Abandoned Twice: Bosnia’s Orphans Left in the Lurch

Eldin Hadzovic Sarajevo

The fractured state is unable to monitor its orphanages properly, and nor can it provide any decent alternatives to the institutions.

The smuggled beers were on standby, the girlfriends would sneak in later. Under the guise of an Eid celebration at their orphanage, the boys had planned a party.

But instead of sampling the forbidden pleasures of adolescence, the teenagers found themselves standing outside the director’s office, waiting to be summoned.

“Somebody snitched on us,” says the tallest of the three boys, all of whom are aged around 15. “The director has threatened to expel us if we are caught again.”

The children in Bosnia's orphanages have come from unstable families.

Inside the office, the man in charge of the orphanage says expulsion was the last resort for children who have ignored previous warnings. “We can’t force them to obey the house rules,” he says.

Few families will threaten their young with homelessness, even for the gravest misdemeanours.

But teenage transgressions can have dire consequences for Bosnian children whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them.

Several hours’ drive from the orphanage where the beer-smugglers faced punishment, a graduate of the same institution has begun a new life.

Now in her late teens, she is one of five orphans who have been adopted by a foster mother in a large house in the capital, Sarajevo.

Her high-school grades have improved since she left the institution and she has plans to study law. “I feel free here,” says the girl, now aged 18.

Her story is exceptional among Bosnia’s orphans, while the boys’ experience is closer to the norm. Hasnija Dzeferagic Rabija, the girl’s foster mother, believes hers is one of only around a dozen families that offers abandoned children a home in the country’s most populous canton, Sarajevo.

Experts say Bosnia’s orphans have been failed by a dysfunctional state that seems unconcerned about its most vulnerable citizens.

Charity workers accuse the authorities of not inspecting irregularities in the institutions where many of these children live.

They further accuse the state of failing to make adequate provision for foster parenting, widely regarded as a better alternative to institutional care.

Most of the children in Bosnia’s orphanages are not technically orphans: often, their parents are still alive. Members of the marginalised Roma minority make up a disproportionate number of the institutions’ inhabitants.

All come from backgrounds marked by poverty and upheaval, often the result of the devastating wars that accompanied the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the mid-90s.

In adolescence, many orphans drift into petty crime and destitution, sometimes ending up as drug addicts or prostitutes. Others cling to the institutions where they grew up, seemingly unable to cope with the world outside. Very few receive an education good enough to help them overcome the disadvantages of their upbringing.

Hasnija Dzaferagic Rabija acts as a foster parent to several abandoned childre

“The state often proves to be a neglectful parent, because the people who work in the child protection system are not sufficiently empowered… to act in the best interests of the child,’’ says Jasmina Selimovic, an expert who has spent more than a decade with the British charity, Save the Children.

While there is scarcely a country in the world where abandoned children have not suffered mistreatment, the fate of the orphans in Bosnia can be linked directly to the failings of the state.

The Dayton Agreement that ended Bosnia’s war divided the country into two highly autonomous sections – a Bosnian-Serb entity, known as the Republika Srpska, and a Bosniak-Croat section, known as the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The latter is further divided into ten cantons.

Each of these entities has its own assembly and administrative authority. Power in the Republika Srpska is generally centralised, while the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina grants more autonomy to individual cantons. Even at the best of times, the complicated structure of the Bosnian administration creates endless disparities in the treatment of its most vulnerable citizens.

At a central level, the state is meant to be governed by a Council of Ministers. However, its work is often paralysed by bitter disputes between representatives of the different parties.

There is effectively no single, state-wide body that is responsible for all vulnerable children. The state has no exact data on its orphans, as it has not held a census since the war.

In the absence of official data or statistics, the best source of information on the country’s orphanages is a 2010 report commissioned by the human rights ombudsman.

According to the study, Bosnia has roughly 2,000 children in institutions. Unofficial estimates suggest the actual number of children without parental care is double that. The variation is attributed to the transient lifestyle of orphans who flit between institutions, extended families and the street. The ombudsman’s report says Bosnia has 24 “orphanage-like” institutions.

The Bosnian media routinely publishes lurid reports of abuses at orphanages. But apart from one high-profile case of a fire that killed several children, none of the claims against guardians or managers have been successfully prosecuted in court.  

Jasna Hodzic, director of the Bosnian office of UK-based charity, Hope and Homes for Children, warns: “Systematic control of institutions is lacking, so employees, often unskilled, can practically do whatever they want between four walls.”

