Interview with Czech psychologist: Children's homes no substitute for parental love
"I decided that instead of attempting to rescue 100 children at once, I would take one, two or three to be my own," Martina Vančáková told herself while still a student - and she and her husband today do actually care as foster parents for two Romani siblings in addition to their own two biological children. News server Romea.cz interviewed Vančáková, the psychologist who founded the "Our Romani Child" project at the Foster Care Center in Prague, about what children living in children's homes undergo, how to support the healthy identity of Romani children in a non-Romani foster family, and how to work with one's own prejudices.
Q: You provide foster care for two Romani children. How did you basically come to your work and to foster care?
A: I lived next to a children's home for part of my own childhood. Already when I was at primary school I wondered about it and I used to go look through the fence - there was a garden and a playground there. I wanted to play with the children I saw there and I was attracted by the fact that they behaved differently than what I was used to from my younger sisters or other children. Some of them immediately came up to the fence and one could see they were thirsty for some sort of contact - others were aimlessly swaying around somewhere in a corner despite the fact that they had a nice playground and plenty of toys. When I finished primary school I wanted to go to a secondary school for pedagogues to become a governess so I could be with them on the other side of that fence.
Q: Ultimately you made a different decision, though.
A: My parents fortunately talked me out of that kind of secondary education, and as a governess I would have been absolutely burned out by the work at that time, because in institutional care it is not possible to give the children what they need. Instead I went to a college preparatory secondary school and then I studied psychology. I ascertained that a children's home is not a place I might want to work and I decided that instead of attempting to rescue 100 children at once, I would take one, two or three to be my own.
Q: The relationship between a child and one other specific person, even if it is a foster parent, is absolutely essential for a child's psyche to develop as it should. Did you and your partner agree on that?
A: I introduced him to that idea at the end of my college studies - while he still had time to run away. He didn't run away, though. It wasn't an absolutely foreign idea to him, because at that time someone in his extended family had adopted two Romani girls. A partner who shares this vision is basically a necessary condition for success. There are stories of one partner convincing the other one to become a foster parent, but that means the other partner lacks a personal motivation, and most of those situations don't end well. Caring for children, especially those who have experienced a complicated life story and trauma, is actually quite demanding. If the partners don't back each other up, then this can break them up. My minor was in Romani studies with Dr Hübschmannová, so it was somehow logical that if I were to take in children they would be Romani. We basically never thought of it in any other terms.
Q: Why is foster family care better than a childhood in a children's home for a child who cannot grow up in his or her own biological family?
A: A children's home is an absolutely unnatural environment, especially for small children. Despite all the care they receive, despite that care being high-quality, despite the fact that the employees attempt to give the children the best they have to offer, that can never replace a family.
A: It's an absolutely different model. In recent years institutions have approximated a family model, small family groups are now created of seven to nine children, it's not 20 children per unit anymore. Basically, however, what is missing there are two adults, or at least one adult, whose total interest is in one individual child, and who creates a persistent, uninterrupted relationship with the child and plans a future with them that has no time limitations. Alternating caregivers logically cannot do this, the tie with them cannot be the same as it is with biological parents, or adoptive parents, or long-term foster parents. The children naturally perceive this.
Q: Recently you said at a seminar that children without parents also lack proximal intimates and they won't necessarily be able to create a healthy relationship with themselves and those around them later on. What basically happens at that early age in the psyche of the child?
A: When very young children are between three and six years of age the psychological background is being created for whether they will or will not be able later in life to live a full emotional life and create quality interpersonal relationships. A nursing child needs one stable mother figure who does enough of a good job caring for that child and who loves that child. The relationship of a child to one specific person, even if that person is a foster parent, is absolutely essential for the child's psyche to develop as it should. Today it has been proven, through experience and research, that from the developmental and emotional standpoints it is essential for a child to experience what is called emotional attachment during that time. A case in which that relationship is temporary (for example, in foster care for a temporary amount of time) is better than if such a relationship is never created and the child spends that critical time in institutional care, where the child will not be cared for by one person, but by nurses who are constantly alternating such that a firm emotional tie cannot be forged.
