In the Czech Republic an incredibly high number of children – over 20,000 – are living in institutional care. Very often they are from poor families, with an extremely high percentage coming from the country’s Roma minority. This serious and disturbing social issue is the focus of a new art exhibition in Prague.
Lenka Kukurová is the co-curator of a new exhibition in Prague entitled Rodinná Pohoda (or Family Happiness in English), which features the work of around two dozen artists. She says that while it is an art show, its aim is primarily social.
“The first idea was to draw attention to the problem of children who are taken from their families and placed into child care institutions. The second step was coming with the idea of organising an exhibition about it. To promote the problem, because nobody really knows how bad it is.”
At the launch of Family Happiness I spoke to Kumar Vishwanatan from the NGO that has put on the exhibition, Mutual Coexistence. He says more children are taken away from their families in the Czech Republic than anywhere else in Europe.
“There was a study by Professor Kevin Brown, he’s a British professor from the University of Birmingham, and he made a pan-European study which found out that in this country we have the highest percentage of children taken away into institutional care.
“Out of every 10,000 newborn children, 62 children are, unfortunately, placed in institutional care, while in Britain it’s just two.
“So it means that either children are more neglected in this country, or the system is not tuned properly to support families to retain their children. We think that here the system doesn’t help families to retain children when they face a crisis.”
“If they were mistreated at home, mistreated and tortured, OK, we can agree. But the statistics show that almost 80 percent of the children are taken away for social reasons. What is the definition of social here? It means, basically, housing.”
Vishwanatan says that as well as being unjust and cruel, the current system is a great drain of resources. It costs a quarter of a million crowns a year, he says, to keep one child in a state facility.
“On average a Czech child taken into care stays in the institution for ten years. So a lot of money is going into this system, which is immoral, wrong, damaging, expensive, etceteras, etceteras. So let’s try to change the system, let’s try to set our values at a slightly different angle.”
The kind of effect being put into care can have on a child is something familiar to Josef Kekeni, who is a Romany. He says his daughters, who are now five, were left marked by the experience.
“I was married for 21 years. I found a lover, with whom I had two children. She put them into a home, which was something I just couldn’t accept. I fought hard to get them released, with the help of various organisations, and after nearly two years they finally came home. After losing those two years they had a lot of problems: their speech was affected, they had fits, and they displayed little interest in their surroundings.”
Kumar Vishwanatan describes another family’s story.
“There was a little girl who was born…she was the first child born in the Moravian Silesian Region on January 1, Evička. The lord mayor and others gave the mother gifts…but the next day the child was taken away to institutional care. It is completely shocking.
“It was because a social worker came to the home and discovered that the family was not prepared for the child. Meaning that the family didn’t have a cot, they didn’t have meat in the refrigerator.
“The mother says, my child doesn’t need meat, my child doesn’t need a cot…So the child was taken away into institutional care and it took more than seven months of concerted effort by so many people, so many institutions, so many lawyers, to get this child, little Evička, back to her family.
“That showed us, that opened up the whole…wasp’s nest of problems, and we decided that we needed to create a team and go into it in a very systematic way.”
Was this girl a Romany child?
“Yes, this girl was a Romany child. Now there is a big problem between the expectations of the social worker and the expectations of the mother. The social workers would say, the Roma mothers do not care about their children. What do you mean by that? Well, they don’t send letters and gifts to their children in orphanages, in children’s homes.
“But on the other hand, the same mothers come to us and weep…so it’s completely two different perspectives.”
Do the attitudes of the social workers betray racism, or just a general cluelessness about Romany culture?
“I don’t think it’s racism. I think it’s…they’re not prepared for working in the field. They’re not prepared by education. There’s some kind of mindset that comes from the communist period.
“The Czech Republic has a very high percentage of children taken into care and not all of them are Roma children…I think the callousness of the social workers, and the mindset coming from communism, that the state will easily take care of these children, and no harm will be done to these children, and no harm will be done to these children if they lose the motherly and parental affection…that kind of approach is very endemic.”
As for what can be done to address the problem, Kumar Vishwanatan makes a number of suggestions. He says social workers should be better trained, communities should be encouraged to support members in trouble, and the problem should be dealt with by one government agency, not several ministries, as is the case today.
For his part, Social Affairs Minister Petr Nečas says steps will be taken to reduce the number of Czech children in institutions.
“We know it’s necessary for our country to transform this system. We have been working very efficiently to create a news system of care for these children. By the end of June we would like to have a special action plan for all public institutions to start a real transformation and to reduce the number of children who are now in institutional care.”
What do you think about the fact that an art exhibition is focussing attention on this problem?
“I must appreciate the role of non-governmental, non-profit organisations. It’s the future of this system to co-operate very closely with similar organisations and institutions.”
The exhibition Family Happiness is on at the Nostický Palace in Malá
Strana until May 10.
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