Keeping families together

UNICEF’s work on Child Protection promotes the right of every child to grow up in a nurturing family environment. We work to keep families together whenever possible and prevent the placement of children in institutional care.

The Markovic family wash their children in a bath at their home in Bac, Serbia.
UNICEF/UN016246/Gilbertson VII Photo

The challenge

All children have the right to grow up in a supportive and caring family environment.

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.  

The solution

UNICEF works to keep children with their families wherever possible.

From its earliest days in the Europe and Central Asia region, UNICEF has worked to keep children with their families. Today, we push for effective child-care systems that keep families together wherever possible. 

We also work to end child institutionalization. Given the devastating and potentially life-long impact of institutionalization at an early age, UNICEF campaigns for an immediate end to the institutionalization of children under the age of three. 

UNICEF works to prevent family separation, improve the well-being of children in care and support community-based social services.

Our work has three core elements. First, the prevention of family separation, including outreach to the most vulnerable families to catch problems before they spiral out of control.

Support for families with young children including the promotion of home-visiting programmes – an approach that spans child protection, health and nutrition and early childhood development to give families advice and support and connect them to specialist services where necessary.

An evaluation of this preventive approach in Bosnia and Herzegovina showed that families reached by home-visiting programmes had better interaction with their children, providing better care and more stimulation. Mothers were less likely to experience maternal depression and parental stress – a major factor in child institutionalization.  

Second, we work to improve the care and protection of children who are already in care to protect them against violence, neglect and abuse and ensure they have proper access to justice.  

Third, we support the development of community-based social services that help to keep families together, such as day care, respite care and parenting programmes to support new parents and children with disabilities. We do this by making the case for greater investment in services for children under the age of three and children with disabilities and by testing such services at local level to demonstrate what works.