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Children at risk in central and eastern Europe, Warns UNICEF

As the "green shoots of economic recovery" push upwards across Central Europe and parts of South Easterrn Europe and the Baltics the social crisis for vulnerable children remains unchecked, according to a report from the International third Development Center of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Go Between summarizes the findings of Children at Risk in Central and Eastern Europe: Perils and Promises.

The report warns about the plight of children in public care, as well as children at risk in families and the community. It also discusses ways of preventing risks, especially the potential role of family support policies.

Children at Risk in Public Core There are currently about one million children in public care across the 18 countries monitored in the report. Most of these children are living in largescale institutions, such as infant homes, orphanages, homes for the disabled and hospitals. Care in these institutions at the beginning of the economic and political transition period carried major risks for children, including high death rates, a downward spiral of disabilities, emotional harm, and the withering of family ties.

"With the exception of a very few countries in Central Europe," says the report "numerous difficulties-e.g. divided ministerial responsibilities, dwindling financial resources, uneven support for reforms-have inhibited any major improvements in institutional care or a shift to more humane placement options." And in some countries, such as Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, the public child protection system has virtually collapsed.

Children born during the recent transition years face a higher, rather than reduced risk, of entering public care. Since 1989, in ten out of the 14 countries of Central and Eastern Europe in which data are available, the rates of infants and toddlers living in institutional care have actually risen. In eight of the countries, the rates of children aged 0-3 years placed in infant homes have gone up substantially: between 35%-45% in Romania, Russia and Latvia, and by as much as 75% in Estonia. "The persistence of greater vulnerability far children and families in countries that have shown economic growth over the last few years is a clear warning that many types of childhood risk will riot vanish with economic recovery," says the report. It says only Hungary, despite its somewhat disappointing economic record, has been able to avoid higher institutionalization or fostering rates.

Children at Risk in Families and the Community

The increasing rates of children in public care is also an outcome-and thus a barometer-of the higher risks many children face in families and the community during the transition years. Many families with children have had to cope with a devastating deterioration in their material conditions. "Clearly the main-but not only-risk factors that have emerged most dramatically are poverty and social dislocations," says the report.

While in Central and South Eastern Europe unemployment and losses in family benefits have especially penalized families with children, in the countries of the former Soviet Union child poverty is increasingly associated with sky-rocketing wage inequality and increases in the number and share of single- parent households. Although most families find ways to manage with the increased hardships, coping strategies may heighten risks for children. In Poland, nearly one in ten 7-9 year olds were left without adult supervision for more than two hours per day in the mid-1990s, a several fold increase over the beginning of the decade. And some countries show evidence of growing child maltreatment, including use of child labour.

Children exposed to war, and those forced to leave their homes because of armed conflicts in the region, are among those most exposed to risk in the countries surveyed. Thousands of children have been killed and millions more have suffered severe hardship which has left many of them traumatized. For example in the beginning of 1996 in Georgia, although hostilities ended several years ago, there were 268,000 persons registered as refugees or internally displaced-one-third of them were below the age of 16. Of these almost 90,000 virtually homeless children, about i 700 had disabilities and nearly 8000 were homeless.

However, the main killer of parents over the transition period has not been war. "Rather," says the report, Nit has been the silent accumulation of factors like poor nutrition, alcoholism, smoking, stress in the workplace and at home, less safety in the streets, less protection from the cold and infectious diseases, and so on." In fact, crude mortality rates have increased in 15 of the 18 countries monitored in the report.

Other risks for children include higher family-breakdown ratios, increases in the proportion of births to unmarried mothers, and increased divorce rates. Health and education risks for children have also increased, since parents can no longer count on universal public health and education systems to screen and check for potential child health and educational problems with the same effectiveness and coverage as before. Drinking and smoking trends among young people have not improved, and the mortality rate among adolescents due to accidents, poisoning and violence has increased in many of the countries. The transition has also witnessed a marked growth in the incidence of infectious diseases, such as diphtheria and tuberculosis, commonly referred to as "diseases of poverty."

Preventing Risks

Reforms to family and child programmes can only be effective if more proactive support is made available. "This necessitates," says the report, "the development of a full new infrastructure of family support which has at its core flexible social services that can respond within a wide continuum of need for low- to high-intensity-care." However, professional social work and care personnel will not be enough. Social services need to develop in a coordinated way with the health, education and juvenile justice systems, and the "voice of the child" needs to be better heard in this process.

National and local governments must also forge new partnerships with each other, and with the voluntary and private sectors, in order to address threats of risks. "A fresh approach to social policies," concludes the report, "can achieve more than saving the children most at risk: it is an investment for the future of all the children who are to harvest the new shoots now breaking ground in the countries covered in this report."

Contact: Cincia lusco-Bruschi International Child Development Centre, UNICEF, Piazzo Santissima Annunziata 12,I-50122Florenre, Italy telephone +3955/234 5258, fax +3055/244817.