The Czech government’s Human Rights Council is to ask legislators to pass new laws preventing children younger than seven from ending up in institutionalized care. Instead, at risk or unwanted children will be placed in family or foster homes, with institutionalization only occurring as a last resort.
The Czech government may finally be set to reform a system which has been the target of criticism at both home and abroad. It is one in which presently large numbers of young children live in institutional care – or “children’s homes” as they are called in Czech. According to Tomáš Valenta, head of the Czech Dítě a Rodina, or Family and Child NGO, the Czech Republic is the last country in Europe permitting children up to three to be placed in such care. I asked him to explain the significance of the current reform efforts:
“Back in 2012, the former government approved a strategy for the care of at risk children. This was intended to ban children up to three from being sent to institutions by 2014, and children up to seven by 2016. Sadly this was not approved, and as discussions continue young children continue to be sent to institutions.”
Jiří Dienstbier, minister for equal opportunities and human rights, and chairman of the the 21-member Human Rights Council, told Czech Radio that the package under discussion is intended to improve social services for all at risk children, as well as better regulating children’s homes in the unavoidable event that particular children are sent there.
“The Council unanimously agreed with the reform proposals. This included members of the three affected ministries, namely Education, Health, and Labour and Social Affairs, who will be responsible for operating the unified system. As far as placing into care children aged up to seven-years-old, the Council heard expert testimony and studies which suggested that such institutionalization has a negative effect on a child’s development, including social skills. And so it is always better for a child to have as close an approximation to a real family as possible.”
Dienstbier also explained that the final law passed by the government would likely be phased-in over six years, gradually raising the age at which children are prohibited from being placed into institutional care. He added that under exceptional circumstances the option of sending a child of seven or under into care would still be available as a last resort:
“Of course, the primary interest is to enable a child to remain in its natural environment, meaning with its biological family. Any other option should only occur very rarely, and so that it why reform of all-round social services comprises a crucial part of the overall solution.”
The Human Rights Council proposals are expected to be taken up by the cabinet early in the New Year, with the wording of concrete legislation ready by November 2016.