Author: Maja Tomikj, Photography: Arbnora Memeti

His outstretched tiny arms, smiling eyes and the childish shy smile gave us a warm welcome in the yard of the family house in the vicinity of Skopje on a warm and sunny July day, far from the city noise and the heat. This kid ran all around us, vividly excited because of the guests who have arrived, and after waiting for us to sit in the shade under the grapevine in the yard, stood in front of us with his eternal smile and his arms behind its back and waited. With a wondering expression, as if waiting for us to ask him something, he quickly replied to each question with “Yes”!

The child that greeted us was born with a certain form of disability and was abandoned by his biological parents. In his new home in Skopje, he has lived with the foster family for more than a year. He lives with his “grandma” and “grandpa”. This is because the couple is elderly and this is how they were advised by a psychologist. They decided to take care of him, to provide him home where they will provide and share love. It was obvious that during a relatively short time they have succeeded in their efforts.

Photo: Arbnora Memeti

“He is doing great now, but when we took him in, he wasn’t stable enough to walk properly, he was very temperamental, nervous… and now he understands everything we tell him, he is obedient, calm, as much as a child at his age can be. He can do anything, he can dress himself, he eats without help, and can climb up the stairs, he throws the trash in a trash can, he plays with his toys, and loves to listen to music and to dance…He was a different kid when we first took him in. It would be great if he can start to speak. We are trying, but he is not doing so well. Physically, he is developing very well. We are waiting for an additional medical examination and a speech therapist, to see the diagnosis and whether he can be cured,” say his carers, who finish each other’s sentences and complement with the tone of their voices.

For this married couple, it is important to have the three and a half-year-old child with them. Feelings of joy and pride are reflected on the thin man’s face as he talks about him. He says that for more than 10 years they have been trying to adopt a child, but weren’t able to, so they tried this option, to foster a foundling. We asked: “What if adoption was also approved?”, “Will they take care of this child until it turns 18, maybe even longer?”.

“If God is willing and we are allowed to adopt him, we will keep both children, they are a joy. If not, we will keep this one as much as we can. Why not, we are all alive and well” said the man, who traversed  the yard several times, going to the kitchen and back, in order to treat us with cold water, juice, coffee…as a good host would do.

Photo: Arbnora Memeti

The situation with the coronavirus, just as with all other families, has caused many changes in their everyday lives. Just when the child was signed up in the kindergarten and all started well, it began playing with the other kids – the pandemic began.

“Since both of us are employed, we began to go to work in different shifts, so that one of us can remain at home for one hour and take care of him, It had to be this way. In the past few months, we put an effort to protect him and us as much as we could. We are wearing protective gear at work, we use disinfectants and all is well for now, and no one in our work surrounding hasn’t reported being sick. We are trying to make this kid have fewer contacts with people and luckily we have a big yard and it can freely play outside on fresh air, and sometimes we visit the apartment in Skopje, just to be able to change its surroundings and to prevent to feel bored” said the wife, who showed towards the big garden behind the house with various fruit trees and vegetables planted.

These carers state that the funds they receive from the state are enough to provide the child with all necessities like food, clothes, toys…When asked how much money  they receive monthly from the state, the husband said: “Let me think….probably 9.000 denars, I’m not sure because my wife went recently at the bank and it had more money, I don’t know why” he replied confusingly, and as if it was unimportant he looked towards the Social Care Center’s officer, who explained that the sum has recently been increased. He also said that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, they received a package from the Red Cross full of food.

Photo: Arbnora Memeti

In the meantime, our little host is interfering in the conversation and he brings his ball saying “yes, yes” as if he wanted to tell us that we are not fun with our conversations and that he wants to play. So, he began passing the ball and after a few kicks, he ran into the house and brought us a chocolate. He treated us with a proud expression and a smile on his face as if he has done something significant.

We leave the family behind, with the thought that these people really deserve to see the day when the little boy starts talking and will say to them “I’m thankful for everything”.

