In a region of the world where children are too often separated from their families and institutionalized—and have been for decades—Jozef Mikloško has developed a “family first” model of child welfare that has the potential to radically reform state practices across Central and Eastern Europe. Jozef works to keep or reunite children with their families, encourage a culture of kinship and foster care, and bring about legal changes more favorable to families and healthy childhood development.
The New Idea
Throughout formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe, the dominant form of dealing with at-risk children continues to be state institutionalization. Jozef, who began as a volunteer within institutions for children, has developed a new model of childcare that shifts the deciding power about a child’s future from the state back to the family. Driven by the belief that a child’s best chance for a satisfying and productive life is to remain close to its immediate or extended family, Jozef’s model works to prevent child separation the first place, reunite children in institutions with their siblings and families, restructure the very nature of child institutions, and propose new laws and better implementation of current laws more favorable to children’s needs. Jozef’s idea is simple: If a family is struggling to take care of its child or children, the first intervention should always be with the family, to prevent the collapse of the family unit. The responsibility for charting the best course for a child’s life begins and should end with the family, and institutionalization should be a last resort after all other options are exhausted. Jozef has thus built a nation-wide coalition of family support centers—in partnership with social workers, state agencies, church leaders, pediatricians, family counselors, and others—to respond quickly to families in need and provide training and support to enable them to keep their children or reunite with lost children. By comprehensively working with public officials and state mechanisms that deal with institutionalized children and their families, Jozef is introducing reforms that can be adopted across Central and Eastern Europe. His eight regional family centers provide assistance to thousands of parents and families in Slovakia. Jozef’s work as a champion of children’s rights has led to more than forty changes in legal administration regarding child institutionalization and foster care. Most recently he has introduced his family-centered model in Ukraine.
The prevailing model of dealing with at-risk children in post-communist countries remains quick and forceful state intervention with families that are deemed “unfit” to raise their own children. Though the state waxes poetic about the value of families, it does not hesitate to remove children from their families and community networks at the first signs of crisis and place them in state-run institutions. In this way, rather than working with families to prevent crises, state agencies across Central Europe continue to act against the best interests of children.
Children who grow up in such institutions are more likely to develop a range of behavioral, psychological, and substance addiction problems. Children leave the institutions at 18-years-old without the self-confidence and life-skills they need to thrive. They especially have difficulty trusting others and developing close social bonds: Studies estimate that 80 percent of children who have spent more than a year in state care have significant problems developing personal relationships, establishing families, and becoming successful parents.
In Slovakia, even 18 years after the political change, there remain 6,000 children institutionalized in state care homes. In neighboring Czech Republic the number is closer to 30,000. Like in much of Eastern and Central Europe, the vast majority of these children are not orphans, but are institutionalized for reasons of poverty or family breakdown. A disproportionate number are from Roma communities. And while the system is gradually changing, with fewer children placed in institutions each year, institutionalization remains the dominant paradigm. Little effort is made to reconnect institutionalized children with their immediate or extended families, and similarly little is done to work with families and prevent child separation. Foster parenting is on the rise but remains inadequate to deal with the numbers of children in state homes. A change in mentality is needed among state agencies, lawmakers, and social welfare administrators, who are only beginning to realize the long-term harmful effects of institutionalization. Most importantly, families need community support services to prevent their children from being taken away and truly put the best interests of children first.
Jozef began his work in this field while still a university student when he volunteered at a local child institution to spend time with children. Fifteen years ago he started “Smile as a Gift” to encourage others to volunteer as “big brothers” and “big sisters” and help improve the lives of children isolated from their families. Jozef quickly realized, however, that working with individual children—taking them outside the institution for a day only to have them return there at night—was not solving the problem. Rather, it was bandaging the deeper issue of a lingering culture of child institutionalization. He thus reformed the mission of his organization and shifted its focus to preventing children’s initial removal from their families. Today Jozef works on three levels: First, to give families support so they can better care for their children, second, to provide alternatives to institutionalization like extended family care or foster care, and finally, to bring about policy and administrative changes to reduce and improve current child institutions, and ensure that healthy childhood development is always the first priority.
Jozef’s growing national network of family support centers is a vital part of his strategy to shift power from state institutions back to families. The philosophy of the centers is to prevent collapse of the family system that often leads to institutionalization. An array of services—many of them provided pro bono by professional social workers, church leaders, pediatricians, and counselors—are available both to parents and extended family members willing to take responsibility for a child. Each center begins by analyzing a particular situation through a group conference and then develops a course of action. During the conferences, families are asked what their perception of the problem is, and what their needs are. In each case, families must be fully on board with any proposed solutions. The group conferences reveal intricacies of a problem often overlooked by judges or welfare agents who are too quick to take a child away. For example, a low-income family having trouble providing for its children may not need more income but rather guidance to manage their money more effectively.