Q: I have encountered the fact that the consequences stemming from the absence of close emotional ties among those raised in institutions - by which I mean, for example, criminal behavior, drug use, problems at puberty, truancy - very often are attributed exclusively to Romani children. Isn't it the case, though, that these are problems that can affect all children who do not grow up in a functional family but spend some time in a "kid's home"?
The artistic work of children inspired by Romani artist Rudolf Dzurko during a summer camp at the Foster Care Center
Q: What would you advise someone who is thinking about becoming a foster parent to a Romani child, based on your own personal experience?
A: Certainly the person must count on attracting attention in many places, because in this country we are not much accustomed to any kind of difference.
Q: What do you have in mind concretely?
A: Sometimes you will be stopped, for example, by people on the street, or the security guard at Tesco will come up and search all of your shopping, stuff like that. You must be prepared for that. What I think is the most important for the child is that you are able to accept the child exactly as he or she is and deal with your own eventual prejudices. This society is so terribly rife with prejudices, especially against Romani people, that practically none of us can avoid them. You must know which ones are "yours". You must acknowledge them so you can then deal with them rationally and not let them drive your behavior.
Q: I presume that if a person decides to take in a Romani child then that person will have far fewer prejudices - or at least I'd think that of myself.
A: I'll give you an example. Children around four to six years old are developmentally in a phase where they do already grasp that one is not supposed to take something that is someone else's. However, sometimes they are so tempted that they can't control themselves, and they take a toy home from nursery school, or they take a friend's lollipop - and that's a normal developmental phase. When your biological child does that, you say to him "Hey you, we don't do that, we have to return it" and you don't think any more about it. However, if you still harbor some conviction, some deep prejudice, and your adopted Romani child does this, then what goes through your head is "Jesus Christ, there it is... he's only five and he's already stealing!" That's the difference, acknowledging those internally rooted prejudices that can also affect us as parents.
Q: How can we attempt to become aware of these prejudices that are so deep and of which we are unaware?
A: It greatly helps to talk with someone who already has some experience or who somehow works with these issues. It can be a professional, for example, a psychologist who is active in this area, or perhaps another foster parent. What would absolutely be the best would be if you have the opportunity to talk with ordinary Romani people, because they sure as hell have experienced everything in the world that can be attributed to them being blamed on them. Naturally it is very important for us to aid our children with accepting themselves as they are, including the Romani part of them.
Q: How does one do that, though?
A: We should facilitate a positive overview for the child of what is good about being Romani - which, given the current "massage" of public opinion on this issue by the media, by those prejudices we mentioned and even by pub-goers' gossip is very, very difficult. We simply don't acquire such positive information unless we take a direct interest in it. Because the majority society and the Roma live so very separately, we frequently don't even have common experiences such as living next door to a Romani family, being friends with them, communicating with them, or taking our children to the park together.
Q: How can we overcome this separation?
A: There is a need for us to begin to take more interest in Romani culture. We ourselves should find something Romani that we enjoy and that we can easily share with the children. Anyone who loves music can figure out what a broad range of Romani music there is - it's not just csárdás music, but also classical music, rap or Romani jazz. Someone else mkight take an interest in the fine arts, or love reading - we have Romani artists and Romani literature. This is best transmitted to children of preschool age - children are very perceptive at that age and not yet influenced by negative phenomena from their environments, like prejudices. When they are older and begin to receive a different framing from the adults, from the media, from their schoolmates, then it's good for them to already have that base, to know these other frames are untrue - it's not the case that all Romani people don't work, or are uneducated, or only live on welfare and have no future. In reality most Romani people live just like the majority do, it's just that Romani families are not as visible. Romani people work in common professions - they are laborers, police officers, sales clerks, teachers and university-educated people. It's important to aid our children with building a healthy self-awareness, including ethnic self-awareness, and to be prepared that we will have to help them somehow face these assaults and negativity.
Q: How important is contact with other Romani families?
