UN to Czech Republic: find alternatives to institutional care for children

Baby box

The Czech Republic has once again come under fire for failing to adequately protect child rights. In its latest report the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized the high number of institutionalized children in the country saying the authorities had done little to resolve this chronic problem. It also recommended that the country close its network of baby boxes –safe and anonymous hospital facilities for leaving unwanted children - which it claims violate several provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Baby box
With 22,000 children in institutionalized care in the country there can be little argument about whether the criticism of the Czech Republic is justified. While some of those children have had to be taken from abusive parents, 80 percent of them are put in institutions for social reasons. This is something the authorities are working to change. The Labour and Social Affairs Ministry is currently preparing an action plan that envisages re-directing funds for institutionalized care to helping families in need and supporting people who are willing to be foster parents. The plan should be launched in 2012 and it will not just be a question of redirecting millions of crowns – the present system is set up support the institution of children’s homes and there is a dire lack of social workers trained to help resolve the causes of child abandonment – by counseling families in need, providing consultation and social aid amid unwanted pregnancies and helping overcome family crises.

Presently out of every 10,000 newborn children, 62 children are placed in institutional care - a number way over the EU average which is under 10. Critics say parents who can’t cope are encouraged to give up their children rather than being helped to retain them. And some would argue that the country’s 44 baby boxes contribute to this trend – making it all too easy to give up a child on the spur of the moment. While the moral battle over baby boxes continues, Ludvík Hess, the man who founded the institution in the Czech Republic, argues that baby boxes save lives.

“Children in institutions are there because their biological parents have not enabled their adoption legally. Children put in baby boxes are placed there anonymously and they get adoptive parents in a very short space of time. The only right you could accuse us of violating is the child’s right to know who its parents are –but that alone we cannot guarantee and I think the right to life is more important that knowing who your parents are. Our baby boxes have already saved 50 children –many of whom might have been killed or died of hypothermia. So I would argue that since being set up in 2005 baby boxes have more than justified their existence.”

In cases where mothers have acted in desperation –and subsequently ask to get their babies back it is up to a court to decide whether they are capable of taking care of their child and would not put it at risk. This can be a painful and lengthy process which Ludvík Hess wants to avoid.

Photo: European Commission
“I am now in the process of setting up an asylum centre for mothers who are in need. I hope that very soon at every baby box there will be a notice in several languages saying –if you are planning to abandon your baby because you have nowhere to go, please call the following number. That is my cell phone which I answer 24 hours a day and I will be ready to pick up that mother and baby right away and provide accommodation.”

While it may take the authorities a year or two to change the workings of the system – Ludvík Hess is likely to make good on his offer much sooner. Child activists say that if there were more engaged people like him the country could tackle its problem with institutionalized children far more quickly and effectively.