Towards the Right Care for Children
Millions of children around the world grow up in residential facilities despite not being orphans, and many more in ‘alternative care’ within their wider families or communities. There is worrying evidence of care systems’ failure to protect children’s rights in developing and middle-income countries, and open questions around accountability when care is provided by the non-government sector. The European Commission funded a study on alternative care systems to inform development cooperation.
“The idea behind the report ‘Towards the Right Care for Children’ was that we were lacking a lot of information about the issue,” said Jean-Louis Ville, Acting Director for Human Development and Migration at DEVCO, the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development. “We know what’s happening in Eastern and Central Europe, and in former Soviet Union countries, as we’ve had a lot of projects in these countries in the past. But reaching out to Africa, Asia and Latin America was something we’d start from nearly scratch. So there was a need to start from evidence, to gather knowledge.”
Coordinated by SOS Children's Villages International, researchers at CELCIS (Center for Excellence for Looked after Children at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland) conducted a desk review of childcare systems in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and South and Central America, and in-depth studies of two countries on each continent. These were Chile, Ecuador, Indonesia, Nepal, Nigeria and Uganda, a mix of middle-income and less developed countries with varying population sizes.
Key Terms & Findings of the report
“The first thing to stress is that children who are in alternative care are not mainly orphans or abandoned children, they are children whose families put them in alternative care because of the situations in which they find themselves,” said Nigel Cantwell, co-author on the report.
“The main drivers are related to poverty, or the vulnerability created by that poverty. When there is no safety net and an unexpected negative event occurs for a family, such as the father having an accident that prevents him working, or the house burning down, they may feel they have no other choice than to place the child in care,” said Cantwell. “These families should be receiving support from official services to enable them to remain together.”
A whole-system approach is needed, involving sectors from housing to access to employment, and from law to health and education. These are often poorly coordinated, and shortfalls in one area – such as access to education for all – can lead to more children being in care. Dr Chrissie Gale, co-author of the report, explains: “Education is a pull factor when parents will relinquish their children into care because they believe their children will get a better education and therefore better life opportunities.” This phenomenon was much more prevalent than the authors expected, particularly across Asia and Africa.
The EU is already aiming to take such an approach in its development cooperation, according to Ville. “As it was framed in the MDGs and SDGs [Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals], we should leave no one behind and clearly children are part of that,” said Ville. “I would say the child dimension should be taken into account for mainstreaming, a word which is used and overused and sometimes doesn’t mean anything. But referring back to the EU/Unicef Child Rights Toolkit is exactly the answer, how to embed the child dimension into any programme we’re doing, be it transport, health or education. We are ready to take on the challenge.”
In the following video, co-authors Nigel Cantwell and Chrissie Gale and DEVCO’s Jean-Louis Ville discuss the report’s findings and implications. Skip to: 0:10 for Dr Gale on the scope of the research; 0:49 for Jean-Louis Ville on why it was commissioned; 1:52 for Nigel Cantwell on the most surprising findings; 3:29 for the authors on their key recommendations; and 5:57 for how EU Delegations can build on the report’s findings.
Investing in Data
As there turned out to be strikingly different care systems set up even in neighbouring countries, further research is likely to be needed before country-specific programmes can be designed.
“We now have a good knowledge of the six countries, and it will be very useful to have the information we gathered,” said Ville. “But it’s early to say how it will be applied. The report highlights that there is no one size fits all policy on deinstitutionalisation and alternative care for children in all contexts.”
The researchers emphasised the importance of gathering more data, and consulting children and young people with direct experience of care systems “on the reasons they come into care, how long they stay in care, their experiences, and what happens after they leave care.”
In the following video Dr Gale explains their approach, including the ethical concerns when interviewing children in care:
A second important element is in-depth analysis of cultural norms, to avoid transplanting what works in one context to another without the necessary conditions for it to flourish. For example, while adoption in Europe is widely accepted, formalised and subject to safeguards, “a formalised cutting of ties from the biological family to a new family is beyond the conception of a majority of communities in Africa and Asia,” said Cantwell. “It just doesn’t fly.”
Donors can help by supporting national statistical bureaus with technical assistance and training. “It’s about investing in good rigorous data collection and analysis, and having skilled people who know how to use evidence to inform practice and process,” said Dr Gale.
Monitoring and Accountability
In some countries up to 99% of residential facilities are run and financed by the private sector, according to the report (such as Uganda and Nepal). This is directly related to an accountability shortfall. “Precisely because the private sector is so influential and important as a care giving entity, the government is not able to monitor and ensure that the care being given is both necessary and suitable for children,” said Cantwell.
“Our concern is less about NGOs being in charge, it’s more that they are able to operate virtually without supervision and authorization, simply because they are taking on a task the government is essentially well pleased not to take on,” said Cantwell. Although those same governments often have policies and laws in place to protect children’s rights in care, they lack the resources to undertake the task of monitoring, according to the authors.
This allows harmful practices to continue, such as care in institutions rather than in the community. This is often perpetuated by donations from small groups and individual sponsors in developed countries.
“People go on holiday to places like Nepal and then think, I want to go back and do something there, so they form a group and become friends of [an orphanage] – and they don’t know what they’re funding,” said Dr Gale. “They are reluctant to change from funding say institutional care to family-based care. That was something that came out of the study as a more major finding than I anticipated.”
The flow of donations fuels active recruitment of children into orphanages. “It’s a problem in many countries, and in our study we particularly found it across Asia and Africa. People are actively persuading parents to relinquish children into care, as the care facility is a small business, bringing in money from external donors,” said Dr Gale. “When with the same financial support, the children could stay within their families.”
“We need to look at the extent to which the EU can enable a number of governments to take in hand the child protection system in their countries,” said Cantwell. “In certain cases, the aim would be to try to persuade the authorities to invest their subsidies in community care, preventive services, or closer monitoring of the non-state actors who are involved in care.”
“It really is a question of examining exactly what the country situation is and seeing where you can invest in the most potentially effective way,” said Cantwell. “In some countries it would take relatively little to ensure that the worst facilities would be closed down. First you have to identify them, and this is also something the EU can do, to support monitoring with a view to ensuring quality standards – which very often exist in the national legislation.”