Croatia's same-sex couples campaign for child fostering rights

A landmark case is set to make legal history in Croatia.

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    Same-sex couples campaign in Croatia for the right to adopt and foster children [Dugine Obitelji/Al Jazeera]
    Same-sex couples campaign in Croatia for the right to adopt and foster children [Dugine Obitelji/Al Jazeera]

    Zagreb, Croatia - When Ivo Segota and Mladen Kozic decided to become foster parents, they weren't expecting the legal battle that awaited them.

    "We had no reason to believe that we would be treated differently, since you can become a foster-care giver or adopt as a single person [in Croatia], regardless of your sexual orientation," Segota told Al Jazeera.

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    Segota and Kozic first applied to foster a child in 2017. Despite passing all the initial assessments, including making it through multiple rounds of interviews, they were abruptly rejected. Their application to adopt was also denied.

    "It was quite a surprise when the centre stopped communicating with us and then sent us the rejection papers for both cases. The reason was explained in a quite simplistic and formal way - that we were rejected because we don't meet the legal criteria," Segota said.

    From the archives: Croatians protest anti-gay marriage vote [2013]

    After losing an appeal lodged with Croatia's Ministry of Demographics, Family, Youth and Social Policy, Segota and Kozic filed a lawsuit, claiming they had been discriminated against due to their sexuality. In December 2019, the Zagreb Administrative Court ruled in their favour, ordering the ministry to reassess the couple's application to become foster parents.

    "The experience has been very stressful at times, but we both believed that we would get a just ruling," Segota said.

    "It was just a big surprise to get the ruling so quickly, since from what we heard it takes a long time to get a ruling in Croatia. We were prepared for the case to last a long time."

    But the couple's battle isn’t over. On Tuesday, their application to foster a child was unexpectedly rejected once more, meaning they must lodge yet another appeal. They're also waiting for the court to rule on whether they can adopt - a landmark decision that will set a legal precedent likely to have far-reaching consequences for other same-sex couples in Croatia who want to start a family.

    Same sex couples campaign in Croatia for right to adopt and foster kids [Seb Starcevic]
    Rainbow Families arranges children's playdates for same-sex parents in Croatia [Dugine Obitelji/Al Jazeera]

     

    Rainbow Families is a Zagreb-based support group for gay parents and aspiring parents. Formed in 2011 with 15 members, the group now has more than 80 members and organises picnics and children's playdates as well as providing legal advice and information about starting a family.

    Rainbow Families spokesman Daniel Martinovic said allowing same-sex couples to adopt was about being "equal in the eyes of the law".

    "Various laws in Croatia state that citizens shouldn't be discriminated [against] on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation, and we should make that a reality, not just an empty statement," Martinovic told Al Jazeera.

    In 2013, following a nationwide referendum, Croatia's constitution was amended to define marriage as between a man and a woman. But shortly afterwards, the Same-Sex Life Partnership Act was passed, guaranteeing same-sex couples the same legal rights and protections as married couples - with the exception of adopting children.

    "The fact that you're married to [someone of the same sex] shouldn't change the way you are treated," Martinovic said.

    "The science, the experts, the Western countries that we always use as an example as to whom we're aspiring to - and where most of our citizens have emigrated to in the past couple of years - all say that someone's sexual orientation doesn't influence their parental skills. The main issue that should be taken into consideration is the wellbeing of the child."

    Same sex couples campaign in Croatia for right to adopt and foster kids [Seb Starcevic]
    Rainbow Families also provides support and advice to same-sex parents in Croatia [Dugine Obitelji/Al Jazeera]

     

    According to the country's branch of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF Croatia), more than 3,000 children were in foster care or social welfare institutions in Croatia in 2017. In 2018, the ombudswoman for gender equality said the number of new foster parents was in decline, with most aged over 55 and many without higher education.

    Segota said sexuality should be irrelevant when considering applications from prospective foster carers and adoptive parents.

    "We want to give a chance for a better future and a welcoming home to children that have been abandoned and are now in the system. In our opinion, anyone who wants to help a kid in this way should be allowed to apply for foster care or adoption," he said.

    "It doesn't matter if you're homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, what matters is that the social workers in our country have as large a pool as possible of warm homes and thoughtful parents that could provide care to the young that are stuck in children's care homes and similar institutions."

    But not everyone in Croatia - an almost exclusively Roman Catholic nation - feels the same way.

    In February 2018, a model of a children's book depicting same-sex parents with their children was symbolically burned in front of hundreds of people at a carnival near the coastal city of Split. According to local media, the blaze was part of a tradition of burning something "evil".

    Then in November 2018, during a debate on foster care legislation, Stevo Culej, an MP of the ruling conservative HDZ party, said he would rather see a child cared for by "a normal couple, husband and wife" than a gay couple "with bare asses who have a sword fight in front of children".

    A spokesperson for Zagreb Pride, Ana Urlic, said same-sex couples are regularly discriminated against and experience "institutional homophobia, despite being protected under the [Same-Sex] Life Partnership Act.

    "In the past several years, we have witnessed attempts to discriminate against same-sex couples in different areas such as taxes, family and, now, social rights," she told Al Jazeera.

    "For years, the LGBTIQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning] community has been ignored for political purposes. Hate crimes against LGBTIQ persons in Croatia go unpunished, discrimination is rampant, and our families are not safe."

    In general, we expect a long process. Everyone should be treated equally and without discrimination.

    Ivo Segota

    But despite opposition from conservative and religious groups, Martinovic said Croatia has made significant progress in advancing the rights of gay people.

    "Fifteen years ago, we didn't have any kind of legal protection; tear gas was thrown at the first pride marches in Croatia, [and] some of the activists at that time received asylum in other countries because of the threats that they faced," he said.

    "Now we have Rainbow Families talking to the media, picture books in Croatian depicting same-sex parents, over 300 same-sex weddings all over Croatia in the past couple of years, and I guess change is inevitable."

    Segota and Kozic hope to receive a decision about their adoption case sometime in 2020. But there's a possibility their lawsuit could drag on much longer, and they fear they may have to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights - an unedifying prospect for Croatia, which assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time in January.

    "It might be this year, it might be in three years," Segota said. "In general, we expect a long process. Everyone should be treated equally and without discrimination."

    A spokesperson for Croatia's Ministry of Demographics, Family, Youth and Social Policy said the ministry could not comment for this report.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News