A growing number of Czech children are at risk from their own parents or guardians. According to a report just released by the Social Affairs Ministry an increasing number of Czech children suffer physical, sexual and psychological abuse in their own homes.
The statistics are alarming: over the past ten years the number of physically abused children has quadrupled and the number of psychologically abused youngsters is twelve times higher. What is behind this alarming trend? Jarmila Knight who works on a child help-line and is deeply involved in children's rights says that the extent of abuse is not growing but that due to greater awareness we are finally getting the big picture:
"In past years many NGOs have been trying to point out the fact that there are children in the Czech Republic who are physically and sexually abused and that the authorities are doing nothing about it. Or that they simply do not have the means of finding out what is happening to these children."
Why is that?
"Well, it is because the system was not in place. There weren't enough trained people to actually recognize the abuse and there weren't any places where children could report these cases. Do not forget that much of this went on in private, in people's homes and the outside world did not have any means of finding out what was happening to the child. But in the past few years I think the situation has improved. Nowadays more children have the confidence to confide in someone, many more children are being watched - let's say - with more knowing eyes by their teachers, the outside world, by social workers. There is a system in place which enables them to report abuse and the system now is more capable of dealing with it."
Every year social workers report an average 1,800 cases of child abuse and recommend that the children be removed from parental custody. This involves cases of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Often it takes months or years for the problem to come to light. In several cases children have been killed at the hands of an abusive parent. Although such incidents always evoke a wave of sympathy and outrage, the public is still far less alert to signs of child abuse than NGOs would wish and very often people simply don't want to get involved. Right now there are billboards across the city showing people wearing dark glasses and a message reading "Is this your attitude to child abuse?" However the Social Affairs Ministry feels that the main responsibility should lie with doctors, teachers and others whom children come into daily contact with and who should be able to detect the problem at an early stage. Mrs. Knight says that the Child Protection Awareness program is an excellent way to prepare them for this responsibility:
"The Child Protection Awareness program is actually E-learning, which is something new that is now being introduced in the Czech Republic. It has been taken over from the NSPCC program which is the British National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children that has been running this program for years and everyone who goes through it is taught the basics regarding child protection awareness. There are good practice issues involved, how to report child abuse and how to recognize it."
However detecting the problem is not the end of the road. Shortcomings persist in securing substitute care for abused children: insufficient facilities, lack of qualified staff and bureaucratic hurdles all contribute to making their lives even more difficult. The ministry has now made it a priority to change this in order to ensure that children who have gone through hell at home do not have to suffer all over again at the hands of the state.
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