Institutional care should only be used as a last resort, says the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child report in Serbia


On 3 February 2017, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published its verdict on the state of children’s rights in the Republic of Serbia. In the concluding observations regarding implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the Government of the Republic of Serbia, the Committee commented on the progress achieved since the last reporting period, but also noted that some recommendations from 2008 have not been fully implemented.

While the Committee welcomed the progress made through the State party’s deinstitutionalisation process in considerably reducing the number of children living in institutional care and increasing the number of children entering family based care, it remained concerned that:

  • (a) The number of children placed in formal care is still significant, including children up to 3 years, with the risk of family separation and institutionalisation remaining high for children from the most disadvantaged groups including Roma children and children with disabilities; CRC/C/SRB/CO/2-3 10
  • (b) Despite provisions outlined in the 2011 Social Welfare Law that limit the number of children per residential institution to 50, reports suggest that five large scale institutions continue to lodge significantly more children;
  • (c) Children with disabilities continue to be significantly over-represented in residential care;
  • (d) Living conditions in large scale institutions for children with disabilities are inadequate with children reportedly suffering from segregation, neglect, limited privacy, exclusion from education and play, and subjected to the use of potentially inappropriate medical treatment and failure to provide information about or seek consent for such treatment;
  • (e) Insufficient support and inadequate training for social workers along with gaps in the child protection system, has led to the separation of children from their families without proper assessment and planning with the risk of re-institutionalisation remaining high; and
  • (f) Support for reintegration into society of children and young people leaving institutional and alternative care, including those with disabilities, is insufficient.

Drawing the Serbian government’s attention to the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, the Committee emphasised that financial and material poverty — or conditions directly and uniquely attributable to such poverty — should never be the sole justification for removing a child from parental care, for placing a child in alternative care or for preventing a child’s social reintegration. In this regard, the Committee recommended that the State party:

  1. Urgently reduce placement of children under the age of 3 years in residential care institutions, including those with disabilities, and expedite the placement in family-based care; and ensure adequate safeguards and clear criteria, particularly for Roma children and children with disabilities, based on the needs as well as the best interests of the child, for determining whether a child should be placed in alternative care
  2. Implement the provisions outlined in the 2011 Social Welfare Law that limits the number of children per residential institution to 50;
  3. Implement measures to reduce the numbers of children in large scale institutions for children with disabilities; and ensure that institutionalisation is used only as a last resort, including by providing information to expectant parents and healthcare workers who advise new parents, on the rights and dignity of children with disabilities;
  4. Take immediate steps to ensure that the Rulebook on Prohibited Practices of the Employees in Social Protection is enforced so that children in institutions are free from all physical or psychological abuse and neglect and hold those responsible to account for such abuse or neglect; prohibit the use of seclusion, physical restraints, and isolation as a means of discipline; and ensure that the best interests of the child are respected when deciding on necessary and appropriate medical treatment and that the views of children are heard and taken into account;
  5. Ensure adequate legal safeguards and clear criteria for determining whether a child should be placed in alternative care, taking into consideration the views and best interests of the child, and enforce such criteria by raising awareness of family court judges;
  6. Strengthen support to children and young people leaving care, including those with disabilities, to enable them to reintegrate into society, by providing access to adequate housing, legal, health and social services, as well as educational and vocational training opportunities; and
  7. Raise awareness in society to counter the stigmatisation and discrimination of children in alternative care.

Other recommendations included:

  • Harmonisation of legislation with the Convention’s provisions and principles, which would include the adoption of a comprehensive legal instrument devoted to children’s rights and the adoption of the legal definition of the term “child”, in compliance with the Article 1 of the Convention;
  • Adoption of a new policy framework, which will replace the National Plan of Action for Children, expired in 2015, and provide adequate resources for its implementation;
  • Ensuring full inclusion of asylum-seeking and refugee unaccompanied or separated children into the existing child protection system in Serbia; provision of accommodation in foster families or other accommodation facilities adequate for their age, gender and in line with best interest assessments conducted on an individual basis; and establishment of the specialised services for children with emotional, psychiatric and behavioural problems.

Opening  Doors National Coordinator’s notes on concluding observations of the the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Serbia:

According to the official statistics, the number of children in institutional care in Serbia is constantly decreasing. However, the number of children entering alternative care continues to increase (including the number of children entering foster care). As of May 2016, there were 670 children living in institutions. The latest data presented by the Serbian delegation at the public hearing of the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva on 24 January 2017 shows that the number of children in foster care is 7050, out of whom 444 are the children with disabilities. The number of foster families providing care for children with disabilities is insufficient in Serbia.

“When it comes to the situation with “reducing” the number of children in institutions, we should be cautious,” says Danka Đukić, Program Coordinator of MODS (Mreža organizacija za decu Srbije), Opening Doors national coordinator in Serbia. “We don’t have information where those children go, and a lot of these children remain in institutions, while their number is “reduced”. They continue to live in institutions, even in the same pavilions, once they officially stop being children.  This potentially distorts the real picture,” she says. “Institutions are not properly equipped, the number of children often exceeds accommodation capacity of 50 children, a “mix” of children and adults living in the same facilities present another great challenge. These factors should be particularly considered during the process of deinstitutionalisation in Serbia.”

According to the Law on Social Protection, institutional placements of children under the age of 3 are prohibited in Serbia. Young children can only be placed in institutional care in the exceptional cases, after the verdict of relevant ministry. However, children still enter institutional care, although in smaller numbers compared to previous years.

To reduce the number of children entering care and to prevent separation of children from their families, a wide range of family support services in the communities are needed from the very beginning, before the birth of the child, in order to strengthen parental capacities of the families. Prevention programmes like schools for expectant mothers or parenting classes should be widely available to the population in all parts of Serbia. Comprehensive support to children and their families can be also provided through better intersectoral cooperation with the healthcare system considering the fact that families usually have first contact with healthcare professionals, for example in maternity wards. A significant development of social care services for children with disabilities is required to address the needs of these children. For this, Serbia has already planned the establishment of the family support centres in 4 cities. They will be based on the premises of the existing institutions and will provide support to the families and children.

Other important direction in preventing violation of children’s rights and ensuring sustainability of community-based  services is implementation of a comprehensive approach towards transformation of  residential institutions and their capacity. This includes re-profiling of the residential care settings to a smaller, more home-like family settings (i.e. small group homes); making support available to all children at risk of separation and their families; reducing the time that children spend in institutions and strengthening capacity of the institutions to provide intensive and specialised support to children with disabilities and their families.

Recently in Serbia, two working groups have been established: a working group on the transformation of residential institutions and a working group to develop regulations for the intensive family support services. The latter services are aimed at strengthening families, preventing separation of children with their families and to support the process of reintegration. So far, only one service providing support to families with multiple and complex needs and disabilities and those who are at risk of separation was piloted by the system  during September 2013 and June 2016.  It demonstrated many positive results towards prevention of family breakdowns  and protection of vulnerable children.

Find more information about the Opening Doors National Coordinator in Serbia here.