Justin Rogers is a Lecturer in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath.
Across the globe, children who grow up in alternative care arrangements without their parents are a vulnerable group. They enter care through no fault of their own, due to poverty, or experiences of abuse and neglect. As a result, they deserve nurturing care throughout their childhood, which goes on to empower and support them into adulthood. However, child welfare systems often struggle to get this right, and this is particularly true for the many children who will grow up in a large-scale institutional setting. At present there are an estimated 2.1 million children living in institutional care around the world, a huge number that is equivalent to the population of the city of Paris.
Bowlby and Ainsworth’s seminal work on attachment theory, from over sixty year ago, shows us that a consistent loving bond between a caregiver and infant is vital for a child’s development. Institutional forms of care, with their low staffing ratios, are not conducive environments to nurture bonds and provide the care and love that a child needs. In recent years, research into institutional care has shown the detrimental effect it can have on a child’s physical, emotional, behavioural and social development. Van Ijzendoorn (2011, p.30) undertook a number of research reviews, exploring data on the outcomes for children in institutional care and reached the conclusion that ‘the institutional setting itself is in most cases pathogenic and should be classified as a type of child maltreatment, particularly in the form of structural neglect’.
Ten years ago, the United Nations published guidelines for member states to consider in the provision of alternative care for children. The guidelines called for states to shift from the use of institutional provision to family-based care, such as foster care, particularly for children under the age of three years. State responses to the implementation of these guidelines has been variable. Some have made bold attempts to transition and have set targets, for example, China, Rwanda and Bulgaria, however many have failed to devise and enact specific policies that aim for deinstitutionalisation. Several countries have chosen to focus on policies that aim to prevent the need for alternative care.
For example, in our recent interviews with practitioners and policy actors in Thailand we found a child welfare discourse that centred on the promotion of family strengthening models and early help interventions as a way to gate-keep entry into care. Of course, pro-active policies that prevent separation are necessary and laudable, and Thailand has made significant progress improving children’s lives, for example, in regard to health and access to education. However, ten years on from the publication of the UN guidelines, Thailand, like many other countries, are without a clear policy on deinstitutionalisation and this means that the majority of the estimated 55,000 children growing up in Thailand without parental care remain in institutions.
However, there are signs that a change is on the horizon. There has been increased attention given to alternative care provision by NGO’s also in addition to increased philanthropic investment, notably from J.K Rowling’s Foundation, Lumos. The Martin James Foundation have also started to develop a network of academics, practitioners and policy actors across Asia to work on developing alternative care provision. These philanthropists are shining a light on this issue and pushing the deinstitutionalisation agenda in a number of countries across the world.
Although, many other NGO’s continue to fund and even provide institutional forms of care. As such, the sector finds itself not only as part of the solution, but part of the problem. Therefore, like UN member states, charities and donors, who play such a key role in child welfare (particularly in low to middle income countries), also need to develop transparent policies on deinstitutionalisation, that consider ways to divest in orphanages and invest and champion family support services, and family-based care provision.
The publication of the UN Guidelines ten years ago was a landmark moment in global child welfare but despite some pockets of good practice implementation has been slow, particularly for those children who have spent the last ten years, a considerable chunk of childhood, growing up in an institution. That being said, 2019 sees a renewed reason to be hopeful.
After an open letter from a coalition of eighty NGO’s the UN have selected a theme for their 2019 ‘Rights of the Child Resolution’ that will focus on the rights of children without parental care. This will provide an historic opportunity for the UN to provide member states, internationally recognised guidance on ways to protect the rights of children without parental care. It is imperative that the resolution builds on the guidelines from 2009, and stresses the detrimental impact of institutional care on children. It must also include principles of family strengthening but crucially, an additional call on member states to develop clear and specific policies on deinstitutionalisation, to ensure the most vulnerable children have the most consistent, loving and nurturing care that they deserve.
Watch the below video to find out more about Justin Rogers' research, and the research exchange in Thailand: