The system of institutional care

The following text is based on data and experiences from the Patron project, which is dedicated to providing long-term support to young adults from children’s homes. It provides a comprehensive explanation of the current situation, statistics, and analysis of the legislation regarding institutional care in the Czech Republic. The text sheds light on the challenges that this group faces in the real world and discusses the most common prejudices they encounter.

In the Czech Republic, according to statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, as of December 31, 2022, there were over 26,000 children living outside their biological families due to being assessed as endangered in terms of healthy development, health, or inadequate care. Each year, around 3,000 children (3,375 children last year) are removed from their families because the Child Protection Services Agency (OSPOD) determines that their parents, for various reasons, are unable to provide for their upbringing and ensure their healthy and safe care.

Reasons for removal often include inadequate parenting skills, neglect of obligatory care, parental substance abuse, or parental incarceration. Unfortunately, child abuse or exploitation is also a frequent reason for removal. Social reasons, such as living in unsuitable and developmentally harmful conditions, still play a role, although by law, this should not be the main reason for removal.

Most commonly, children are placed with grandparents or extended family members in what is known as kinship foster care. If extended family or close relatives are unable to care for the child, the aim is to place them in foster care. However, the foster care system, which used to be well-developed and one of the most functional in the world during the 20th and 30th decades of the former Czechoslovakia, was essentially dismantled by the communist regime. The previous regime favored collective upbringing in institutions (children’s homes, educational institutions, etc.). Over the past decade, the care system for endangered children has undergone slow changes, prioritizing foster care over institutional care. Placement in a children’s home should be the last resort after exhausting all other steps. There is still a significant shortage of foster parents, and it is practically impossible to find a foster family for children older than 6 years. Many children are still placed in institutional care, such as children’s homes.

Placement in institutional care must be ordered by a court. It should only last for the necessary period, up to a maximum of 3 years. Before the expiration of this period, it can be extended for another 3 years, repeatedly. However, most children spend the rest of their childhood in institutional care after being removed from their families.

The above also indicates that there are almost no orphans in residential care facilities in the Czech Republic. 99.2% of children in children’s homes in the Czech Republic have at least one living parent.

1. What is a children’s home? What other types of institutional care exist in the Czech Republic?

In the Czech Republic, there are several types of facilities where children are placed if a suitable foster family, whether kinship or arranged, cannot be found. If children are removed in a crisis situation, such as immediate health risks, they are placed in Emergency Care Facilities for Children (ZDVOP). The most well-known are the so-called “Klokánky” (Kangaroo centers). In these facilities, children can stay for a maximum of 1 year. Throughout this time, the social welfare system should seek a long-term solution for the child’s care, whether it involves helping stabilize the original family and facilitating the child’s return or finding a suitable foster family or institutional facility. There are three types of long-term residential care facilities: children’s homes, children’s homes with schools, and educational institutions.

A children’s home is intended for children aged 3 to 18 years (if they are still studying, they can stay until the age of 26).

Children who exhibit behavior that poses a threat to themselves or others (such as various dependencies or self-harm) or have problems with compulsory school attendance are placed in children’s homes with schools. These facilities tend to have a higher proportion of boys than girls. All children living there attend a primary school located within the children’s home.

Another type of institutional care facility in the Czech Republic is an educational institution. Typically, it accommodates children over 15 years old who have completed compulsory school attendance and previously resided in a children’s home with a school. These children may have educational or behavioral issues or struggles with alcohol or drug addiction.

A diagnostic institute is another residential facility for endangered children. In some cases, when a child is removed from their family, the diagnostic institute determines their needs and decides on their further placement. In other cases, children who are already placed in another type of facility are transferred to the diagnostic institute for necessary diagnostics, such as determining a more suitable placement. The maximum stay in a diagnostic institute is 8 weeks.

The Patron program operates in children’s homes, children’s homes with schools, and educational institutions.

2. How many children live in institutional care in the Czech Republic?

As of December 31, 2022, there were 5,697 children in institutional care in the Czech Republic.

3. How does a children’s home function?

There are significant differences among residential care facilities for children removed from their families.

A typical Czech children’s home is housed in a castle or a large mansion from the early 20th century. This is due to historical events in the Czech Republic. Before World War II, many wealthy families were Jewish and emigrated abroad to escape the Nazis or died during the Holocaust. Similarly, after the war, Czech Germans were forcibly expelled. Shortly after the war, the communist party came to power and nationalized all industries and businesses, including personal properties of traders. Many emigrants lost their property, and the communists sought “suitable” uses for it (especially for buildings located far from cities). The Czech nobility faced a similar fate, with all castles being nationalized for 40 years. As a result, the buildings now serve as children’s homes. These homes are spacious and well-equipped. Typically, around 40 children of different ages and genders live in one home, although the law allows a maximum of 48 children in one facility. Some homes may accommodate up to 70 children. The children are divided into “family groups” within the homes. Each group consists of a maximum of 8 children, cared for by 2 caregivers who work in shifts. There is often a high turnover of caregivers. As a result, having a close relationship with an adult is very rare for the children. The management of the home is overseen by a director, and other staff members include caregivers (mostly women), cooks, cleaners, maintenance workers, etc. – roles that are not present in a typical family setting.

