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Meeting the needs of children without parental care: a contemporary international policy analysis


International policy positions regarding children without parental care have far-reaching implications for children's lives. A position advocated passionately in the field of international social work and children's rights argues that children without parental care should not be cared for in institutions. This is for good reason, as research indicates that institutions, particularly for young children, breach children's rights, do not meet their developmental needs, and consistently result in poor outcomes for children. These serious concerns remain highly relevant given that institutions continue to be used as the sole placement option throughout much of the developing world for children without parental care.

However, this position overlooks to a large degree the substantial transformations that once isolated, large scale, poorly-staffed, inadequately resourced institutions have undergone. In developing countries particularly, these institutions have evolved in some cases into professionally staffed group care settings for small numbers of children, which have positive and open cultures. These are designed with a distinct purpose to meet the specific needs of particular children. Importantly, these group care homes are located within a continuum of children's services, ranging in form of care[1] and purpose[2]. These new versions of group care, found predominantly in developed countries, resemble something radically different from their institutional predecessors. Research has played an important role in informing these substantial developments, and it has become clear that good quality group care can be a positive choice for some children.

While there is still far to go to achieving consistently high quality group care, nevertheless the substantial advances in the range and quality of child care provision in developed countries have in part resulted in a shift away from a dogmatic rejection of group care as a valid form of care for children in these countries.

In the international sphere however this negative position on the validity of group care for children has been far slower to shift. Views that "residential care" for children should only be used as a last resort and that professional care of children should be wholly discouraged have been widely circulated within the international policy field (Children and Residential Care Conference, 2003; Save the Children, 2003). These views are understandable in developing countries which rely entirely on large scale institutions to care for children without parental care. However, I would suggest there are several reasons why promoting these views in an inflexible way can be dismissive at best and harmful at worst. These are discussed below.

This position diminishes the value and legitimacy when good group care is provided. It renders invisible those who are developing these smaller forms of group care in the process of massive efforts towards deinstitutionalisation and risks obstructing the development of a full range of services for children. International promotion of these views can leave countries struggling without support from the wider international community as they quite rightly move children from institutions to smaller community group care homes. The message that all residential care is unacceptable risks silencing those who are trying to provide high quality care in a small group setting, and limits the sources available to them for consultation, support and input.

Those advocating this position promote the view that all care for children should be within a family environment, and I respectfully suggest this is simply unrealistic. Natural disasters for example and other unpredictable situations create the need for extra-familial care solutions for these children, even in ideal circumstances in which the underlying economic, sociological, health and cultural problems leading to children living without parental care might be solved. A more realistic approach to the problem of caring for children without parental care is required.

The United Nations Committee (the Committee) on the Rights of the Child[3] (2005), the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers (2005) and others have provided us with a more reasonable view. The Committee's recommendations emerging from its open day of discussion on the subject of children without parental care proposes a helpful position regarding care for these children, particularly in its recognition of a range of valid forms of care. The Committee identifies the negative connotations associated with traditional institutions, and raises concerns about whether the principle that institutions must be the last resort perpetuates the stigmatization of both the institutions and the children living in them, creating further difficulties (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2005, 660). While the Committee directly challenges the systematic use of traditional institutions and encourages countries to change the ideologies which underlie these models of care, it also recommends the creation of "smaller specialized units" alongside an increase in the numbers of trained professionals. We will look to the forthcoming version of the UN Guidelines for the Appropriate Use and Conditions of Alternative Care for Children to determine whether the UN will maintain this balanced view.

If our aim is to ensure the development of care services for children internationally which meet children's needs and uphold their rights, an inflexible view of group care hinders us. Where an underlying ideology promotes a dogmatic approach to group care services for these children, we will be hindered in moving forward in a productive manner toward a full range of good quality services for children internationally.

 Key references

Children and Residential Care Conference (2003). Stockholm Declaration on Children and Residential Care.

Council of Europe Committee of Ministers (2005). Recommendation (2005)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the rights of children living in residential institutions. (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 16 March 2005 at the 919th meeting of the Ministers' Deputies). Strasbourg: The Council.

Save the Children (2003). A Last Resort: The Growing Concern about Children in Residential Care. Author: UK.

United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006). Children without parental care. In: Report on the Fortieth Session; Geneva, 12 to 30 September 2005. CRC/C/153: 17 March 2006. Geneva: United Nations. Retrieved 18 October 2007 from http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/docs/discussion/recommendations2005.doc.

Contacts: Jennifer Davidson, Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, Glasgow School of Social Work, University of Strathclyde, 76 Southbrae Drive, Glasgow G13 1PP, Jennifer.Davidson@strath.ac.uk, Tel. 44 (0) 141-950-3586.


[1]. For example universal and prevention services; community-based family support services; kinship care; foster care; adoption and respite services.

[2]. For example respite; emergency; assessment; and long term care.

[3]. This Committee is made up of independent experts to whom countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child must account for their actions related to maintaining the rights of children within the international convention's framework.


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