11 - Peatükk

The rights of the child

Author: Helika Saar

The situation has worsened.

Key issues

  • The mental health of children is poor
  • The Riigikogu amended the ‘Psychiatric Care Act’ so that a child may independently turn to a psychiatrist for help, without parental permission.
  • Public consultation regarding the sexual self-determination of children

Political and institutional developments

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic in the period covering 2020-2021, a question arose in the form of how it might be possible to find a balance between the rights of the child, the interests of the family, and the interests of the state. The keywords were anxiety, isolation, and distance learning,[1] as well as increasing inequality, mental health, and child suicides.

The number of disputes which include or concern children has increased.[2] Fortunately, the government has made some adjustments to the state budget strategy,[3] approving the establishment of a national family reconciliation system in September 2021,[4] and thereby ensuring a free supranational public family reconciliation service from 2022.

Positive steps were taken in the introduction of restorative law: the third Estonian children’s home was opened in Jõhvi.[5] In 2020, a total of 429 children were assisted in the Social Insurance Board’s children’s homes, which receive children who have been sexually abused or for whom abuse is suspected. The number of cases in the various children’s homes is growing regularly.

Unfortunately, not all state decisions are always supportive of children’s coping. As an example of this, the Social Insurance Board decided to change practices around the identification of disability, as a result of which some disabled children were not actually identified as disabled and so the children in question were deprived of the assistance they needed.[6] The Riigikogu passed the necessary amendment to the law,[7] but there are still children with multiple diagnoses who are being diagnosed with a milder disability than before or who are not being diagnosed with a disability at all.

The need for support specialists has been talked about for years. According to the National Audit Office,[8] the provision of assistance to children who have special needs may be being hampered by an overly-fragmented, time-consuming, bureaucratic support system. Support for children with special educational needs was also jeopardised during the declared emergency due to the spread of COVID-19. On the plus side, there was a positive development in terms of launching reform in the support system for children who have special needs.[9]

As one of the last EU member states to do so, Estonia approved the ‘Declaration on Safe Schools’, with this being achieved in April 2020; the declaration is aimed at protecting a child’s right to education and facilitating the continuation of education in conflict situations.

Legislative developments

Legislation is the main instrument of the state when it comes to ensuring the implementation of the rights of the child in terms of decisions and activities which may concern children.[10] The realisation of the rights of the child presupposes that all legislation which may affect them, as well as the implementation of such legislation, is in accordance with the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (CRC).

Finally, in April 2021, the only correct solution was implemented from the perspective of the rights of the child, this being the elimination of a significant violation of the rights of the child, when the Riigikogu amended the ‘Psychiatric Care Act’ so that, in the future, a child with sufficient discretion can independently turn to a psychiatrist for help without parental permission.[11]

Judicial procedure and practice

According to the Justice Scoreboard 2020, Estonian courts are amongst the most child-friendly in the EU.[12] Despite this, and the increase in the availability and prevalence of child-centered proceedings, prejudiced professionals still tend to create tension in young people who are involved in criminal proceedings.[13]

Several adjudications by the Supreme Court concerned custody and communication rights. For example, one case was initiated which involved depriving a parent of their custody of a child,[14] while another concerned the granting of sole custody to one parent over the other when determining the future of a child,[15] and yet another granted the right to one parent over the other to be able to determine the child’s place of abode.[16] The issue of child maintenance is still one which is being disputed,[17] including the fact that conflicting opinions were created by a judgement which concerned the preconditions of a maintenance claim, in which the child took turns with both parents who were themselves living apart, while retroactively ordering the payment of delayed maintenance.[18] Clarification was provided in terms of who – and under what conditions – was eligible to claim the annulment of an adoption,[19] and also in terms of describing the concept of a close relationship as provided for in § 121 (2) 2) of the Penal Code.[20] Within the framework of constitutional review proceedings, the Supreme Court en banc ruled that the second sentence of § 6 (1) of the Family Benefits Act was partially unconstitutional in its nature.[21]

In addition to the usual topics of the period (such as inclusive education, communications with children, etc), the Chancellor of Justice was also contacted regarding issues which resulted from the emergency situation within the country.

Statistics and surveys

The number of children who are living in a household with a single adult has increased;[22] such children are most at risk of falling into poverty. When compared to figures for Estonian children as a whole, the figures for deprivation (6.4%) are higher for disabled children (17.5%).[23] A total of 51% of twelve year-olds rate their mental well-being as low and 15% feel unhappy.[24]

The state of emergency and the consequent constraints have been accompanied by an increase in inequality between children,[25] including technological inequality and growing educational inequality. Among other things, it was due to the lack of digital tools and skills that some children suffered from unequal opportunities during the emergency when it came to being able to receive part of what is offered by educational institutions and other organisations which typically deal with children.

The mental health situation for the population as a whole, especially that of children and young people, has become worse, in line with figures for children and young people in other countries.[26] There are more frequent incidents of aggressive behaviour, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm, sleep disturbances, and suicidal behaviour,[27] and the number of children and young people who find themselves in need is growing. The number of suicide attempts by minors has almost doubled since 2015,[28] with a total of fourteen young people under the age of nineteen having committed suicide in 2020. The field of mental health has been underfunded for decades, and access to support services remains a problem.[29]

The level of registered cases of domestic violence is high (totalling 3,987 cases in 2020), including the fact that children were either victims or witnesses of crime in 27% of cases.[30] Estonians are not prone to reporting violence against children.[31] As a child, every sixth person has mentioned having experienced sexual abuse by an adult.[32] A total of 45% of 16-26 year-old Estonian youths have been sexually harassed or sexually abused either online or offline.[33] A total of 32% of children who were referred to the now-closed child care service were in substitute care; many of them did not even have the necessary family support.[34] The number of appeals to the Child Hotline has continued to increase. One of the main concerns of children is loneliness; in many cases children do not dare tell their parents about their concerns.

Awareness is needed when it comes to being able to exercise your rights and, if necessary, to stand up for them. A total of 55% of Estonian twelve year-olds know what rights children have; a third have heard of the CRC. Significantly fewer children of younger age have heard of the rights and the convention.[35]

Promising practice

Children’s good welfare is guaranteed in several areas. Among other things, this is in terms of an awareness of children’s rights and their full implementation in society as a whole. Examples of good practice can be included below:

1) For the first time, one of the discussions at the Estonian Legal Scholars Days was dedicated to the rights of the child;[36]

2) A summary of statistics and research which was related to the rights of the child can be found on the Chancellor of Justice’s website; two collections were published: ‘Lapsed Eesti ühiskonnas’ (‘Children in Estonian society’),and ‘Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8-12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust’ (‘How are you, children in Estonia? An overview of the subjective well-being of children aged 8-12’).[37]

3) More issues which can be related to children’s mental health were covered in the media. These included the ETV series, ‘Selge pilt’ (‘Clear Picture’) and ‘Kool minu kodus’ (‘School in my home’).

4) The Minister of Social Protection consulted with organisations which deal with children and youths both in terms of mental health,[38] and also sexual self-determination.[39] Children participated in the Opinion Festival;[40] while at the April 2020 hackathon, ‘Hack the crisis – youths’, young people offered innovative solutions to problems which had arisen during the crisis.

Major public debates

Among other things, the public’s attention was focused on issues which concerned children’s right to self-determination and children’s right to health. The debate on children’s sexual self-determination, which has been the subject of discussion over the course of an entire decade, has reached the stage in which the law is to be amended, with this step currently enjoying broad public support.[41]

‘Some minors have a very bad life and may be depressed,’ wrote twelve year-old Keio,[42] with this being in response to a call by the Child Welfare Association,[43] in terms of being able to express an opinion on the availability of psychiatric care for minors. Despite the active support of interest groups,[44] opposition members of one governing party caused the Riigikogu to spend a total of fifteen long months on proceeding a bill which was aimed at guaranteeing children the right to seek psychiatric help on their own.

In the light of the documented mental health problems, the government’s proposal to reduce the support for hobbies which could be allocated to local government authorities from 2022 onwards, despite Estonia’s economic growth, resulted in a degree of opposition. A public call to abandon the cuts was made by youths organisations,[45] while the ‘Union of Estonian Cities and Municipalities’ supported this call. The ‘Union of Child Welfare’ sharply criticised any decision which ignored the interests of children.[46]

Trends and outlook

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has made it clear that, while national legislation is largely in line with the convention, its practical implementation is not always being realised. The problems are still the same,[47] be it the large number of supporters of corporal punishment, the unequal availability of services, regional inequalities, the insufficient level of child participation, or the growing number of maintenance debtors. In the 2020 joint report, the ‘Equal Treatment Network’ referred to the same problem areas for Estonia’s ‘Third Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR), which presented relevant proposals for solutions.[48]

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing problems and inequalities while also creating new ones. Restrictions have affected children’s access to education, social relationships, and mental health. In practice, the child’s right to safety, play, and leisure has also decreased. Many children have not been able to take part in sports or leisure activities, or artistic or cultural activities, all of which are essential for their development and well-being.

Case study

‘I would also need to go to a psychiatrist, but my parents do not support me in this, so I am waiting for that one year to pass, to be able to seek help myself when I am eighteen years old. Minors also need help! If they don’t get help now, things will get worse later, because the problems will not go away, they will disturb them for the rest of their lives instead,’ stated by seventeen year-old Mari.

Due to the opposition of a single government party, the Riigikogu had to spend a total of fifteen months to be able to proceed the draft ‘Psychiatric Care Act’, the purpose of which was to ensure the right of children to independently turn to a psychiatrist for help. There is no excuse for such a violation of the rights of the child, especially not when playing political ping-pong with the right of children to be able to ensure their proper mental health.

Recommendations

  • To increase the influence of children in shaping the society, and to promote children’s participation in various decision-making processes, thereby strengthening the cohesion of society as a whole.
  • Inform society more widely about the rights of the child, while also increasing the scope of human rights education in various school levels and in the basic and in-service training of child-related professions.
  • Ensure more effective implementation of the UN ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’, including guaranteeing the fundamental social rights of children and reducing inequalities. More attention must be paid to prevention, early detection, supporting a growth environment which is free from violence and bullying, ensuring the availability of mental health services, while also supporting professionals, access to hobby education, and the promotion of multidisciplinary cooperation, including in terms of mitigating the multifaceted effects of COVID-19.
  • Systematically collect statistical information which can be used as the basis of an analysis which will help to develop policies which in turn ensure the rights of the child.
  • Raise the awareness of society as a whole when informing a child who is in need so that children are not left alone with their concerns.

[1] Beilmann, M., Kutsar, D., Soo, K., Nahkur, O. 2020. Laste heaolu eriolukorra ajal: praktikute ja uurijate vaade.

[2] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Valitsus kiitis heaks riikliku perelepitussüsteemi loomise, 23.09.2021.

[3] Uudised.ee. 2021. Lastekaitse liit: laste pealt ei tohi riik eelarves kokku hoida, 30.05.2021.

[4] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Valitsus kiitis heaks riikliku perelepitussüsteemi loomise, 23.09.2021.

[5] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2020. Jõhvis avatakse kolmas lastemaja, 17.08.2020.

[6] Habicht, A. 2019. Ringmäng puudega lapse ümber, ERR, 30.10.2019.

[7] Riigikogu. 2020. Sotsiaalhoolekande seaduse, puuetega inimeste sotsiaaltoetuste seaduse ning tööturuteenuste ja -toetuste seaduse muutmise seadus, 08.04.2020.

[8] Riigikontroll. 2020. Hariduse tugiteenuste kättesaadavus, 25.11.2020.

[9] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Valitsus toetas erivajadusega laste tugisüsteemi reformi, 29.04.2021.

[10] Hakalehto-Wainio, S. 2015. Lapse õigused koolis.

[11] Pulk, M. 2021. Alla 18-aastased saavad edaspidi pöörduda iseseisvalt psühhiaatri juurde, 17.03.2021.

[12] European Commission. 2020. The 2020 EU Justice Scoreboard.

[13] Rakendusliku Antropoloogia Keskus. 2021. Alaealise õigusrikkuja kasutajateekonna ja kogemuse analüüs.

[14] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 29.04.2020. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-19295.

[15] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 19.02.2020. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-15686.

[16] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 19.05.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-20-1707/82.

[17] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 19.06.2020. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-6499.

[18] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 12.05.2021. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-6491.

[19] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 10.02.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-11489.

[20] Riigikohtu kriminaalkolleegiumi 09.03.2020. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 1-19-3377.

[21] Riigikohtu üldkogu 10.10.2020. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 3-18-1672.

[22] Statistikaamet. 2021. Kuidas elavad Eesti lapsed, 01.06.2021.

[23] Õiguskantsleri Kantselei. 2021. Lapsed Eesti ühiskonnas.

[24] Soo, K., Kutsar, D. 2020. Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8–12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust.

[25] Beilmann, M., Kutsar, D., Soo, K., Nahkur, O. 2020. Laste heaolu eriolukorra ajal: praktikute ja uurijate vaade.

[26] OECD. 2021. Tackling the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis: An integrated, whole-of-society response, 12.05.2021.

[27] Tervise Arengu Instituut. 2021. COVID-19 mõju noorte sotsialiseerumisele, 25.05.2021.

[28] Värnik, P., Sisask, M., Värnik, A. 2021. Enesetappude ja enesetapukatsete epidemioloogiline ülevaade Eestis.

[29] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2020. Vaimse tervise roheline raamat.

[30] Justiitsministeerium. 2021. Kuritegevus vähenes eelmisel aastal viis protsenti, 05.02.2021.

[31] Harrik, A. 2021. Eestlased ei poolda lapse kehalist karistamist, aga teavitavad sellest harva, ERR, 06.01.2021.

[32] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Seksuaalse väärkohtlemise kogemine lapsepõlves ja viimase aasta jooksul.

[33] Hillep, P., Pärnamets, R., Eesti Uuringukeskus OÜ, Norstat Eesti AS. 2020. Laste ja noorte seksuaalse väärkohtlemise hoiakute ja kogemuste uuring.

[34] Riigikohus. 2020. Kinnisesse lasteasutusse paigutamine.

[35] Soo, K., Kutsar, D. 2020. Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8–12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust.

[36] UTTV. 2020. 36. Eesti õigusteadlaste päevad, 09.10.2020.

[37] Soo, K., Kutsar, D. 2020. Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8–12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust.

[38] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Sotsiaalkaitseminister: noorte vaimne tervis vajab eritähelepanu, 31.03.2021.

[39] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Noored tegid sotsiaalkaitseministrile ettepaneku tõsta seksuaalse enesemääramise vanusepiiri 16. eluaastani, 31.03.2021.

[40] Lastekaitse Liit. 2021. Viisime laste ja noorte hääle Arvamusfestivalile, 15.08.2021.

[41] Oja, B. 2021. Ühingud toetavad seksuaalse enesemääramise piiril viieaastast vanusevahet, ERR, 19.04.2021.

[42] Nimi muudetud.

[43] Saar, H. 2020. Lastekaitse Liidu arvamus psühhiaatrilise abi kättesaadavuse kohta alaealistele, 20.10.2020.

[44] Anvelt, K., Adamson, S. 2020. Noorteorganisatsioonid: psühhiaatriline abi peab olema võrdselt kättesaadav kõigile alaealistele, Delfi, 15.06.2020.

[45] EANÜ. 2021. Noortevaldkonna organisatsioonide avalik pöördumine peaminister Kaja Kallase ja minister Liina Kersna poole, 29.04.2021.

[46] Lastekaitse Liit. 2021. Lastekaitseliidu hinnangul eirab praegune valitsus oma otsustes laste ja noorte huvisid, ERR, 01.06.2021.

[47] Saar, H. 2019. Lapse õigused 2018–2019.

[48] Eesti võrdse kohtlemise võrgustik. 2020. Ühisaruanne Eesti kolmanda üldise korralise ülevaatuse (UPR) jaoks.


Author

  • Helika Saar on töötanud Lastekaitse Liidus alates 2009. aastast lapse õiguste programmi koordinaatorina, eelnevalt töötanud juristina, sh nõunikuna Euroopa Parlamendis. Lõpetanud Tartu Ülikooli õigusteaduskonna ja omandanud teise magistrikraadi Tallinna Ülikooli Sotsiaaltöö Instituudis sotsiaalteaduste alal. Lastekaitse Liidus koordineerinud mitmeid huvikaitse ja lapse õigustega seotud siseriiklikke ja rahvusvahelisi projekte, koostanud valdkondlikke analüüse, uuringuid ja arvamusi, sh koostanud ÜRO lapse õiguste konventsiooni täiendava aruande (2015) sisulise analüüsi.

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