This child is one of many that at the moment have found a home in a foster family. The total number of foster care families in the country is 206 and they are providing care for around 400 persons i.e. 383 children and 17 adults. The looked after children are aged between 1 and 18. Most of these families are located in Skopje – 80. Even though the period of caretaking is not strictly determined, itlasts until a permanent accommodation solution is found, the child is returned to its biological family or, if that is not possible, adoption.

Photo: Arbnora Memeti

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP) stated for that foster care for children without parents or parental care in a foster care family is the most appropriate form of protection. It was confirmed by domestic and international experiences that the family surrounding allows a proper psycho-social development for the child. This form of child protection has been implemented successfully in the country for decades and is constantly being developed and improved. With the Law for Social Protection from 2019, the foster care encompasses basic protection and 24h child care (and adult care) of people that have no families of their own or adequate living conditions in their own families. The law differentiates general care, specialized, temporary, intervening, and using relatives for foster care.

The carer is obliged to provide the child care and accommodation in the family, nursing, general and personal hygiene, food, clothing and footwear, healthcare, and care for his development, upbringing, and education. Also, the carer is obliged to respect the ethnicity and the child’s religious customs, and to care for meeting its cultural, entertainment, and recreational needs. What is specific for the carer, unlike the foster parent, is that she or he should allow a continuation of the child’s connection with its biological family, if there is one, and to care for the child and to prepare it for the meetings with its biological family.

“The procedure is regulated in detail with subordinate legislation and is led by the centers for social work (CSW). All interested carers report to the local CSW, which is evaluating: the eligibility i.e. whether all legal criteria have been met; to what extent can they respond to the needs for the child’s development and allow them to strengthen up, in order to be able to deal with and overcome the crisis situations it faces with; risks, etc. All future carers are trained at the CSW so they can get acquainted with their responsibilities and tasks, and the decision to place a certain child at a certain carer is made by CSW,” explained the MLSP.

Photo: Arbnora Memeti

The interest in foster care is continuous, with a certain growth in the past two years. In cooperation with UNICEF, in 2018, MLSP has carried out the campaign named “Each child needs a family.” There were thirty new families identified that expressed interest to become foster carers for which they were evaluated and their training was organized. Towards the end of 2019, the funds were increased significantly, and the preparations for forming Centers for providing support for foster carer families in Skopje and Bitola are underway and are expected to start working during this year’s last quarter.

“The allowances have increased by an average of 30% depending on the foster care family and the number of children. Since the start of this year, the monthly allowance for one child is 13.487 denars, for two – 24.010 denars, for three children is 32.301, for 4 children it is 39.512 and for 5 children it’s 46.040 denars. For carers of children with disabilities, a monthly allowance is 16.219 denars, and for two it’s 28.172 denars. Since last year, a relative foster care was introduced (relatives from extended family – grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and others) who previously weren’t granted allowances. So, since the start of 2020, they are paid 9.393 denars monthly per single child, and 15.102 for two children” explains the MLSC.

Apart from assets from the state, there are plenty of examples of help provided by companies, associations, and people, who assist a certain foster care family, and the help is provided through CSW. Most of the time, these are donations in school equipment and clothing, food and diapers for babies, computer equipment, bikes for elderly children, Christmas and new year gifts, etc.

CSW is obliged to monitor the progress, the welfare, and the accomplishment of children’s best interests as part of the foster care family. They offer advice and support, but if certain irregularities are determined that might jeopardize child’s wellbeing, the child’s care is stopped and steps are taken to determine the carer’s responsibility. Supervision of CSW’s activities is done by the Bureau for Social Work, and regular monitoring including monitoring of the legality in the activities upon a lodged complaint is done by the Sector for Inspection at MLSC.

“All data concerning the foster care family that is at CSW’s disposal are considered an official secret in order to protect the privacy of beneficiaries of social rights and services. All involved institutions and persons are obliged to protect personal data. For example, no one is allowed to reveal the first and last name of a child that is in foster care or to publish information about its family, health, educational, or any other condition. Any act contrary to this rule can hinder the child’s inclusion into its close surrounding or in the wider social community, it can cause stigmatization and prejudices towards it,” stress MLSC.