Children in children’s homes attend school with other children from the surrounding area. They participate in extracurricular activities either outside the children’s home or within its premises. Unless ordered otherwise by the court, they can spend weekends and holidays with their parents or relatives.

The children are well provided for materially. In addition to basic necessities, thanks to sponsors, they have the opportunity to participate in international trips to the seaside or carefully organized outdoor activities, cultural events, sports events, etc.

However, when these children leave the children’s home, they often experience a harsh reality. They find themselves practically without any resources, without caregivers who had previously helped them and were the closest people to them. They have to secure their own food, housing, and employment. Obtaining housing of the same standard is nearly impossible for them, and exotic vacations are entirely beyond their means. They struggle to find ways to occupy their free time and often fail to do so.

4. What is the process of leaving a children’s home like?

In the Czech Republic, the age of majority is 18. If a child/young adult is not studying, they leave the children’s home shortly after their 18th birthday. If they are studying and wish to remain in the home until they complete their education, they sign a contract with the children’s home (often as part of their birthday celebration) that regulates the rules of their stay. These rules are practically the same as those for younger children (including curfews, outings, etc.), with the difference that any violation of these rules results in immediate termination of their stay and departure from the home.

Although most young adults are convinced they will stay in the home and complete their education before reaching adulthood, they often change their decision in the last months or even days before their birthday. They desire freedom and a life without constant rule enforcement.

Upon leaving a children’s home, a young adult receives initial material support. The law sets a maximum amount of CZK 28,000. The director of the children’s home decides on the specific amount, and sometimes, instead of cash, they choose to provide a practical gift, such as a washing machine (which the young adult often has no use for). Since 2022, young adults are also entitled to a care allowance of CZK 27,600.

Unfortunately, the Czech system of support for the transition to independence for young adults from residential care is poorly designed and offers little support. Social housing is practically non-existent, hostels are not the safest places, and young adults often refuse halfway houses because they involve following rules. As a result, young adults from children’s homes or educational institutions often turn to their friends, or in the case of girls, their partners. However, neither of these choices is usually the happiest one. Families are often dysfunctional, and high expectations often lead to further disappointment. Friends often take advantage of the money the young adults have obtained and leave them without resources. Both of these options often lead to homelessness.

In the past year, 590 young adults left institutional care due to reaching adulthood. On average, around 400 young adults leave each year. These young adults themselves say that their closest adult figure during their stay in the children’s home was their caregiver. However, after leaving, that person disappears from their life, and they find themselves facing many challenges alone, without the support of a mature adult. It’s no wonder that any mistake, such as failing to report to the Employment Office, which could provide social and health insurance, can have dire consequences, such as accumulating overwhelming debts.

Some statistics (unfortunately, there is no relevant data on the success of social integration for young adults from children’s homes and educational institutions):

Number of residential care facilities: 203
Children’s homes: 138
Children’s homes with schools (up to approx. 15 years old): 28
Educational institutions: 25
Diagnostic institutes: 12
Number of children in children’s homes: 5,697
Annual departures: approx. 400
Success rate of social integration
(according to estimates from some caregivers and directors): 40-50%
Number of homeless people with experience in children’s homes and educational institutions
(according to a survey by the nonprofit organization Naděje): 50%

5. What challenges do young adults face after leaving institutional care?

For young adults leaving children’s homes, it is not easy to integrate into normal life because:

  • They lack knowledge about what needs to be arranged and taken care of after leaving the children’s home. They often struggle to navigate everyday life.
  • They have no one to turn to for help. They trust caregivers the most, but those individuals disappear from their lives after leaving the children’s home.
  • Young adults also struggle with financial literacy. Only about a third can explain the difference between gross and net income or what an interest rate is.
  • They find it challenging to find employment. Around 70% of children in institutional care study vocational subjects, usually as cooks/waiters or salespersons. However, this is only around 30% for the entire Czech Republic. Considering that 57% of these young adults plan to pursue further education or vocational training, they themselves realize that their educational path is not satisfactory.

It is not surprising that distorted expectations about the “outside world,” lack of information on how to deal with new problems, low employability, and most importantly, not having someone to turn to for help and support, lead to immense frustration. This frustration can often lead to criminal activities or excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs. Yet, successful integration into normal life can be influenced by whether these young people on the threshold of adulthood have someone they trust and are not afraid to ask about how life works.