Working Magic

The Prague Post

Author J.K. Rowling’s charity helps Czech and Moldovan children in need

A disturbing photo of a 5-year-old Czech child in a caged bed that appeared in the UK newspaper The Sunday Times in 2004 brought the Czech institutional childcare system under intense scrutiny. Author J.K. Rowling saw the photo and was horrified, leading her to embark on a mission to end the institutionalization of children. She co-founded the UK-based charity Lumos to bring attention and assistance to disadvantaged children in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, they are working in the Czech Republic and Moldova, with plans to expand into other nearby countries.

“Lumos’ mission is to help change the system of care from big institutional care toward small community oriented services and toward increasing the number of professional foster care families,” says Petra Kačírková, country representative of Lumos in the Czech Republic.

Lumos operates on two levels: policy and practical. At the policy level, they work with both ministry and regional offices to provide expert advice on deinstitutionalization programs.

“We help them see how it is possible for these institutions to be replaced with a child-focused health, education and social protection framework, which means that most children can receive the care they need while remaining together with their families,” Kačírková adds.

At the practical level, they run pilot programs to demonstrate how the process can work and how the changes can be sustainable. They work with staff at institutions to explain the procedures required and then stick around to assist with follow-up questions and make sure the process of transferring children from institutionalized care to their new home goes smoothly.

“We demonstrate the value of family-based care in terms of better outcomes for children, so we can help to change attitudes toward vulnerable children,” Kačírková says.

According to a 2009 report complied by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, the Czech Republic has the fifth-highest number of children in institutions in Central and Eastern Europe. The report focused on the challenges facing these countries as their transition to democracy continues and how vulnerable children have often been left behind. One of Lumos’ first goals here was to get the government involved. Rowling visited local authorities and NGOs in 2007 to find out how Lumos could help. Kačírková said this was the beginning of their work with the Czech government, organizations and others involved in the institutionalization of children.

“One of our first major actions was to work closely with the government to develop a policy document to reform children’s institutions,” she said. “This policy was approved by the government as the National Action Plan on reforming children’s services. This is a landmark in the process of change in the Czech Republic as it represents a genuine commitment on the part of the government to reform the system and bring an end to institutional care for children.”

Adopted in 2009, key goals of the plan include increased quality of care for children and families in need and to decrease the number of children in all types of institutionalized care. Lumos assists with these goals in a number of ways, including providing training and technical assistance at all levels, to senior officials as well as lower-level staff, and facilitating visits for regional councilors and service directors to the United Kingdom so they can see community-based services in action. They also support the government in developing pilot programs for the deinstitutionalization of special needs children in social care homes. The first program will be carried out in the Pardubice region, who Kačírková says is one of the first regions to commit itself to full reform.

“Over the coming months we will be working with local authorities and NGOs to plan the development of foster care, increasing the number of preventive care services and support services for families, and specialist services for children with disabilities,” she explains. “Plus, we will add to the number of small specialized residential units, which will mean the community will no longer need large institutions for children.”

Kačírková says the work being done in Pardubice will be closely watched by other regions also interested in reforming their care systems.

With just one photograph, the plight of vulnerable children in the Czech Republic and the state of the country’s institutionalized care system was forced into the public spotlight, but Kačírková is quick to add that, despite the previous lack of meaningful public attention, the people working in the system do care.

“I think it is very important to stress that caregivers working in large institutions are trying to provide the best care they can for children. But the system of care in the Czech Republic – which is based on a large institutional system – does not allow caregivers to work effectively,” she says. “You cannot provide intensive, individual, child-oriented care if you have to take care of between six to eight clients at one time.”

Lumos got its name from a spell in Rowling’s Harry Potter book series. Saying “lumos” causes a small beam of light to emit from a wand. For vulnerable children in the Czech Republic, a little light will be a most welcome miracle.