Every child has the right to grow up in a supportive, caring and nurturing family environment. But Europe and Central Asia still has the highest numbers of children separated from their families worldwide.
There has been some progress: across the region, the number of children growing up in large residential institutions has fallen. This is a positive shift, but the numbers of children in other forms of care, such as foster care, is rising, with too many children still being separated from their families.
The impact of child separation and institutionalization is severe and can last a lifetime. Children placed in institutions are deprived of social, emotional and intellectual stimulation, which can hamper the healthy development of a child’s brain. Shut away from mainstream society, these children are also particularly vulnerable to violence, neglect and abuse.
Deep-rooted social norms in many countries contribute to the separation of children from their families, particularly for children with disabilities. It is still common for families to be told that they are incapable of taking care of children who need special support or protection. As a result, large residential institutions are still considered acceptable – even ideal – places for vulnerable children.
The ‘medical model’ of disability persists across the region, with children who have disabilities viewed as being ‘medically defective’ and a belief that institutions and/or segregated settings are the best place for them to receive appropriate services and be protected from violence. Children with disabilities account for up to 50 per cent of children in institutional care in some cases.
Institutional care remains a form of discrimination against minority groups.
Placing children in institutions also has clear links to inequality and violence, and to a lack of social protection to ease the impact of poverty on families, community-based social services to offer families support, and access to inclusive education and health care for some marginalized families.
Institutional care remains a form of discrimination against minority groups such as the Roma and poor or single parents, whose children are more likely to be removed from their families. Some parents who migrate to find work may also rely on institutional care for their children while they are away.
Age disparities, with the youngest children most likely to be removed from families than older children, signal a lack of support for families during the earliest months of a child’s life. And children who grow up in institutional care face greater risks of exclusion, risky behaviours, violence and deprivation of liberty.