Once the center identifies a problem and reaches consensus with the family about a solution, professionals and volunteers work with families on everything from crisis resolution to parental education to financial planning. The timing of intervention is key: If families receive help before a problem becomes a crisis, the chance of working through a solution that enables them to keep their children is high. Alternatively, if a family has had a child taken away and wants to get its child back, the first few months are likewise the most critical. It is during this period that the emotional attachment is at its highest and families are most willing to work on a solution. Reuniting children with their families—what Jozef calls family “restoration”—can sometimes take up to two years of working with parents and state agencies. Jozef’s centers actively reach out to families whose members have been in institutions, or to families who have already lost a child to an institution because they are high risk. Many of them are Roma families. This focus on prevention and restoration distinguishes Jozef’s work from any other organization in the region. The State government has recognized as much, providing Jozef’s family centers with official accreditation in 2005 in the field of childcare, and outsourcing various tasks like parental education or foster care vetting.
The role of the extended family is also critical in Jozef’s strategy. Preventing institutionalization often means relying on a network of people outside a child’s immediate family—this includes aunts, grandparents, cousins, and also schoolteachers, youth leaders, and sports coaches. Jozef’s family centers try to pull in extended family during group discussions because they represent the best option for temporary caregivers while the immediate family resolves its problems. Extended family is often a good choice for foster care as well, because adjustment for a child is easier with relatives already within the family nucleus. Jozef has worked hard over the years to encourage foster care in Slovakia through a variety of publicity and marketing campaigns. One in particular that has become nationally recognized shows a child walking hand-in-hand with two dark silhouettes of parents, and the caption reads, “Every child deserves a family.” Of course, finding and training the right foster family is critical. Jozef founded the Pride Program to set a standard for vetting foster parents over a 6-month period—much longer and more intensive than current programs. Following preliminary interviews, families interested in adopting a child participate in 27 hours of learning and evaluation sessions, including some in the candidates’ homes.
By working with families, extended families, and by encouraging foster care, Jozef and his team are reducing the number of children in institutions across Slovakia. But many thousand remain in institutions, and new children with no alternatives are still sent there each year. Jozef thus works on a third strategy to reform the nature of these institutions and also the mindsets of the state agents and administrators who make decisions about children’s futures. For example, he is working to reduce the size of child institutions to ten children maximum so they more closely resemble a home environment, and has lobbied with recent success to prevent the separation of siblings who are institutionalized or placed in foster care. Jozef builds awareness of those within management and operations of state organizations responsible for child welfare. Government workers—and also judges—learn about the more positive alternatives to institutionalization and about the Smile as a Gift centers that can help children stay with families.
In short, Jozef describes his new model of child welfare as a “family first” approach. If a child is in a vulnerable situation, the sequence should always be (1) work to make sure the child remains with his/her natural family, (2) keep the child looked after within the context of the extended family, (3) find a well-vetted foster home, or (4) as a last resort only, institutionalize the child for as little time as possible in a smaller institution and immediately begin working to “restore” the family environment or find a foster family.
Jozef has opened eight fully staffed family centers across Slovakia. In 2007 the centers worked with more than 1,000 biological families and 400 foster families. Smile as a Gift helped 91 children leave institutions and rejoin their immediate or extended families. Also in 2007, 23 siblings were reunited as a result of his work. In the last five years, the number of professional consultants, staff, and volunteers involved with Smile as a Gift has grown from 16 to over 300. Both the number of children placed in institutions and their average residence time has declined steadily since 2001.
Going forward Jozef hopes to grow the support available to biological families, particularly in terms of education and prevention of family breakdown. He continues to lobby for legislative changes more favorable to children and families, and for the creation of a government association that deals with family matters with a philosophy of strengthening families rather than tearing them apart. In addition, he plans to widen the scope of Smile as a Gift’s work to include children and youth in correctional institutions. Since 2003, Jozef has also met with citizen organizations in the Czech Republic and Ukraine interested in adopting his model.
Jozef’s interest in the field of abandoned children and children’s rights has a long history. During his university studies he volunteered at a local children’s home where he became deeply familiar with the harmful effects that growing up without a family can have. After years of volunteering with institutionalized children Jozef became frustrated with the culture of institutionalization and the lack of support for struggling families. His decision to design a new family-centered model and push for reforms was strongly influenced by a question he was once posed by a three-year-old girl: “Tell me, what it is like to have a mom?”
Jozef is a medical doctor by profession. After receiving a PhD at the faculty of Health Service and Social Work at the University of Trnava in 2001, Jozef chose to apply his academic training in the civil society sector with Smile as a Gift. He has since restructured its mission and organizational structure in a way that better addresses the deeply rooted problem of child institutionalization. Since taking over leadership, Jozef has overseen the organizations growth and also developed its regional family center structure.
Jozef works with Smile as a Gift full-time and is committed to working in this area first in Slovakia, then internationally, until child institutions in their current form are a relic of the past. Jozef is married and has three children.