Care reform in Croatia: bridge funding with expertise, say campaigners

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To continue progress with deinstitutionalisation, Croatia must bridge further EU investments and broader engagement with civil society, say representatives of the Opening Doors, a pan-European campaign that aims to strengthen families and end institutional care for children. 

On 11 June 2018, National Coordinator of the Opening Doors campaign in Croatia Ljiljana Ban and Campaign Coordinator Katerina Nanou participated in the roundtable discussions “Deinstitutionalization of Social Care in Croatia”. The event was organised by the European Commission and the World Bank, in cooperation with the Ministry of Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy. It brought together national decision-makers, practitioners and advocacy organisations at the national level as well as professionals from Slovenia and Romania to take stock of progress with deinstitutionalisation reforms and discuss the next steps.

As a member of the European Union, Croatia has been identified by the European Commission as one of the 12 countries with a need for deinstitutionalisation reforms. Although the Government has recognised the importance of deinstitutionalisation and started transformation of the care system in 2006, the transition from institutional to family- and community- based care shows slow signs of progress. Main challenges include inconsistent political will to transform the care system fully and transparently, lack of know-how at administrative and professional levels, combined with prejudices against foster care and the inefficient use of EU funding to support DI reforms.

Speaking at the joint roundtable event, Marija Pletikosa, State Secretary from the Ministry for Demography, Family, Youth and Social Policy updated on the national efforts towards deinstitutionalisation in Croatia. She specified that the current Operational Plan for deinstitutionalisation of children and adults includes transformation of 32 homes – 18 for children and adults with disabilities and 14 for children without adequate parental care and children with behavioural problems (7 for the first group and 7 for the second category of children). Ms Pletikosa mentioned that between 2014 and 2016, the Government of Croatia planned deinstitutionalisation of 1,043 people, including 653 children and adults with disabilities and 390 children without adequate parental care and children and young people with behavioural problems. From 2013 until today, 689 persons with disability and 1,491 children have been transferred into family and community-based care (66% of the planned targets). Out of 32 institutions, 29 are in the process of transformation– 15 homes for persons with disability and all 14 homes for children and youth.

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During the meeting, State Secretary also announced that the new foster care legislation will be adopted by the end of the year. The new legislation will make foster care professionalized and foster parents in Croatia will start receiving wages. The new Act on Social Welfare will be adopted in 2019 and the new Family Act that will support child adoption will be adopted in July.

Another important commitment announced by the Government of Croatia at the meeting was the adoption of the new Action Plan on deinstitutionalisation planned for July 2018. It will follow up the Master Plan on deinstitutionalisation completed in 2016 and extended until 2018. The new Action Plan will include continuity of the care reform such as inclusion of homes that were not included in the first Operational plan, development of community-based social services and preventing new placements in the institutions in Croatia.

Until 2018, the Master Plan has not seen any significant progress due to the lack of sufficient funding allocated for the implementation of its deliverables and full engagement and commitment from the state. In 2017, Croatia received approximately 95 million Euro from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in order to proceed with the transformation of its infrastructure. Reforms for children and youth will be funded with approximately 15-17.6 million Euro (16%-19% of overall allocations). Additionally, 14-16.5 million Euro from the European Social Fund (ESF) will become available for children’s deinstitutionalisation (out of total 47 million Euro ESF investments).

In May 2017, five calls for proposals financed by the European Social Fund were launched to support deinstitutionalisation and strengthening of families in Croatia, in line with the Master Plan 2011-2018. This includes support to the DI process and transformation of 18 state institutions into homes for adults and children with disabilities; prevention of institutionalisation of children and youth for 14 state institutions; social inclusion and employment of marginalised groups of people, and expansion of the social services network in the community. Four out of five calls for proposals have already started being implemented. Call relating to the expansion of the social services has been extended twice and will be closed in June 2018.

With regard to ERDF, NGOs that participated in the meeting mentioned that they do not receive any support from the government regarding their application for funding under the ESF or ERDF calls for proposal. They mentioned that there is an issue of a survival and that even though they want to support the government with DI reforms, they cannot engage meaningfully due to administative burden.

One of the main suggestions from civil society representatives at the meeting was to make evaluation of the reform process so far and, based on the results of evaluation, develop a new plan. One of the main problems indicated was fragmentation and inconsistency of the state management regarding the process of deinstitutionalisation, together with fragmentation of services.

The Opening Doors for Europe’s Children welcomes the renewed commitment of the Government towards child care and child protection reforms in Croatia. Specifically, it is important to see that all existing 14 institutions for children and young people are now in the process of transformation. Up to the end of 2017, it remained of worry for the campaign that children under the age of three were still getting institutionalised instead of being directly placed in family-based care solutions. Furthermore, we welcome the fact that over the past two years, the number of children living in institutional care in Croatia has decreased by 50.7%  from 2,873 at the end of 2015 to 1,459 in 2017.

We are calling the Government of Croatia to:

Bridge the engagement of civil society and the use of EU funding as the next steps in deinstitutionalisation process:

  • Engage civil society in the development of the upcoming Action Plan which will be a follow-up to the Master Plan 2014-2018;
  • Ensure that the updated Action Plan is in line with the UNCRC, the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, the UNCRPD and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights;
  • Engage civil society in the work of the Monitoring Committees of the Operational Program related to deinstitutionalization reforms, according to the European Code of Conduct on Partnership. Civil society should be meaningfully involved during implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the EU funded programmes;
  • Provide ongoing technical assistance to the NGOs that are willing to submit proposals for projects related to deinstitutionalisation;
  • Ensure that the EU funds are ring-fenced by national budget in order to secure sustainability of the projects after the end of the EU funding period.

Specifically for children’s deinstitutionalisation:

  • Ensure that the transition from institutional to family and community-based care takes into account the best interests of the child and that for each child individualized support is provided. Quality in the alternative care system is a key.
  • Ensure that support for children does not end when they turn 18 or finish school but continues as long as it is needed according to their individualized plans.
  • Ensure that children always participate in decisions affecting their lives.