Ombudsman for Children analyses how the rights of children in substitute homes are guaranteed

The Chancellor of Justice, as the Ombudsman for Children, has prepared an analysis based on inspection of substitute homes (formerly children’s homes) which provides an overview of how the rights of children raised in such homes in Estonia are guaranteed. The Ombudsman is of the opinion that minimum standards should be established for substitute homes.

The analysis indicated that staff at substitute homes are very committed and do an excellent job, while the children living in substitute homes are mostly satisfied with their lives and that their daily basic needs are covered. However, advisors to the Chancellor of Justice still identified repeated and systematic omissions in guaranteeing the basic rights of children. The elimination of these omissions would make the lives of children in substitute homes even better.

Senior Adviser at the Children’s Rights Department of the Chancellor of Justice Margit Sarv said that visits to substitute homes revealed that two-thirds fail to adhere to the ratio of teachers and children, which is a serious obstacle in guaranteeing the safety and diverse development of the children. “For example, one of the families in the substitute homes we visited had 17 children instead of the permitted maximum of eight, and three teachers were responsible for 57 children in another,” said Sarv. The institutions where staff requirements are met often fail to provide the children with other opportunities required for their development, such as hobby activities, camps and school trips. The Chancellor of Justice therefore finds that the Minister of Social Affairs should analyse whether the capitation fee currently paid for children in substitute homes is sufficient to satisfy all of their basic needs.

Although the requirements for providers of substitute home services are quite well regulated in the opinion of the Chancellor of Justice, the description of the service in respect of the expenses that are necessary to satisfy the basic needs of the children is very general and vague, which is why many requirements must be derived from the Constitution, international agreements that are binding on Estonia and recommendations and guidelines.

In order to improve the situation the Chancellor of Justice advised the Minister of Social Affairs to create a minimum standard for the substitute home service which lists the basic needs of children that must always be met. The Chancellor of Justice also advised the Minister of Social Affairs to calculate, on a cost basis, the actual cost of the substitute home services that complies with the requirements set forth in legislation and satisfies the basic needs of children.

The analysis revealed that there are children in almost all substitute homes who are under the guardianship of local authorities that are failing to perform some of their tasks as guardians, but have authorised substitute homes to make decisions and perform acts which pursuant to law must be performed by the child's legal guardian. The Chancellor of Justice is of the opinion that not all local authorities have demonstrated sufficient interest in the development and life of the children under their guardianship. “For instance, case plans – which are important for mapping the individual needs of children, planning the activities required for their development and monitoring their welfare – had not been updated or even prepared at all,” Sarv explained.

As a result of the analysis of substitute homes the Chancellor of Justice prepared competency-based recommendations for the Minister of Social Affairs, mayors of municipalities and cities and providers of the substitute home service.

Sarv says that the objective of the overview prepared on the basis of the inspections and an analysis of legislation was to assess the substitute home service from a child’s angle. “The objective of our visits was to see how the children living there feel about their lives and whether everything is organised in their best interests and involving them, and how prepared they are for independent life,” she explained.

The total number of children and young people living in substitute homes in Estonia is 1096 (as at 15 November 2012), 1048 of whom are orphans or without parental care. 48 children with severe or profound disabilities have also been placed in substitute homes on the basis of applications filed by their parents. 44% (485) of the children in substitute homes are disabled. Every third child (31%) in substitute care lives in a guardianship or curatorship family, while the remainder (69%) live in substitute homes. There were 35 substitute home service providers in Estonia as at 25 March 2013.

The advisers to the Chancellor of Justice carried out 18 inspections and two follow-up visits to various substitute homes in 2011 and 2012. 510 children lived in these homes at the time of the visits, meaning that the advisers inspected the living conditions of 46% of children living in substitute homes. In the course of the visits the advisers spoke with 87 children or ca. 8% of all children living in substitute homes. They also interviewed 48 employees working directly with the children in addition to the managers of the institutions.