A: Very. The child should have the opportunity to encounter adults or peers from his own community. The feeling might otherwise arise that the child is basically lost because he or she lives in a majority-society family and his or her schoolmates will probably also be from the majority, as will everyone on the street where the child resides. Children need to know other people who resemble them so they know they are not alone. Encounters with other families that have adopted Romani children are also important. The children need to see that they are also not alone in being different because they are growing up with different parents than the ones to whom they were born.
Q: One option for encountering such families is the summer camp you run with the Foster Care Center. What was this year's camp like?
A: I think it was a big success. We have organized summer camps for several years as part of the "Our Romani Child" project and we focus on supporting children's Romani identity in particular. I run this course together with the lecturer Petra Gelbart, an active musician and musicologist who is Romani herself, and who also, by the way, took two Romani children into her family. We get priceless support from Pavla Pokorná at the Foster Care Center - without her the camp wouldn't happen at all. This year we focused mainly on Romani fine arts - we attempted to work with crushed glass like Rudolf Dzurko [see above] or with spray-painting techniques like Ladislava Gažiová. Another guest was the Roma psychologist and therapist Andrea Tibenská. There are experiences that we, as majority-society parents, cannot help our adopted Romani children with because we don't know what it's like to be a priori rejected just on the basis of our appearance. Petra and our other Romani guests can discuss that with them. For the non-Romani parents, the guest instructors also provide a tangible model of someone who is Romani and who does not correspond to stereotypes, someone who is somehow interesting, a professional in his or her field.
Q: When we look at this the other way around, what line has to be crossed for a child to be taken away from his or her family of origin? How is that assessed, according to what criteria?
A: That question should basically never be asked that way at all - that's how we used to think. Social workers should not be addressing whether to leave children with their families or remove them, but should be asking themselves a different question: "What aid does the family need so the child can remain?" Before a court decides to remove a child, the social worker must demonstrate that he or she has exhausted all of the options for aiding the family. That is the correct new direction in social services, the biggest difference that was introduced by amendment in 2013. Naturally if a child has been abused, or if the parents are, for example, drug addicts who have no capacity to take care of the child and are just focused on their next fix, then if there is actually a risk to the children they of course need to permanently or temporarily leave the family. If, however, the family has problems that can be resolved, then cultivating that emotional relationship is more important to the child's welfare than, for example, the family's economic situation.
Foster care - where to go and what awaits you there
Those interested in adoptive or foster parenting can contact their local authority for an explanation of what kinds of care exist and what the differences are between them. Applications for becoming adoptive or foster parents are sent to the Regional Authority, which arranges for the preparatory education and psychological examination of the applicants, and which also addresses with the future foster parents how to accept a child into their family.
After being approved, the future adoptive or foster parents are then listed in a registry. However, it is not the case that a child is sought for the applicants - rather, what is sought for a particular child is an appropriate family, and the applicant waits to be chosen as an appropriate potential parent.
In adoption a child legally becomes family member just like any biological children. The adoptive parents are listed on the child's birth certificate and records of the biological parents remain in the registry.
Adopted children are able to see that registry once they are 18 years of age, but that does not mean that they should not find out they are adopted before then - on the contrary, the law tasks adoptive parents with the obligation of communicating this information to the child before he or she is of school age. "This is because the younger the child is, the easier it is for the child to accept such information as something normal and ordinary. Later in life it can be very traumatizing to hear you are not the biological child of the parents who raised you. Children can also find this out in very negative ways, for example, if parents say things like 'You're not ours, God only knows where you were born.' When a child learns this from the adoptive parents at an early age, though, it does not harm the child as much as when the child learns of this from someone else," Vančáková explains.
In fostering the child does not become the foster parents' child in a legal sense and contact between the child and his or her biological family is possible. These are usually the children of parents who are unable to care for them for some reason.
This can be temporary foster care, which lasts one year maximum, during which the foster parent must be prepared to take the child into his or her care at any time. This serves the purpose of sparing a child who must leave his or her biological parents from having to go to an institution.
Some of these children do then return to their families of origin. These are families that have resolved their situations in the meantime and who are able and willing to care further for the children.
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