Over one million children are growing up in care across Europe and hundreds of thousands are confined to institutional care – a type of residential care which is characterised by depersonalisation, rigid routines, closed doors and a lack of any warmth, love or affection.
Most of these children have parents and their separation could have been prevented if the right services were in place to support vulnerable families.
Children are housed in facilities known as institutions or orphanages in numbers running into hundreds in some cases. These large groups of children are supervised by employed staff, stigmatised, isolated and discouraged from maintaining or reconnecting with their own parents and families. Siblings are separated on the basis of disability, gender and age, further eroding children’s sense of identity and belonging to a family and a community. Babies in institutions learn very quickly that there is no point in crying because nobody comes.
Institutional care is damaging to children without exception. Children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development is severely damaged and clear evidence exists to demonstrate structural and functional changes in the brains of children who grow up in institutional care. Most have low academic achievement and many fall victim to trafficking, exploitation, unemployment, homelessness and depression on leaving the care system. Many institutional care leavers become single parents and rely on institutional care for their children.
Reliance on institutional care at national level indicates a child protection system built around a one-size-fits-all approach to care, rather than around the individual needs and best interests of children.
These systems are expensive, ineffective and hold back the development of services to support vulnerable families preventing their breakdown, and provision of family-based alternatives.
In these child protection systems, international standards guiding the alternative care for children without parental care are not respected. Children are denied their fundamental rights with respect to family life and states fail in their obligation to support families when reasons other than their ability to parent prevent them from caring for their children.
Reliance on institutional care must stop. Continued action to eradicate institutional care will release resources to establish sustainable prevention and community-based services as well as to develop high quality family based alternative care.
Many national governments have made significant progress in deinstitutionalisation – the process of reforming the national child protection system by replacing institutional care with a range of prevention and family-based alternative care services. However, there is much to be done before Europe’s child protection systems truly respond to children’s best interests.
We are calling on the European Union (EU) and European governments to prioritise investment in deinstitutionalisation across Europe and to open doors for children now for a more equitable, prosperous Europe in the future.