The evidence is clear. Institutional care is damaging to children without exception.
In order to develop to their potential, children need the love, care and attention of a family. Emotional support is essential for brain development and even the smallest baby will suffer if they do not have this close, loving contact from an early age. The central importance of family for children is recognised in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
For normal brain development to occur, a young child needs a caregiver and an environment responsive to his or her needs. Deprived of the possibility to develop a healthy attachment to a primary caregiver, children growing up in institutions suffer severe impairments.
Decades of research show that institutional care simply cannot provide the one-to-one care, love and attention a child needs to develop. Researchers have documented structural and functional changes in the brains of children who grow up in this environment. As a result their physical, cognitive and emotional development is severely damaged.
Children in institutions tend to be smaller and lighter than children of the same age who grow up in families. They are also slower to reach developmental milestones. These children tend to have poor cognitive performance, lower than average IQs and perform poorly at school. As a result they are over represented in special education and vocational schools, limiting their ability to secure employment later in life. Communication problems are also common in children who grow up in institutional care. With depersonalised routines and little social interaction children can find it hard to form normal relationships, even later on in life.
As eighty per cent of the brain cells a person will ever have are formed in the first three years of life, institutionalisation during these early years is particularly devastating. The earlier a child is placed in an institution, the more profound the damage will be.
This situation is totally incompatible with the protection of children’s rights and has significant consequences for society as a whole. The profound impact on their development will affect the rest of their lives, put them at higher risk of developing mental health problems and leave them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
As young adults they are likely to have no support network, struggle to find employment and become dependent on the state for their basic welfare. Young adults leaving institutional care are more likely to fall victims of trafficking, exploitation, unemployment, homelessness and depression. With no experience of family life, many struggle when they become parents themselves, putting their children at risk of institutionalisation and transmitting the problem from one generation to the next.
Discrimination is also reinforced in institutional care systems. Children from vulnerable groups are at increased risk of being placed in institutional care, with Roma children and children with disabilities particularly overrepresented in institutions in Europe. The stigma attached to institutional care also has lasting consequences into adulthood.
Taking all of these factors into account, it is clear that institutional care is not cost effective in the long term, nor is it a good use of tax payer’s money. The additional investment required to tackle issues such as unemployment, anti-social behaviour and a lack of parenting skills, far outweighs the investment needed to provide family-based care for all children and services which support families and prevent their breakdown.