We believe that the end of institutional care for children in Europe is possible and within our reach – putting the best interests of children back at the heart of Europe’s child protection systems. The right decisions and a concerted political will can transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of children across Europe.
In fact, the process of deinstitutionalisation (DI), has already secured a place on the EU political agenda. In particular, clauses on DI have been included in the regulations concerning the use of EU Structural Funds, creating a process for national governments to access the additional funding they need to support the transition.
Over the past 15 years we have seen great progress but now is not the time to slow down. In Romania, more than 90,000 children have been moved from institutional care with only about 8,000 children left institutional care facilities all as part of the government’s 2022 strategy to have no more institutions for children left in Romania. So too the Bulgarian government has committed to a national strategy for the deinstitutionalisation of all its children in the coming years. Finally, many other EU states have committed to ensuring that under threes are never placed in an institution as very young children are most harmed by this type of care.
There is also a great deal of knowledge and experience regarding the process of DI and the development of services which support families and provide family-based alternatives for children within Europe. Much can be learned through the experience developed at national level if it can be harnessed and shared across the region.
However in many cases, progress at national level has stalled as a result of competing priorities or a lack of know-how, political will or resources. Austerity measures and the overall European economic outlook threaten to undermine the progress made by deprioritising investment in children and vulnerable families and in the development of high quality alternative care. Decisions to make short term savings in welfare and social care budgets are likely to result in increasing the numbers of children at risk and separated from their parents, increasing the cost of child protection systems in the short, medium and long term. Also due to the current refugee and migrant crisis, a large number of migrant, unaccompanied and separated children are being detained or institutionalized in entry, transit and destination countries across Europe. Children’s rights should not be undermined in times of crisis and EU funds should be used in the best interest of the children.
In order to accelerate progress towards ending institutional care for children in Europe, the experience from across the region shows that four key conditions which must be in play at national level:
- Political commitment must be present at local and national level in order to create lasting change.
- Funding must be available to cover transition and development costs. Such investment allows budgets allocated to institutions to be used after their closure to sustain prevention and high quality alternative care.
- The know-how must exist in-country to implement reforms and make sure change is sustainable.
- Civil society must play an important role in the planning and delivery of reform and services and ensure that children’s voices are heard in decision-making.
Astonishingly, in the past EU funds have been used to support the institutional care systems – often undermining efforts at national level to promote DI reforms. However, the regulations for the use of structural funds present a unique opportunity for the EU to assume a key role, providing the additional investment needed to accelerate reform, leading the transfer of knowledge and experience and keeping DI high on the political agenda.
The EU has an important role to play in leading and coordinating this process across its members, pre-accession countries and neighbours – now more than ever.