‘Going to the cage’

Azem Mujan is one of only two inspectors in the federation’s Directorate for Inspection Affairs, tasked with monitoring conditions at a wide variety of institutions. His remit includes inspecting 14 orphanages and another nine bodies that provide a shelter for children.

Although empowered to interview the orphanages’ children and employees, he says he cannot do anything significant about his findings.

His reports are not acted upon and end up gathering dust. He blames this on a variety of factors, from the weak judiciary, to unclear and often conflicting laws, reluctant or incompetent prosecutors – and legal disputes over the jurisdiction between cantonal and federation bodies.

Ljiljana Zeta says the Bosnian state must do more to help the orphans.

This September, Mujan says he encountered the case of a boy who tried to escape from an orphanage in the federation. The boy was punished with solitary confinement for several days in a basement room.  

“Other children call this kind of punishment ‘going to the cage’, because the metal frames of the bed had been welded together to create a cage-like structure,” Mujan says.

The boy also told the inspector that he was forced to take sedatives such as Haldol, Bosaurin, Prazin and Apaurin. Having examined all the relevant documents, Mujan says he could not find a single reason for giving the medication.

This case is not the only one the inspectorate is dealing with. It is currently investigating three alleged abuses of children’s rights, one of which is said to have resulted in the attempted suicide of a young girl.

“We have about 15 similar cases annually,” says Mujan.  “Our legal system is reluctant to deal with them. This is why we don’t have court proceedings.”

He described how a prosecutor once called him to ask how he should respond to the charges Mujan had submitted. “What can I expect from a prosecutor who doesn’t know what to do himself?” he asks.

Mujan accuses the judiciary of incompetence, and of lacking the experience to deal with sensitive cases involving minors “That is why our cases are not brought to the court,” Mujan says.

Mujan’s boss, Muhamed Pasukanovic, is the chief labour inspector in the federation. Pasukanovic says his team’s report on an orphanage where children were allegedly forced to work night shifts became the subject of a legal challenge itself.

The complainants argued that the federation's chief labour inspector did not have the right to inspect homes, which, they said was in the canton’s jurisdiction.

Pasukanovic acknowledges that the regulations left ample room for misinterpretation. “Unfortunately the law is not clear,” he said. “It is sad that our work often goes to waste.”

However, the federation’s labour inspectors appear to be alone in having identified major problems in the orphanages.

There are no cases of serious abuse, of the kind described by Mujan and his colleagues, in another report that was prepared by a state-level commission for monitoring parentless children.

The commission was formed by members of the Council of Ministers, and was coordinated by the state-level Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees. It was tasked with visiting orphanages in 2010.  The subsequent report, that has not been published, was sent to the Council of Ministers at the beginning of this year.

The report has yet to be formally adopted and is now already out-of-date.
Its findings, seen by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), are surprisingly reassuring.  There is no mention of alarming conditions and poor supervision.

Instead, the report focuses on chronic lack of funding, complaints about overcrowding and a lack of staff to support the children. It was also noted that the institutions did not have enough toys or space for recreation.

Muhamed Agic, one of three members of the commission that visited orphanages in 2010 told BIRN there were “no alarming situations”.

“The institutions are mostly implementing rules adjusted to international standards, or at least trying to achieve that,” he said. “I expected worse, before getting engaged in the work of commission.”

Zeljka Markovic Sekulic, another member of the commission, agrees that conditions in the orphanages are mostly satisfactory, while stressing that some institutions lacked the capacity to care properly for the number of residents.

“Otherwise, the food was good and orphanages were clean,” she says.

When asked about cases of possible abuse documented by the federation’s labour inspectors, Zeljka Markovic Sekulic told BIRN she was not familiar with their investigations.

“I can’t comment on the work of the federation’s labour inspector. We worked as an independent, state-level body and we did our job carefully,” she says.

“We talked to children and checked the paperwork; we went there without announcing the visits. It would have been better, of course, if we could have spent more days [at the homes], but we had to devote one day per institution.”

Last year, the same commission was due to revisit the orphanages. It did not do so because political wrangles prevented Bosnia from adopting a budget for 2011.

The ombudsman’s 2010 report on human rights, however, contained more serious findings.

The study cited a variety of apparent irregularities, from children working night shifts, to poor hygiene and poorly maintained buildings. The ombudsman will publish a follow-up report at the end of this year.

Four pages of the ombudsman’s 116-page report detailed recommendations, including requests for changing the legal framework, and devising an action plan. For each case, elaborate recommendations were issued.

The report asked institutions to implement changes in the very near future. The ombudsman’s report was sent to a variety of institutions, spanning the overlapping tiers of Bosnia’s disjointed administration.

At state level, the ministry of civil affairs, finance and justice each received copies. Officials from the Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation’s governments also received their copies, as did local officials in the cantons that make up the federation.

“We get the official feedback, a note that the report was received, but I don’t see anything has changed,” says Aleksandra Marin-Diklic, the head of the department for children’s rights at the ombudsman office. She says the forthcoming follow-up to the 2010 report will conclude that “our recommendations were never applied”.

‘Overlapping competencies’

BIRN tried to establish how the state had dealt with the ombudsman’s recommendations. The central Ministry of Civil Affairs is cited most frequently in the report as the body that should act to improve the situation.

Paolo Marchi of UNICEF argues that institutional care should be phased out.

The current minister of civil affairs, Sredoje Novic, was also in office in 2010 when the report was published. He is a member of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, the largest party in Republika Srpska, which has been resisting efforts to centralise authority across the state.

Novic did not respond to BIRN’s requests for an interview. In an emailed response, Novic’s aide, Zorica Rulj, said the Republika Srpska had made “more effort” than the Bosniak-Croat federation to follow the ombudsman’s recommendations. She did not specify what form this effort had taken.

Marin-Diklic, from the ombudsman’s office, blamed the deadlock on the “overlapping competencies” of the many branches of administration.

“Political deadlock at all governmental levels prevents solutions from being applied, or even discussed,” she says.

Ljiljana Zita, the report’s co-author, also blamed the failure to act on the recommendations in the report on the structure of the state.

“Our biggest problem is the state’s lack of preparation for dealing with such a vulnerable population,” she says. “We file one report after another to all the authorised state institutions, but our legal framework hinders the opportunity to react, and nobody wants to take responsibility.”

Miroslav Mauhar, an official overseeing the welfare of children and families in the Bosniak-Croat federation’s Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, defended the government against the charge of inaction.

“Things are moving forwards slowly,” he says. He added that reforms were needed to free up more “money and human resources” for child protection.

Weak legislation

Many experts believe that children who lack parental care are best looked after within the familial environment of a foster home.

“It is important to work on alternatives to residential care in terms of scaling down institutions and providing more support through community services intended for children and their families,” says Paolo Marchi, a child protection specialist with the UN children’s agency, Unicef, in Bosnia.

Unicef is one of several organisations campaigning worldwide for children to be moved out of orphanages and into the care of foster parents.

The case for doing so seems particularly strong in Bosnia, where a weak state seems unable to monitor or improve conditions in orphanages.

But the failure to introduce foster parenting also owes much to the weakness of a partitioned state, still paralysed by antagonism nearly two decades after its war.

Here again, progress has been hindered by a weak administration and by a lack of legislation.

Selimovic, the former Save the Children worker, says provisions for foster parenting in Bosnia lag far behind those in Western Europe, as well as in nearby countries such as Hungary and Croatia.

Other governments, she says, provide foster parents with training and financial support because they recognise that “raising children is a serious, full-time job’’.

In Bosnia, the social services pay a monthly sum for each child – nothing more. Most foster parents, she says, are not adequately trained, reimbursed or monitored.

According to Hodzic, from Hope and Homes for Children, the country needs legislation to protect children in foster care and ensure their guardians understand their duties.

“Laws for regulating childcare are scarce and barely cover the basics,” she says. As a result, “very few children are placed in foster families in Bosnia”.

Hodzic believes it would not cost the state much to shift the emphasis away from orphanages to foster families.

But, she says, the social services would have to be better organised in order to keep track of children scattered in a range of locations. Large institutions are, comparatively, the “easier way’’.

Mauhar, from the Bosnian federation’s Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, says the authorities have recently approved a two-year plan to reduce the average number of children in institutions, from the current figure of more than 100, to around 30, per institution. The plan was first tabled in January 2008.

“Of course, the ultimate aim is to shut down the institutions, but that will take a long, long time,” Mauhar says.   

Eldin Hadzovic is a Sarajevo-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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Eldin Hadzovic

Eldin Hadzovic reports on post-war Bosnia for the domestic and international press.