National Preventive Mechanism at children institutes IN CZECH

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Note:This article is one of the NPM TRAVELBOOK series written by Mr Pavel Doubek and invited by Covenants Watch (CW), Taiwan. The original text was written in English and was translated by Yi-Ching Tsai, CW’s researcher.


Author/Pavel Doubek (Czech scholar and lawyer formerly working at Czech NPM)[i]
Translator/Yi-Ching Tsai (Researcher of Covenants Watch)

In the imperfect world, those who are supposed to help the weak can turn out to be those who are the most repressive sometimes. This can well describe the situation of children suffering from torture and ill-treatment in institutions that are established for their benefits.

Therefore, the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) should monitor whether the institutional care provided to children, either by public or private institutions, are in compliance of international human rights instruments, especially the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

According to the CRC, the arrangement of institutional care that separates a child from his or her family environment can only be used when it’s necessary for his or her best interests. It can be to provide shelter for children who are subject to abuse, neglect or misconduct maltreatment in their family.[1] Or, it may aim to correct and protect the mental, moral and social development of children who are alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the criminal law for their activities. [2]

No matter what the purpose is, the living conditions and treatment in the children’s institutions must always respect children’s dignity, autonomy and needs, following the “principle of normality” that aims to strengthen their healthy social habits and helps them return to their family environment and integrate into society.

Note 1:Notably, children cannot be instructed into the institutional care, for example, only due to unsatisfactory housing conditions of the family. In this issue, the Czech Republic has been repeatedly criticized by the European Court of Human Rights. See Wallova and Walla v. The Czech Republic, 26 March 2007, Complaint n. 23848/04.

Note 2:See articles 3, 9, 19, 37 and 40 of the CRC.

Photo by Utsman Media on Unsplash

Monitoring ill-treatment in children’s institutes

In contrast to the earlier stories about visits to prisons and police stations, where torture and ill-treatment can be more obvious and thus easier to identify, the ill-treatment in the children’s institutes is often covered in systematic deficiencies and seemingly acceptable conditions. Furthermore, the restrictive approach of children with certain behavioural problems can sometimes be supported by public opinion.

Indeed, the evaluation of some restrictive measures applied in reformatories (e.g. restrictions on movement) will be probably different from the assessment of the same measures used in children’s homes, but it never means children can be treated in an inhuman or degrading way. Therefore, NPM should have adequate knowledge of the different kinds of children’s institutions, including their purpose and legal regulations, to properly assess the human rights situation.

Similar to Taiwan and other countries in the world, the Czech law distinguishes two systems of institutional care: “institutional education” designed for children at risk, and “protective education” imposed by the court for an offence committed by children (between the age 12 – 18 years).

The Czech NPM has been visiting childcare institutions since 2006. It has issued dozens of visit reports of individual institutions and various summary reports and has submitted recommendations on several systematic issues to relevant ministries.

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

The preparation work of the NPM in this regard is not very different from other types of places of detention, but the NPM staff must have additional training for communication and interview with children. Relevant external experts such as child psychologist and special pedagogue should be invited to participate in the visits, too.

In general, the Czech NPM has found that cases of ill-treatment are generally committed in children’s institutes regarding the failure to respect the right to privacy, the right to family life, the right to participate in the decision-making process, and the social autonomy of children.

In some cases, the problem of strengthened their dependence on the care provided can also lead to ill-treatment, as the grown-up children are not able to really “leave” the institutes after years of institutionalisation.

Below I’d like to share with you a story of the Czech NPM’s visit to a children’s facility that was set up both as a children’s homes with school (dětský domov se školou) and reformatories (výchovný ústav) in Chrastava.[3] You will see how difficult it is to change the mindset of persons who provide care to the most vulnerable.

Note 3:There are four types of institutions for children in the Czech Republic: (1) diagnostic institutions (diagnostický ústav), (2) children’s homes (dětský domov), (3) children’s homes with school (dětský domov se školou) and (4) reformatories (výchovný ústav).

The children’s homes are only intended for children in institutional education, while the three remaining types of institutions are designed for children in both systems.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Education or repression? The Institute in Chrastava

Located in the north of the Czech Republic, the institute is designed for 41 boys diagnosed with severe behavioural disorders between the ages of 12 and 18 years.

Among them were 4 boys in the regime of protective education imposed by the court. However, the institute did not differentiate the children’s backgrounds as the Czech law required, so the strict rules applied for kids in protective education were sometimes applied to other children.

The Czech NPM has revealed that education was based solely on repression and reduces suppress the basic needs of children. All aspects of life in the institute were subject to an assessment system that required unconditional obedience and compliance with insufficiently strict rules.

This was probably the reason for the high escape rate, which made up 27% of the institute’s total capacity. At the time of the visit, there were 28 boys present and 10 boys were on the run.

When we’re observing the work of the institute’s staff, there was no apparent effort to fulfil the principle of normality, that is, the attempt to adjust the child’s life as much as possible to natural norms, common daily life and social needs appropriate to the age of the children. Daily life in the institute was as follows:

  • The boys must mop the floors twice a day.
  • After 6.30 p.m. most of them were already dressed in their pyjamas.
  • Between 7:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., the staff locked the toilet, so if boys needed to use it, they had to ask for permission.
  • They were not allowed to freely dispose of their money, not even with regard to small purchases. Even the purchase of chocolate had to be approved by the staff.
  • They had to wear a uniform haircut and were not allowed to wear beards and earrings.
  • If they violated these rules (for example, having their own hairstyles or exceeding the length of the hair), it resulted in a reduction of the points in the evaluation system.
Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

The evaluation system was set up to express the negative evaluation rating, that is, to underline only the negative manifestations. The assessment system itself was very complex, confusing, inconsistent and highly demotivating. Some of the bonuses, in fact, referred only to the basic needs of the child, including visiting parents, the right to leave (absence), getting extra food, joining the group of activities, having an attractive hairstyle, having an earring, etc.

During the interviews with the children, an emotional distance was found between the children and the staff. The personnel of the institute were unable to communicate with the boys in a simple way, but instead used directives, regulations, bans or intimidation. They often shouted at the boys, threatened them with a negative evaluation, even intimidated them physically (an indication of a slap in the face), etc.

Furthermore, the institute interfered with children’s privacy by using a CCTV system that monitored most places where children live. Moreover, almost all the windows of the institute were equipped with the bars.

After he two-day visit, the NPM monitors provided the institute with a summary of the findings, including immediate remedial action. The list of findings and remedial actions were submitted in writing personally prior to leaving the institute, which is a special case given the severity of the findings. Subsequently, a complete visit report was delivered to the institute.

Photo by Jan Kammellander on Unsplash

After the report was issued, the NPM turned to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. The Ministry recognized the seriousness of the problem and had therefore appointed a new director of the institute with the task of transforming the overall living conditions and treatment. [4]

The story shows how challenging it is for the NPM to be able to identify a real human rights situation in these institutes and also to defend these findings against the dissenting facility stakeholders and even public opinion. To identify such ill-treatment, in-depth evaluation by experts as well as systematic and long-term monitoring is essential.

Note 4:In this case, the ministry set up the institution so that it could dismiss the director. If the facility is private, the ministry can carry out inspection visits, impose financial penalties, but cannot rule out the director.

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