The United Nations has estimated that around eight million children around the world currently live in care institutions. The actual figure may be much higher, however, and conflict, climate change and HIV/AIDS are likely to cause further increases in coming years.
Decades of research – dating back to the early 20th century – has demonstrated the long term damage caused by institutional care on young children. For example, one study looked at children living in Romanian orphanages. It found that:
Around the world, institutionalised children suffer from inadequate care and attention, and often considerable danger. Most ‘orphanages’ do not have enough staff to provide children with the affection, attention or stimuli that they need to develop properly.
Few children living in institutions are orphans – around 80% have at least one living parent. Instead, many are institutionalised with the consent of their parents, who are often struggling with poverty or illness and believe that the homes will provide their children with an education and decent healthcare. In other cases, families are separated by natural disasters or conflict.
Many children are institutionalised because of social stigma. For some, this is a result of their ethnicity (e.g. Roma); for others, it is because they are disabled, were born with HIV/AIDS or even just because they are girls.
Institutional care for children is not only harmful and dangerous, it is also expensive. Care homes cost six times more per child than providing social service support to vulnerable families; they are also three times more expensive than professional foster care.
An alternative approach follows Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This states that children should not be separated from their parents unless it is in their best interests.
In practical terms, this means:
Sofronie is a major funder of Hope and Homes for Children (HHC). This UK-based charity has developed ground-breaking approaches to the transformation of childcare. It has become particularly expert in rehoming institutionalised children, often with family members, so that the institution can be closed permanently. Its model for this process is now acknowledged as best practice by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.
More information on the long term damage caused by children’s homes can be found in Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions, a 2009 report by Save the Children.