Marek Rohácek is a young social worker and educator who has developed a comprehensive strategy to build alternative-family care for abandoned children in Slovakia.
The New Idea
Marek Rohácek is creating a process to return abandoned children who currently live in orphanages to family-based care. He is developing mechanisms necessary to improve the legal framework for adoption in order to facilitate secure permanent placement for children and eliminate bottlenecks in the existing system. He is working to change the predominant social prejudices against adoption and foster care in Slovakia, and he has constructed Slovakia's first support network for families who choose to adopt or foster children.Marek's work is rooted in a vision of the meaning of family. He believes that without the experience of family nurture, people cannot truly function as citizens because they will lack a sense of a common future. In his own words, his work to establish alternative families requires an exploration of "what family means for the legal system, economic development, social politics, the church and, above all, the general culture."
There are over 10,000 abandoned children in Slovakia living in government orphanages called Children's Homes. These institutions, suffering from a lack of funding and qualified staff, located in unsuitable buildings in isolated areas, can hardly meet more than the basic biological needs of the children who live in them. People who spend their childhood in the Children's Homes grow up without an experience of real love, safety, confidence, recognition, stimulation and hope for the future. As adults, they often fail to find their place in society, and they eventually have trouble filling the role of parent themselves.
Institutions typically classify children's "suitability" for adoption, and only a very small portion are ever placed in new homes: six percent of children under three years and less than one percent of children between three and eighteen years. Roma (Gypsy) children constitute about 65 percent and disabled children about 35 percent (these two groups overlap) of the Children's Homes population. Such children are among those routinely categorized as "unsuitable" for adoption-a violation of their human rights, and a heavy burden on Roma children; for this reason, among others, they have practically no chance to find new families.
Old social policy favors institutional care over the development of family-style placements. Although government institutions are formally obliged to support family forms of alternative care for abandoned children, in reality the case of such a child is considered resolved once he or she is placed in the Children's Home. Those who would like to adopt or foster children encounter enormous bureaucratic obstacles. The administrative process of adoption may take up to four years. Nongovernmental charitable organizations try to relieve the poor quality of life in Children's Homes, but they are unable to initiate the desperately needed systemic change.
The effectiveness of those legal possibilities that are available, however cumbersome, are undermined by negative social stereotypes about adoption and foster care. Many professionals are pessimistic about the success of alternative families. This attitude has worked to prevent children from escaping the institutional system and is all too often shared by the general public.
Potential alternative parents are discouraged by complicated administrative process and intolerance from their extended families and communities. Very often they have an unrealistic image of alternative family and their first contacts with reality can bring deep disillusionment. Proper information, advice and encouragement are critical, but nobody is able to provide it.
Marek has established a nongovernmental association, the Navrat (Return) Center in Bratislava. The Center has developed a comprehensive set of strategies that include supporting prospective and existing alternative families, providing help to families in crisis and transforming existing orphanages into family-based institutions by training social workers who work with abandoned children.
The Center searches for potential alternative parents through media campaigns, which have a double impact. Besides encouraging prospective applicants, it also increasespublic awareness and tolerance toward abandoned children, and Roma and disabled children in particular. The center provides those who come as potential parents with important help that they can not obtain anywhere else: a database of children who are legally available for adoption and foster care; organized "introduction camps," where children and prospective parents can come together; legal and psychological counseling for families considering adopting a child; and the opportunity to meet with "alternative" parents and ask them questions and learn about their experiences.
The Center also provides a wide range of services for "alternative" families once they have adopted a child. These services include support groups for alternative parents to share their experiences, support each other and relax together; psychological counseling that helps parents and children to overcome their adaptation crises and maintain healthy family relations and communication; and organized retreats for alternative families, many of whom cannot afford to take vacations or holidays without the help of the Center.
The Center is also working to change the government's system of care for abandoned children as well as other forms of institutionalized care and to better train professionals who work within the system. This work encompasses research and related legislative initiatives, discussions at professional forums and a collaborative project with the Ministry of Education and Science called "Orava: a Region Without Children's Homes." This pilot project will transform a government orphanage into a family-like environment; Ashoka Fellow Slavomir Krupa, who once was Marek's teacher, cooperates with him in this venture. The Center also holds training programs for professionals to help them better understand and address the needs of families in crisis.
Within one year of operation the Center has managed to gain recognition and respect from both the public and the government. A growing number of people considering adoption or foster care contact it, at the rate of one new applicant every day. In a six-month period, the center's staff of three facilitated the adoption of more children than the local district social department with dozens of employees. Foster Family clubs initiated by the Center have become a pattern replicated in other parts of the country. Such clubs are rare in Slovak society, and they provide powerful support for parents.
Marek first experienced alternative family care when his parents decided to foster an orphaned girl along with their own children. His foster sister's experience gave him a first-hand confirmation of the importance of family. As a social work student Marek worked in institutions for disabled children, which further confirmed his belief that family is irreplaceable for a child's healthy development.
Alternative family care became the focus of his studies, and he designed the Navrat Center as his thesis project. After graduating, some small initial funding allowed him to actually establish the Center. During his studies Marek met abandoned twins, whom he and his wife later took in for foster care. Personal experience has been a strong source of motivation for him.