion reads.
Prior to ordering institutional care, a court may order supervision of the parents' child-rearing or warn the parents they are at risk of losing their children unless the situation improves. The Supreme Court has also ruled that the child him or herself must be interviewed during the decision on institutionalization. This applies to children who have reached the age at which they are able to express their own opinions. The court also emphasized the need for such court verdicts to be carefully justified.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court mentioned many verdicts from various parts of the Czech Republic. It criticized the approach taken by the District Court in Klatovy, where judges in one case were satisfied with committee reports only and did not interview the children concerned, who were aged eight, 10 and 15. On the other hand, the Supreme Court agreed with the approach taken by the District Court in Ústí nad Labem, which interviewed a 14-year-old girl in one particular case. The girl, who had been institutionalized and then returned to her mother's care, testified that she wanted to return to the institutional facility.
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