Children without parental care Today, millions of children across the globe do not reside with their parents for a variety of reasons, including the death of their parents (that is, by becoming orphans), conflict, migration, natural disasters, detention, disability and child trafficking.
They live in a wide variety of settings, such as in orphanages and other types of residential institutions, with relatives or kin, with individuals to whom the child is not biologically related (in the form either of adoption or foster care in family settings other than the children’s own family), with employers, with other children, or on the streets.
The precise number of children in these categories on a global basis is unknown due to the lack of accurate and timely data (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2006, p. 10). A sense of the significant numbers of children involved can be gleaned, however, from the most recent estimate by UNICEF (2006) that there are 143 million orphans in 93 countries of the Global South (the so-called ‘developing’ world) (p. 39).
Children in institutions Children who live in institutions, such as orphanages, comprise a significant sub-set of children who live without parental care. The number of children who live in institutions worldwide is also unknown due to the paucity of data (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child 2012a).
Yet, an idea of the significant numbers involved (as well as the problem of accurately determining numbers) may be gained from the estimate by Save the Children UK (2003, p. 1) that eight million children live in institutions and UNICEF’s (2009, p. 19) more recent, but lower, estimate of two million children.
The situation of children who live in institutions in the Global South and the former Eastern Bloc has been the subject of growing public, governmental and academic interest over the past few decades. In the late 1980s, the international media began to report on unfavourable conditions for babies and children living in Romanian orphanages (Kaler & Freeman 1994, Carlson & Earls 1997, Marcovitch et al. 1997, Beckett et al. 2002).
At around the same time, the international media began reporting that increasing numbers of children were being placed in orphanages as a result of the HIV/AIDS-related deaths of their parents and relatives in sub-Saharan Africa (Hunter 1990, pp. 681-90, Gaines 2006, Meintjes & Giese 2006, pp. 407-10).
The issue of children living in institutions also received international attention through the development and adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). While the international community had expressed general concerns about the situation of children deprived of their family environment as early as in the 1924 Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) highlighted specific duties of States Parties to the Convention concerning the institutionalisation of children (Cantwell & Holzscheiter 2008, p. 2).
Amongst several Articles of the Convention that concern the situation for children who are raised without parental care, Article 20 stated: '1. A child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the State. 2. States Parties shall in accordance with their national laws ensure alternative care for such a child. 3. Such care could include, inter alia, foster placement, kafalah of Islamic law, adoption or if necessary placement in suitable institutions for the care of children. When considering solutions, due regard shall be paid to the desirability of continuity in a child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background.'
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) also affirmed that children should be raised by their parents wherever possible. Article 18 stated: '1. States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.'
In order to provide more detailed guidance on the subject of children living without parental care, in 2009 the UN General Assembly adopted Guidelines for the alternative care of children (2010, p. 2) which encouraged States ‘to keep children in, or return them to, the care of their family’, limit the use of institutions only to cases where it was appropriate for the child, and work to prevent the need for alternate care by measures such as family strengthening services and supportive social policies.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (a committee which comprises 18 independent experts who monitor and report to the UN on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) has frequently issued comments about the nature and extent of compliance with the Articles of the Convention that relate to children who are raised without parental care in institutions (Cantwell & Holzscheiter 2008, p. 2).
Deinstitutionalisation campaign In addition to intergovernmental agreements, the past few decades have also seen an increase in public campaigning by international non-government organisations (INGOs) and the UN itself about the use of children’s institutions, especially in the former Eastern Bloc and in the Global South.
Broadly speaking, these entities have urged the closure of large-scale residential institutions, except as a last resort when all other alternatives (such as care by relatives or adoption) have been considered, in view of a wide range of negative impacts on childhood development and children’s rights (Save the Children UK 2003, pp. 1-18, Browne 2009, pp. 1-24, Save the Children UK 2009, pp. 1-24).
By way of example, the INGO EveryChild (2009, p. 8) stated: 'Research, particularly from less developed regions, shows a substantial and growing number of children without parental care, with devastating impacts on children’s rights to survival, development, education, health, nutrition and freedom from abuse and exploitation.'
In a similar vein, the UN Secretary-General’s World report on violence against children (2006) called for a reduction in the use of institutions in light of evidence about wide-ranging negative psychological, physical and other impacts on children, with the severity of these negative impacts being worse for children under the age of four years and for those who experienced long periods of institutionalisation (pp. 16-17).
In relation to factors that drive institutionalisation, UNICEF (2009) stated that the majority of children were placed in institutions by a family member or members as a result of poverty rather than the loss of one or more parents.
Save the Children UK (2009, p. 5) also asserted that at least four out of five children in institutions globally had at least one living parent and that ‘most children in institutions come from poor families and/or those that are discriminated against’.
As is the case with accurately determining the numbers of children in institutions, such global claims need to be read with caution due to the absence of independently-verifiable, comprehensive and up-to-date data.
Another conspicuous aspect of INGO and UN advocacy over the past few decades has been the call for national governments in the former Eastern Bloc and in the Global South to adopt deinstitutionalisation policies that aim to ensure that children are admitted to, or reside in, institutions only where this is in the best interest of the child and where no other alternative is available.
Responding to what they considered to be the slowness of some countries to adopt deinstitutionalisation policies, Save the Children, UNICEF and the Better Care Network (2009, p. 2) called for ‘political will, leadership, and creative thinking from governments…in order to co-ordinate policies and programmes relating to the care and protection of children’. Save the Children UK (2009, p. 11) contended: '…at the heart of the proliferation of institutional care lies a lack of political will to invest in the most vulnerable children. Care institutions provide a safety valve for governments that are unable―or unwilling―to tackle complex social and economic factors driving families to place their children into care.'
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