Uniting sectors has broken new ground in the country’s efforts to safeguard its young
At the turn of the millennium, Montenegrin social services were struggling to deal with the most complex and extreme cases of child maltreatment.
“Approaching violence from any single sector wasn’t working,” recalls Goran Kuševija, Director of the Directorate for Social and Child Protection in the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare of Montenegro. “Violence is an intersectoral problem: when a child is a victim, they often need physical or psychological support from the health sector, sometimes they require legal assistance, and they almost always need ongoing support from the education system.
“We wanted each sector to work around the child not make traumatised children travel to the health centre, then the police station, and whatever other services they required.”
In response, Montenegro established its first Community-Based Operational Multidisciplinary Teams (OMTs) to protect children from violence and neglect in 2002. OMTs include around 10 team members drawn from different sectors: social workers, healthcare professionals, lawyers, police officers and child psychologists all work together to provide support to those most in need – usually children suffering extreme violence and neglect.
OMTs are coordinated by Centres for Social Work, the local outposts of the Ministry for Labour and Social Work stationed across Montenegro. Currently 17 OMTs operate across the country’s 23 municipalities.
OMTs meet twice a month, pooling knowledge and offering support in particularly difficult cases. Children can be referred directly to OMTs, or members of the team – many of whom work on the frontline of child protection – can raise cases at their meetings.
The benefits have been manifold. “Child protection is so much quicker now that we have integrated each sector,” noted Svetlana Sovilj, Senior Child Protection Adviser in the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, and fewer children are falling through the cracks when they are referred between services.
Staff have also reaped the rewards of a collaborative approach. “There’s much less burnout. These cases are extremely complicated, and sometimes staff have to take drastic decisions. It’s much easier when they have discussions in a team and help each other in their work.”
Rolling out the OMTs nationwide has not been without its challenges. “Anything that is intersectoral requires a lot of oversight and coordination,” noted Kuševija. “And it requires additional pay. OMT members are working very stressful jobs, and they require remuneration for their extra service.”
OMTs are no miracle cure. As Nela Krnic of UNICEF Montenegro notes, “All services cannot be provided in the home. If a child needs a specific medical examination, for example, it has to be done at a health centre. But we can make the process of referral much easier.”
Now, the task is regularising the work done by the OMTs across the 17 municipalities they are based in. First adopted as standard practice in 2012, the OMTs produced standard frameworks and guidelines for good practice, and regular monitoring and data collection is underway.
“These teams are not perfect,” said Kuševija, “but we are committed to constant evaluation and improvement.”