A Poem to an unknown mother

I first learned of Catherine’s story through a standard report. One of many commonly found in organizations and institutions steeped in cold, official language. “Abnormal behavior” was observed, it said. Catherine did not want to stay with the children of her age group.Instead, she liked to stay with adults. After the camp, the organization's staff discussed the case and decided to follow-up. .. the local police announced her disappearance. Father admitted that he had used violence,” read the report. “The child left home again in January for two days."

Today, the "case" stands before me. She is a 12-year-old girl with shining eyes, a small face, a petite body and a dense head of wavy hair.  She is beautiful and curious child.  She asks what will happen with things she will tell me. I explain that I will write a story for adults in the hope that, after reading it, they will treat children better—that they will understand how much children suffer when they are beaten by their parents and how they are in emotional anguish when one or both of their parents abandon them.  This is Catherine’s story, abandoned by her mother and abused by her father. Even so, she waits and longs to be loved by them.

She came in the center where now lives, SOS Children's Village, almost a year ago after living for some time in another residential center in Elbasan. Before arriving at the other shelter, she bounced between child protection units, NGO shelters, and the home of her grandmother.

Many others Catherines

Catherine’s mother abandoned her when she was just one year old. She left to raise a new family. She left Catherine and her two other childrenwith their father, her ex-husband, and has made it terribly clear that does not want to have any connection with this part of her life.

Over the past 12 years, she has never asked for her children. There have been no letters or phone calls for Catherine. Ironically, Catherine’s mother is the cause of her father’s aggression.  “The main cause of the violence was the fact that the girl refuses to say any bad words for her mother. She opposes whenever her father or his actual wife do this, unlike her two sisters. And only Catherine is abused, not her sisters, "saysArnitaPonari, a social worker from SOS Children’s Village.
To understand the natural bond between mother and child, even when the relationship is not reciprocated, one just needs to meet Catherine. Although she doesn’t remember her mother, she recently wrote her a poem.

“Mother’s heart is welling

8 March is coming,

I feel her, hear her

When laughing, crying

All mothers have the same heart. "

Cases like Catherine’s are common in Albania. Children are abused or neglected by their parents; others are  are orphans or are extremely poor. Other children are beaten when they don’t obey, especially in more rural contexts. According to a recent UNICEF study, 52 per cent of Albanian children are subject to violence. “In 2012 alone, the Child Protection Units helped 1,300 juveniles at risk," said Miranda Pashaj, the director of the State Agency for Protection of Child Rights.

How it works

Often times, cases are reported by neighbours, civil society, schools, or even by the minor himself to the Child Protection Unit (CPU). Once the initial report is made, a CPU employee visits the family to evaluate the situation. If it is determined that something should be done a committee, made up of local government CPU staff, members from local schools and/or local NGOs, is formed. The committee is joined by someone the parents know and an initial meeting is held.

If the parents do not recognize there is a problem and/or have no desire to change their behaviour toward the child(ren), they are removed and taken to whatever shelter is available. The initial separation is designed to last only a few days, with the hope that, now that the child is gone, the parents would understand the gravity of the situation. While the child is away, the adults continue to address the root causes of the violence;sometimes, the cause is father's unemployment or lack of money. In such cases, stress is usually discharged to the weakest members: the children and wife. Usually, the commission seeks help from local authorities and, in some cases, a modest job is provided to the head of family or a regular economic assistance is given to the family. If parents request the return of their child, he/her returns home.

Those who don’t go home

Many afternoons and evenings, after entering their bedrooms to sleep, children’s discussions drift to their parents; those who do not live anymore as well as those who are still alive but rarely, if ever, show interest in their children. They try to explain. They try to understand. They cry.

This is what Catherine  and her roommate do. They share their bedroom and their concerns. "We talk about our stories, remember our families and then feel so much sadness. So, [the] next day we go out and play, just to keep our mind out of that,”she says pulling her fingers in and out of her jacket’s pocket.

But, even in their games the idea of family is central. “We play house and each of us take role of mom, dad, sister, brother. Here is how I think the happy family [should be],” says Catherine. “Mom cooks and cares for the children. Dad goes to work. [And],the brothers and sisters play happily,” she narrates, noting how different her idea of a family is from her actual situation. “I wish my Daddy could change! I wish he hits me no more! Then, I can turn home. I feel nice here, but I want to go back there. You know, he phoned me once and told me he was going to come” she says with an almost hurting self-confidence.

Although her father could, he has yet to visit her. “Nobody stops him,” says the social worker.The only family member who visits frequently is her aunt. 

As if problems within families were not enough, the child protection system in Albania has its own issues. An evaluation study of the Child Protection Units, conducted by World Vision Albania and Kosovo, together with an independent international consultant, published in March, 2013 found that of the 370 CPUs which should exist, only 125 do. And, of the CPUs that are functioning, they often lack authority and budget to operate as they should.  "Mandatory standards must be introduced to cover all child protection situations, including emergencies,” explained Stephanie Delaney, an international consultant for child protection. “It is recommended that these units operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day," she adds.

But, there is no doubt that the best solution is that the child does not need to be removed from their home and Albanian parents respect their children. Otherwise, even when they become part of a child protection system that works well, children will continue to be sad. They will continue to write poems for moms whom they have never had, moms they simply imagine, and they will continue to play house, trying to forget what their house was like. This is how children like Catherine, like her friend from Tirana and like hundreds of others throughout Albania cope.