Vera Bechynova helps children face difficult domestic situations by empowering families to address their own problems and preserve the family structure. Instead of placing needy children in sub-marginal orphanages or state institutions, she has developed an integrated social system to support families at risk.
The New Idea
Vera’s work with social centers for children at risk led her to the firm belief that young parents can take care of their children, despite the heavy stigma of poverty. She discovered that children are often taken away from young parents simply because they are presumed incompetent due to age. Her experience, however, suggests that the orphan life is detrimental to child development and that young parents are fully capable of supporting a family when given the proper assistance. Her main objective is to ensure that parents and children at risk are given the opportunity to carry on within the family structure. Her work enables troubled families to meet their children's needs, and even collaborate with state agencies, rather than battling the government and orphanage system just to keep them.
In the Czech Republic there is a glaring gap in the network of social services in terms of family support. According to a Czech journal, two thousand children are annually placed in foster care• institutions, most for reasons associated with their social development. However, the risks and consequences of psychological and emotional deprivation in children whose development has been disrupted by public interference in the family structure are widely known and undisputable. Moreover, the practice of institutionalizing children of young parents deemed unfit by arbitrary state convention is a dysfunctional remnant of Communist social ideology.
Vera’s program, STREP, is a system of social services, based in remediation of the impaired family environment. She works with families in their natural environment to eliminate problem situations that would ordinarily result in punitive or disciplinary measures imposed by the state, including surveillance and transplanting children in orphanages. Vera provides family support that rejects the notion of incompetence among young parents and reinforces families’ efforts to raise their children properly and successfully, without state intervention.
STREP’s marquee project, Give Chance a Chance, identifies parents in need even before their children are born. Vera works with maternity wards, pediatricians, obstetricians, and social workers to identify the immediate needs of the parents-to-be and develop a support program specific to their immediate and long-term needs. The major components of the project are as follows:
• Family Accompaniment identifies the families’ positive aspects and provides psychological services through a network linking governmental and grassroots agencies.• Direct Financial Support enables children in institutions to visit their families on the weekends and/ or to be visited in the orphanage by their parents.• Self-Help Groups promote parental skills by bringing young parents together during their leisure time, thus breaking from the isolated and stressful everyday routine.• Social Education Reinforcement aids large or migrant families that have problems coordinating their children's preparation for school.• Volunteer Program provides follow-up care to client families over the long term.• Education and Information Program is a public outreach to professionals in the social and academic sectors to increase awareness of the problems faced by young parents and engage potential proponents of the aid program in the early diagnosis of problems and construction of effective solutions.• Television Project produces a series, Time for Families, consisting of three programs covering family development and social support.• Legal Advocacy provides the momentum for changes in legislative standards, working with judges affecting Czech childcare policy and advisors from the Institute of Education.
Vera grew up in a small town outside of Prague and attended school with children who came from the neighboring orphanage. Her great-grandmother established a parish home for homeless mothers and her grandmother was locally famous for taking care of homeless people.
After finishing high school, Vera tried to study law in college, but was forbidden to become a lawyer by the Communist authorities. She studied social work and psychology instead, focusing on children and families. During the early 1990s, she worked as an assistant at the Institute of Medical Ethics. In 1994, she became director of the Protection of Human Rights Center, where she began to develop strategies for supporting young parents in the face of government intervention in their family unit.