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Families need to be supported. Yes, of course. But how?

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Dainius Puras


Vilnius University

It is an object of a global concern to keep warning about signs of a family crisis in modern society and to declare that institution of the family needs to be seriously supported. Although everybody would probably agree with the idea that family is extremely important issue and that families need support, consensus ends at this point. As we move to concrete measures to be undertaken to reach this noble goal, it appears that support of families can be understood in so different ways, that we are witnessing a very serious ideological clash in this area, reminding a real war between opposing sets of attitudes, with hardly existing chance of a compromise.
I would like to reflect on the recent developments on this issue in Lithuania, because I know this country best and because these developments have been quite dramatic. I am sure that similar scenario has happened in many other countries and it is highly possible that somethibng similar will be happening in the future. After presenting Lithuanian situation I would like to discuss general tendencies in this area and maybe we could find some possibility of constructive decisions on this important issue.

Historic legacy of absence of family support services

Lithuania is a typical country in heavy and prolonged transition. After enthusiastic liberation from Soviet empire (Lithuania has been occupied for 50 years) in the beginning of the 1990‘s, a nation of 3 million finally could take control of its own destiny. The process of change started the, now 23 years ago, and is still going on. I will elaborate here on paradoxes taking place in the area of childhood and family policies. Firstly, it is important to mention that Soviet system has been developing a model of health care and social welfare which was , in its own way, and maybe even in somewhat effective way, protecting economic and social rights of population. However, the obviouly weak side of this model was a systemic violation of civil and political rights. Soviet model was especially unfriendly to all vulnerable groups of population - as these were „different" people, they needed to be excluded from society, to demonstrate that they do not exist at all. Children and adults with all forms of disabilities, homosexual and transsexual persons, adolescents with behavior problems, alcohol and drug addicts - all these and other vulnerable groups - could not exist oficially as a phenomenon for ideological reasons. Soviet ideology, starting from the 1970‘s, had proudly announced that all social problems are defeated as their roots have been eradicated by the political system. The consequence of this „victory" was an increasing tendency to hide all possible problems of psychosocial nature which, of course, have never disaappeared in real life and continued to affect individuals, families and communities. In case of any problem appearing, for example, if there was a crisis in the family (a child born with disability, alcoholism of a member of family, violence or suicidal behavior or any other behavioral or emotional problems), the solution suggested by the system was based on the principles of medicalization of social and emotional problems, often with subsequent institutionalization of a child or adult, or both. Adults and children with real or perceived disabilities and mental health problems were usually institutionalized in large remote residential institutions for long term care or for the rest of their lives, so that „normal" individuals were advised to forget them and continue to work productively and to generate a healthy offspring. Needless to say, that in such system the practice or even the very concept of community based and family oriented services have never existed. Neither had some important professional groups - such as social workers or family therapists - existed, while clinical psychology had some minimal development during the last decades (1970s-1980s). Psychiatric services were based on vulgar biomedical model, so that all posssible mental health could be interpreted as pathological effects of brain diseases, according to the theory of I.Pavlov, who, in fact, was working with experimental animals only. Anyway, psychological and especially social environment could not be considered as a possible risk factor in all those numerous cases when emotional and psychosocial problems were developing within individuals or families. Soviet textbooks of psychiatry had two different interpretations for problems such as suicidal behavior, heavy drinking, personality disorders or domestic violence. According to these textbooks, the aforementioned problems develop in epidemic rates in the western world because of exploitaition of working people by capitalists, while in Soviet Union prevalence of these problems and disorders is very low, and the main causal factor is a biologically determined psychiatric disorder (ususally it would be some sluggish forms of schizophrenia, according to contraversial Moscow school of psychiatry).
Another way of addressing problems which continued to affect families lives, has been moralization. Moral code of communism builder, developed in the 1960s, included instructions about what is a correct behavior, including in love, marriage, sex and child rearing. For example, divorce, especially if it was initiated by member of Communist party, was qualified as a serious breach of the moral code of communism builder.

Attempts to fill the gaps after political changes and restoration of democracy

This strange game of ignoring and hiding a huge part of everyday life of human beings seemed to be over when „singing revolutions" came to Lthuania and other Baltic countries. Independence and democracy presented a unique opportunity to open discource on hidden issues and to fill the huge gap in the area of community-based services for individuals and families at risk. The 1990‘s have been remarkable years of innovations and enthusiasm. It was possible to convince authorities and, with financial support from international donors, to fill the huge gap inherited from the former system. Amazing period started then, when new Lithuanian authorities supported, and international donors funded numerous pilot services for children and families at risk. Just to mention two examples of my own contribution and active involvement - it was establishment of University affiliated Child Development Centre and the NGO of parents who have children with developmental disabilities.
It took around 5 years to introduce new approaches in demonatration services and to train first generation of professionals who could be able to work with children and families at risk in a competent manner. We were urging our national and municipal authorities to start replicating pilot services throughout the country so that services for families at risk and children at risk could be available not only in capital city, but in the provincial settings as well. The need for such services was growing, as first signs of complicated transition started to show up. It appeared that large part of population was regressing to destructive and self-destructive behavior (violence, heavy drinking, helplessness, feeling of being a loser) as they had no coping skills to survive in the environment of market economy and open society. The only evidence-based way to effectivel face such epidemics of self-destructive behaviour is to invest in resilience and to support families with coping skills, including support to their parenting competence. Among our numerous efforts was convincing authorities to establish some demonstration centres , so that different psychosocial interventions (which have never been used so far in Eastern part of Europe) could be developed and later replicated through out the country. Our estimation in 1990 was that it will take around 7 to 10 years to develop this new infrastructure and to meet the needs of families at risk - the needs which have been neglected for decades in this country. We were confident then that in nexgt years and decades the Government will be increasing investments in building up a good system of preventive services to manage this kind of societal crisis. One of side effects of complicated transition which could be observed then, was that institutional care for children was increasing because many families were failing in their parenting abilities.

Unexpected further development - stagnation and regress

However, the second decade of transition (years 2000-2010) appeared to be surprisingly disappointing. There was an increasing number of arguments against investing in psychosocial interventions and developing community based and family focused services for families at risk. The public disocurce was increasingly addressing „bad parents" as scapegoats, and institutional care for children as a solution. The problem behind resistance to change appeared to be not the lack of resources. It was mainly a problem of prevailing attitudes. Paradoxically, this problem became especially serious after Lithuanian joined EU in 2004. Against all predictions, EU accession did not serve as a factor promoting tolerance to vulnerable groups and other European values. Instead, liberal democracy was seen by many so called patriotic and conservative forces as a threat for so called national values and traditions, including the values of so called traditional families. Unexpectedly for reformers, the tendencies were increasing to classify families into good and bad, and to move to moralistic way of addressing problems. In 2008 the Family Policy concept was approved by Lithuanian Parliament, with philosophy behind that real families are only married couples with children, while, for example, single mothers, or cohabitating couples or divorced parents do not qualify for the Lithuanian definition of the family. Investment in services for families at risk could be seen now as not a good idea at all, because, as advocates of this emerging ideology were claiming, any support of families which are „not good-enough" could serve as the reinforcement of their unresponsible behavior. The idea of those who protected „national values and traditions" was that only so called good families should be supported, for example, with financial incentives, so that such positive reinforcement of good behavior will convince all other parents to be good and responsible parents. The advocates of the new policy were blaming single mothers for being sinful and responsibe for the fact that their children do not have a father, Another argument of having a narrow and discriminatory family definition was the need to prevent any possibility in the near or distant future of marriages between homosexual persons.
Not suprisingly, many other signs of regress appeared in policy formulation and development in the context of such Lithuanian scenario. There was attempt to change the Constitution and to include a dicriminative definition of the family as a part of Constitution, after Constitutional Court announced that Family Policy concept in anticonstitutional one. Development of services to support biological families at risk and foster families was blocked, as the new idea was now that with policies based on moralization and support of „good" families the families at risk will disappear, and there will be no more need for institutional care of children. One national Ngos, representing families which qualified for the narrow conservative definition of the family, has been selected by Government as a representative of civil society. Proliferation of so called councils of families started throughout the country, aiming to lobby and to advise the Government that families without social problems - as them - should be supported as a priority, and not families at risk.
In 2010 Lithuanian Parliament rejected the draft of the law which intended, as it was recommended to Lithuania by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, to ban corporal punishment of children in all settings, including at home. Politicians who were against ban of corporal punishment of children, again used as argument their ideology about different groups of families. As they were explaining openly during public debates, they will not tolerate any child abuse, including corporal punishment in families at risk (which they still often label officially as "asocial families". On the other side, they were insisting that so called good families (and who and how will classify families into those who meet criteria and those who do not - remains unclear) have a right to apply measures such as corporal punishment, as these parents know how to use this „effective method of disciplining".
So what happened in Lithuania during the second decade of transition? The examples which have been presented here, indicate that these tendencies can be qualified as retrogressive policies by any human rights treaty body within United Nations. Those tendencies for sure were violating numerous articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Convention against Discrimination of Women and basic EU values. But, ironically, this development of events was a price to be paid for democracy. People elect politicians in democractic elections, and these politicians declare, in line of their attitudes, how they will make families strong and happy.
Many politicians and a large part of population appeared to support these tendencies, as they think they are in line with support of the traditional family values. Meanwhile, the politicians and NGOs which support universal human rights and principles of liberal democracy, and are critical about Lithuanian development in this area, are supposed to be „anti-family". Some experts think that the role of influential Catholic church was very important in this turn of events. In my opinion, this was only one factor, but even more important one was nostalgy for totalitarian culture when „simple solutions" created the illusion of maintaining order and security in everyday life. Anyway, this was an unexpected paradox that the nation who was the first to break with empire based on suppressing democracy, now seemed to be allergic to the idea of civil rights and freedoms for everfy individual.
Although it may seem that conservative forces who demand for marriage as an obligatory precondition of happy and healthy family, this kind of moralistic fundamentalism is not so innocent as it may seem. With such tendencies, society may become one day the hostage of such kind of „patriotic" movement which will demand for some „new eugenics" or another kind of screening so that only „good" and healthy parents may produce children to have them only „good" and healthy.


Lithuanian example of totally different views on the ways families should be supported is not unique. One of most polarized countries in this respets remains the United States of America. Only Somalia and U.S.A are the two countries which have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the main factor behind this resistance in the U.S.A. is idea that the Convention is too liberal and will thus undermine traditional family values and authority of parents.
Russia is another country which is trying to find its own way while it is facing severe demographic crisis. Russia seems to follow French tradition to stimulate families with financial incentives to have more children, and in this respect we could commend such family policy. However, differently from France which supports with allowances and services all families, Russia tends to move selective way and to limit support only to married families and only to allowances (not services). Another difference from France is that Russia is now in the process of approving federal law on „ban of propaganda of homosexuality", and main argument her is to protect children from negative effects of this „propaganda". Meanwhile in France they discuss now the law of legalizing same-sex marriages and the rights for homosexual couples to adopt children. Even if there is a strong movement in French society against such law, there is no idea even among such movement that "propaganda" of homosexuality should be banned as detrimental for development of children. This is, again, reflection of totally different attitudes to family policy. In countries with strong homophobic tendencies, LGBT groups are blamed, although without any evidence, that they - directly or indirectly - molest children, and when accusations are not so grave, then they are moralized for not contributing to improvement of a demographic situation which is sort of betrayal of national interests. \even more paradoxically, homophobic policies are used bys national authorities in those countries (mainly in Eastern Europe) which have epidemic rates of violence, heavy drinking and suicidal behavior, including very high rates of domestic violence in so called traditional families.
To come back from this issue of different views on same-sex relations to broader family support policies, we can trace how differently societies and governments interpret basic human and family values. One view is prioritizing traditional family values and tends to ignore or justify - for the sake of protecting marriage and so called family values - different violations of human rights and dignity of individuals, such as corporal punishment of children, or depriving adolescents of their rights to confidential services, or violation of rights of women by abusive husbands. Another view, which is reflecting internationally accepted universal human rights principles embedded in UN conventions, is reminding that fundamental rights of each individual need to be protected as a priority, and that individual - whether child or adult - is not any longer a property of either family or state.
Sometime it seems that „old" Europe tends to forget remarkable advantages of liberal democracy. Societies of the „old" Europe have managed to build up and sustain in everyday life the principles of democracy and respect for civil rights ad freedoms of each individual. Despite all problems Europe is facing, including current economic crisis, citizens of Western, Southern and Northern Europe enjoy exercising principles of democracy and they even forget about having them as a valuable achievement, similarly as you forget about the pleasure of having enough fresh air if you are not suffocating.
I am now back to the region of Eastern Europe, which is still on the crossroad. Very different scenario is unfolding in the countries of Eastern Europe, to compare with what have been expectations in the early 1990‘s. It was expected in the beginning of 1990s that the 29 new democracies which have emerged after the fall of totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, will enthusiastically follow the same pathways as it happened during the post-war decades in other parts of Europe. However, initial euphoria was followed by more cautious assessments by analysts and sobering understanding that the process of societal change in this huge region with population of 400 million is challenged by serious obstacles of different nature. So this is not just about development of Lithuania with 3 million inhabitants - Lithuania was presented by me just as more or less typica example of diversion from liberal democracy.
Public debate on the issue of human rights across Europe is needed now more that ever. In many Eastern European countries, particularly on the territory of the former Soviet Union, universal human rights principles, when applied in practice, are met with reluctance or resistance by large parts of the population, especially when it comes to civil rights of vulnerable groups. Children from disadvantaged groups and parents who lack parenting skills appear among those groups, with the general population often asking for "more duties than rights" for many of these groups. One of the larger misunderstandings is the tendency in the eastern part of Europe to see modern human rights and child rights principles as some rules imported from (or even imposed by) Western societies and cultures.
The principle that all human rights are equally important and indivisible, as well as the right of children to holistic development, and the key message that children are owners and subjects of their own rights, has not been fully understood and implemented in many Eastern European countries. Not surprisingly, human rights of children, as subjects and holders of their rights, are still difficult to accept for many, including healthcare professionals, after many years of different value systems having been dominating in medical practice. Similarly, there is a lot to be done in order to protect children and women from domestic violence in case when violent father and husband is protected with prevailing attitudes of society that preservation of marriage and family is the highest priority. In other words, culture of violence still remains a „supported national tradition" in many European countries, and investments in educating parents and other adults in everyday skills of non-violent behavior in case of crisis or conflict, are still close to zero in many countries.
Family support and child protection services, which have never existed in Eastern European countries before 1990, are still in their infancy and with huge gaps and problems on the levels of quantity, quality and philosophy. Essential services, such as healthcare and social services supposed to support parents in improving their parenting skills and empowering both parents and children as citizens. Healthcare services and family support services have to be substantially supported with adequate numbers of well-trained social workers and other professionals, and with adequate skills and knowledge in the area of human relations. It happens still often in maternity rooms in Eastern Europe that woman with some social or emotional problems is convinced by the staff to abandon the child, and this is, again, reflection of the attitudes that only „best people" should have and raise children, while in other cases children would be protected by „not enough good parents" and stay in state institutions
If human and financial resources are invested in the system of services based on philosophy that "the state is a better parent", it will only reinforce the still strong tradition of helplessness and social exclusion. This is why the main goal of transforming the system is not just to strengthen in quantity the still very limited community-based and family-focused services, but to change their philosophy so that qualified professional support is provided for families to prevent separation and to empower biological families to become more competent in their parenting capacities.



To conclude these reflections, we are back to most complex and important question. The most complicated question is whether it is possible at all to try to find compromises between mutually conflicting views, as it comes to family support principles. Even if in some cases it might be theoretically possible, the line of a possible compromise is so fine that in practice there is no way to achieve that supporters of both ideologies will be satisfied. On one hand, this is why it is up to democratic process to discuss these important questions and to hope that policy makers will make wise decisions. On the other hand, I am still insisting that we should have a „compass" to agree on our values and on general direction of our attempts. I firmly believe that UN human rights principles and European Union values on human rights represent this compass. This is why I am sceptical about possibility of consensus in the debate around what does it mean to support families.



By the same authors:  Are we all ready to respond to challenges of young generation in a healthy way? 

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