"Our children are just like children anywhere" says the director of a children's home focused on family values.
Photo: Courtesy Úsmev ako dar
"I've had so many reporters come here and I have never had a good experience with them, not once. They all come looking for tragedy and tears, but that isn't the case here. Our children are just like children everywhere - they laugh, they tell lies, they hate school, they are funny, they imagine things."
At Detský Domov Bratislava, children of all ages up to 18 are raised in conditions that closely resemble those of traditional families. Divided into groups no bigger than eight, they have a male and a female guardian and two 'aunts'. Each family unit functions independently, making up its own rules and organising its own activities. Children are given chores and curfews, freedoms and responsibilities, praise and discipline.
"We can never be a substitute for a real family, but we do quite well," Mojtová continued, standing in one of the 'homes' - a newly remodelled apartment with a large kitchen, four double bedrooms, and a spacious living room with a TV and stereo. "It's a tragedy that these children don't have normal families. But we do our best to create an atmosphere that gives the children many of the benefits and stability of a family."
This approach to raising abandoned and orphaned children is called the Independent Family Style. Although only eight out of Slovakia's roughly 100 children's homes are run this way, social workers hope that all children's homes in Slovakia, most of which still lump children into one large group, will make the switch within five years.
Children who grow up in a family system, they say, are much better prepared for life on their own because they have basic skills and support structures that those from traditional children's homes lack.
"Where I lived, I cooked, did the laundry and helped take care of the younger children," said Andrea Benková, a bright and engaging 19 year-old university student who grew up in a children's home organised in a family style.
"The only thing I was inexperienced with when I left was shopping - I had no sense at first for how much things should cost. But I have known people from other children's homes who left and couldn't do basic things like laundry, iron their clothes, and get an ID card."
Benková added that she felt her years in a family atmosphere had also provided her with a strong sense of identity. "I have no problem expressing myself, exerting my opinions," she said.Self-confidence can be one of the biggest problems for children raised in conventional children's homes, who often feel lost in the outside world.
"Some kids [from children's homes] are so uncomfortable in the real world that they would rather not find a building than have to stop someone and ask for directions," said Eva Bodnárová, director of the non-profit organisation Úsmev ako dar (Smile as a Gift), which runs programmes for orphaned and abandoned children including summer camps, trips abroad, concerts and talent shows. Bodnárová added that Úsmev ako dar was more and more realising the importance of transforming all Slovak children's homes into the family system.
"Our organisation, and others like it, do a lot to try to help improve the lives of children in children's homes," she said. "But after all our programmes, the children always go back home, which is why we need to make institutional changes."
Making the transformation from children's homes to the family style will cost money, she acknowledges, but adds that under the current system the state is throwing away millions of crowns caring for orphaned and abandoned children in a way that leaves them completely unprepared for the real world.
"The state spends an average of two million crowns for a child in a children's home. But after turning 18, these children are ruined in six months because they don't know how to take care of themselves," she said
Ľudmila Grodovská, a journalist and volunteer at Úsmev ako dar, explained that these results were not only a detriment to the children themselves, but to all of society.
"A lot of children after leaving these homes end up mixing into bad communities," she said. "Many of the boys turn to stealing and the girls turn to prostitution, or marry and have kids at a very young age. Some of these girls don't know how to take care of the kids, so their kids are sent to children's homes and the cycle repeats."
Children raised in family type environments, on the other hand, aside from having more skills and more confidence, have support structures to fall back on during those difficult transitional years away from the home.
"If I need a place to sleep or something to eat, I can always go home," said Benková, who maintains close relationships with the people who raised her. "I never thought of it as a 'children's home'. It was always just a home."
Úsmev ako dar is currently working with the Slovak government to prepare legislation making the transition from dormitory to family style children's homes required by law.
"The law should be passed in 2002, but a lot of work needs to be done to meet our goal of seeing all homes being transformed by 2005," said Bodnárova. "We are now looking for money to train new employees and cover costs for construction and relocation. Our goal is to raise three to four million dollars, but we still have a long way to go."
Information on how to contribute to Úsmev ako dar is listed below. But for those that want to help children in Slovakia, Mojtová has additional advice: "Children don't need candy, they need families. When you see children suffering in a family that is not functioning, help that family so that children don't have to go to a children's home in the first place."
11. Dec 2000 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds