'We're not aliens': Gay Croatia couple fight to foster kids
Educated, employed, calm and caring: Ivo and Mladen appear to tick all the boxes for being ideal foster parents in Croatia where some 1,000 children desperately need homes.
There's just one problem.
They are a gay couple in a conservative and largely Catholic society, where prejudice has for years frustrated their dream to take in children.
A constitutional court verdict however has just given them a glimmer of hope.
Judges ruled in late January that same-sex couples have the right to foster children -- a matter that was in dispute because they were not included in a 2018 law.
"We were delighted," Ivo Segota, a 37-year-old molecular biologist, told AFP from a Zagreb cafe with his partner Mladen Kozic, 38, a sociologist.
"After this ruling... no one should ever undergo what we went through," he added.
While tolerance for the LGBT community has grown in Croatia in recent years, the Catholic Church remains immensely influential.
Religious groups have led the charge to keep gay marriage outlawed and restrict legislation on matters like fostering, adoption and abortion access.
Unable to marry, Segota and Kozic are registered life partners, a status that carries most of the same rights.
Longing to build a family, they applied to be foster parents in 2017 after their adoption application was immediately rejected.
"Our wish for children is deeply intimate and is no different from other couples who want to hear children's laughter in their home," Segota said.
"We took the fostering path precisely because these children haven't had much reason to laugh in their lives, and we want to give them that."
- 'Rejected' -
Yet the foster parent application process quickly turned into a vicious cycle of assessments, rejections, appeals and rulings in which they were ping-ponged between Zagreb's social welfare centre, the social policy ministry and courts.
Their initial interview with the social welfare centre had been very positive regarding their bid, Segota said.
The couple stands out from most foster parents who are in their 50s and often poorly educated, official data show.
But, he added, the centre had suddenly halted the process citing lack of legal grounds.
The staff also later ignored a Zagreb court ruling to re-examine the couple's application, provoking outrage among rights groups and legal experts.
"Mladen and I were totally shocked," said Segota, recalling the feeling when he read the word "rejected" in bold in a letter from the centre.
Now, the ruling by Croatia's highest court made public last month has planted fresh hope for their case.
The couple is going ahead with construction of a house near Zagreb that they dream will become a home for two or three children by the end of the year, along with their dog Lu and two cats.
While it is not easy to come out in Croatia, let alone expose your private lives to the media, Segota and Kozic eventually decided it was important to show that same-sex couples are not "some kind of monsters, aliens imported from the West".
- Heated opposition -
Though the legal situation for LGBT people has improved, new laws don't always spur societal change on the ground.
Nearly 64 percent of Croatians still oppose same-sex couples fostering children, according to a recent survey.
The top reason cited was that a child needs both a "mother and father" to be properly raised.
The recent court ruling also provoked a backlash.
Vice Batarelo, head of the ultra Catholic association Vigilare, called the constitutional court a "dangerous institution" which cast "shame" on the country.
"We've turned the children who should enjoy the greatest care in society into guinea pigs," he said.
Another group, entitled In the Name of the Family, plans to challenge what it terms the "unacceptable" ruling "against children's interests".
During a Carnival event in late February, locals in the small town of Imotski burned an effigy of a gay couple and child in protest.
The government condemned the incident which was defended by event organisers as honouring traditional values.
Segota and Kozic want the focus to shift back to the children in need.
"It has become about us, politics, views, stigmas," Kozic said.
"But it's not about us. It's about those 1,000 children who deserve better care and, due to the poor work of institutions, are losing their future."
© 2020 AFP