Why the institutionalisation of children must end: key facts

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Hundreds of thousands of children are still growing up in institutions in Europe today[1]. This includes children with disabilities, children without parental care, children in the child protection system, migrant, unaccompanied and separated children[2].

Although institutions are often funded by public money – intended for the public good – their environment is utterly inappropriate for children’s emotional, physical, intellectual and social development[3]. The very existence of institutions for children encourages families to place children into care, and so draws funding away from services that could support children living within families and communities[4].

Key fact 1

Institutions do not protect children, they harm them[1] and expose them to the risks of violence[2] and abuse[3].

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Research from across the world demonstrates that living in institutions can cause significant lifelong harm to children’s physical and psychological development[4],[5]. Institutions are ill-equipped to provide care that focuses on the individual needs of the child. Institutional care simply cannot provide the one-to-one love and attention a child needs to flourish and thrive. Institutions prevent the realisation of children’s potential[6] and severely limit their life chances[7].

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[1] Browne, K., The Risk of Harm to Young People Children in Institutional Care, 2009
[2] UNICEF, “Violence against Children in Care and Justice Institutions,” undated
[3]  United Nations General Assembly, Report of the independent expert for the United Nations study on violence against children. A/61/299, 2006
[4] OHCR, Forgotten Europeans, Forgotten Rights – The Human Rights of Persons Placed in Institutions, 2011
[5] Browne, K., The Risk of Harm to Young People Children in Institutional Care, 2009
[6] Munro, E.R. and Stein, M., 2008. Young people’s transitions from care to adulthood: cross national perspectives. CCFR evidence paper, issue 13. Loughborough: Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University
[7] Csáky, C., Keeping children out of harmful institutions: why we should be investing in family-based care, Save the Children, 2009

Key fact 2

More than 80% of ‘orphans’ in institutions have at least one living parent[1] who could provide them with the care they need, given the right support[2].

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The overwhelming majority of children enter institutions not because their parents have died or because they have experienced abuse or neglect at home, but rather because their parents live in material poverty and lack access to health, education, childcare, rehabilitation and other basic services that would enable them to adequately care for their children[3].

Institutions for children are an easy response by governments instead of providing inclusive and accessible services or developing quality alternative care options. Services that assist and support families in the local community can help prevent children needlessly entering into institutions and ensure that separating a child from their family is only ever a last resort[4]. Many children can return to live with their birth or extended families when the appropriate community-based services have been put in place. If placement in care is clearly in the best interests of the child, different options should be available depending on the child’s situation, needs and wishes, and in line with the child’s ability[5] to participate in the decision-making process, to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

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[1] Csáky, C., Keeping children out of harmful institutions: why we should be investing in family-based care, Save the Children, 2009
[2] Browne K.D., Hamilton-Giacritsis C.E., Johnson R., Chou S. Young children in institutional care in Europe. Early Childhood Maters, 2005
[3] Opening Doors for Europe’s Children, Maintain, Strengthen, Expand: How the EU can support the transition from institutional to family- and community-based care in the next Multiannual Financial Framework, 2018
[4] Principles of necessity and suitability – UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, p. 7, art. 14
[5] Suitability principle: Cantwell, N.; Davidson, J.; Elsley, S.; Milligan, I.; Quinn, N. (2012). Moving Forward: Implementing the ‘Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children’. UK: Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland., p. 22

Key fact 3

Children in institutions face segregation from society and lack any semblance of a normal, socially integrated life.

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In institutions, children are separated from their families, siblings, familiar surroundings and wider communities, which leads to a loss of their sense of identity[1]. Long distances between the location of a child’s placement and their immediate family, as well as unaffordable transport costs, compound the issue of segregation [2].

Vulnerable children, such as children with disabilities, often experience discrimination and are placed in segregated, specialised school settings, including boarding-school settings [3], because local public schools do not accept them or are not qualified to support their needs[4].

Evidence from campaign countries[5] show that across Europe, unaccompanied migrant children are being placed in reception centres, detention centres and refugee camps for long periods where their safety and protection is not guaranteed. The adopted international legal instruments and standards mandate that such solutions should be temporary until a long-term or permanent solution can be identified. When they leave reception centres, children usually enter segregated residential care settings, with no specific facilities or measures to provide high quality individualised care needed for their development. Sometimes, due to the limited number of shelters, children have to sleep rough on the streets. Living and growing up in unsafe and unhealthy conditions puts children at risk of exploitation, abuse and violence, and may cause them to fall outside the child protection system, which can, in turn, lead to children being  illegally smuggled and potentially going missing altogether.[6]

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[1] Opening Doors for Europe’s Children, Maintain, Strengthen, Expand: How the EU can support the transition from institutional to family- and community-based care in the next Multiannual Financial Framework, 2018
[2] Country Fact Sheet: Hungary, Opening Doors for Europe’s Children Campaign, 2016
[3] https://www.openingdoors.eu/belgium-segregation-policies-in-flemish-schools-breach-the-rights-of-children-with-disabilities-european-committee-of-social-rights-say/
[4] Children and Disability in Transition in CEE/CIS and Baltic States, Innocenti Insights no. 12, 2005
[5] Opening Doors for Europe’s Children, Country Fact Sheets, 2014-2018
[6]   Annex to the EEG letter on the exclusion of groups of people in vulnerable situations in the context of migration and provision of service, European Expert Group on the Transition from Institutional to Community based care

Key fact 4

There is a disproportionate number of children with disabilities in institutions across Europe.

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Across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, children with disabilities are almost 17 times more likely than other children to be institutionalised[1]. Children with disabilities are more vulnerable to mental, physical, sexual and other forms of abuse in institutions as well as neglect and negligent treatment[2]. Lack of support to families and inclusive education in the local area are the main reasons pushing children with disabilities into institutions[3].

Although institutions are viewed as providing high-quality care due to the presence of professional staff and the provision of medical treatments, in reality, institutions rarely improve a child’s quality of life and may, in fact, contribute to the deterioration of his or her condition. Children with disabilities often remain socially isolated from peers and local communities since many institutions have their own schools and health centres on site[4]. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires States to ensure that people with disabilities have access to services, ‘necessary to support living and inclusion in the community; and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community’ (Article 19).

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[1] Children under the age of three in formal care in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: a rights-based regional situation analysis, UNICEF, 2012
[2] The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General Comment No. 9: The Rights of Children with Disabilities, para. 47.
[3] https://www.openingdoors.eu/opening-doors-for-europes-children-releases-latest-fact-sheets-from-15-countries/
[4] Opening Doors for Europe’s Children, Maintain, Strengthen, Expand: How the EU can support the transition from institutional to family- and community-based care in the next Multiannual Financial Framework, 2018

Key fact 5

Institutions produce poor outcomes for children and have negative lasting consequences into adulthood.

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Institutional care is creating “lost generations” of young people who are not able to fully integrate into society. Many children who enter institutions at a young age suffer later in life from serious failures in their social and emotional development. As institutions are often cut off from communities, children are prevented from developing social skills and networks essential for later life.[1]

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 and family-like care for all children and family-strengthening services [2]. Institutions for children are not cost-effective in the long term, nor is it a good use of tax payer’s money. Institutions have damaging consequences for children and their families and for society[3] as a whole.

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[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), The rights of vulnerable children under the age of three, 2011
[2] Deinstitutionalisation and quality alternative care for children in Europe – Lessons learned and the way forward, Opening Doors Working Paper, 2014
[3] Opening Doors for Europe’s Children, De-Institutionalisation of Europe’s Children – Questions and Answers, 2017