Nearly half a million children in Europe and Central Asia live in residential care facilities

'Long road ahead before ending Europe and Central Asia’s long, painful legacy’ of institutionalisation of children, as new UNICEF report highlights rate of children living in residential care across region is double the global average

18 January 2024
Baby in residental care facility in Astana
UNICEFKazakhstan/2023/GalinaSorokina

GENEVA, 18 January 2024 – Nearly half a million children – or 456,000 – across Europe and Central Asia live in residential care facilities, including large-scale institutions, according to a new report published today by UNICEF.

Pathways to Better Protection: taking stock of the situation of children in alternative care in Europe and Central Asia notes that the rate of children living in residential care facilities across Europe and Central Asia is double the global average, with 232 per 100,000 children living in residential care facilities compared to 105 per 100,000 globally. In Kazakhstan, this rate also exceeds the global average, with  227 children per 100,000 children.

“We have a long way to go before ending Europe and Central Asia’s long and painful legacy of institutionalising children. While there have been some improvements, progress has been far from equal. Children with disabilities have largely been left behind,” said Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.

“Over the last fourteen years, Kazakhstan has succeeded in reducing the number of children in residential care facilities. Many orphanages have been transformed into childcare centers or family-typed residential facilities. However, there are still more than 12,000 children living in institutions. Children with disabilities make up 24% of all children in residential care facilities. UNICEF's mission is to work with the Government of Kazakhstan and civil society to reduce the number of children in residential care facilities, provide the necessary social services and support for every child and family to prevent family separation, and strengthen quality family-based alternative care system,” said Laetitia Bazzi-Veil, Acting UNICEF Representative in Kazakhstan. She also emphasized the importance of quality monitoring and data collection on children living in residential care facilities.. The development of a comprehensive plan for child care reform would help accelerating progress towards results..

Western Europe has the highest rate of children in residential care facilities at 294 per 100,000 children – nearly triple the global average. While facilities in Western Europe tend to be small and integrated into communities, there remains an overreliance on residential care instead of family-based care. The higher rate is partly due to an increase in unaccompanied and separated children and young people seeking asylum in Europe in recent years.

The report also highlights some positive trends. For example, since 2010 many countries have seen a decrease in the proportion of children living in residential care facilities. In Bulgaria, Moldova and Georgia, data suggest that family-based care has become the dominant type of formal alternative care arrangement as governments pursued deinstitutionalisation policies and made significant investments in family-based care. In Türkiye and Romania, investments in prevention, family support and promotion of foster care helped reduce the number of children in certain types of residential care facilities, such as children’s homes.

Still, there has been little progress for children with disabilities who are far more likely to be placed in residential care facilities than children without disabilities. In countries where data is available, children with disabilities account for between 4 per cent and up to 87 per cent of children in residential care facilities. In more than half of countries with available data, the proportion of children with disabilities in all types of formal residential care has increased between 2015 and 2021.

The negative impacts of family separation and institutionalisation on children’s health, development and well-being are well-documented. Children living in large-scale institutions often face emotional neglect and higher rates of abuse and exploitation, exposing them to mental health problems, psychological distress, and trauma. 

Children in institutions can struggle to form positive relationships throughout childhood and adulthood, leaving them feeling isolated and lonely. Children who are in residential care – especially from a young age – can experience cognitive, linguistic, and other developmental delays, and are more likely to be in conflict with the law, perpetuating cycles of institutionalisation. 

In alignment with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Guidelines on Alternative Care, UNICEF calls for systematic closure of large-scale institutions used to house and educate children. This includes replacing residential facilities housing children with disabilities or unaccompanied and separated children, with high quality family- and community-based care.

UNICEF calls for adequate investments to support early identification and early intervention for children at risk, a strong social service workforce, family support services to prevent unnecessary family separation, and quality foster care for children in need of protection. Reallocating resources from institutional care towards family and community-based care and ensuring investments in quality data is critical.  

UNICEF works with governments and partners across the region to help keep families together and support family- and community-based care. This includes developing and implementing deinstitutionalisation policies and programmes, scaling up protection and family support services to prevent children being separated from their families, promoting family- and community-based care and family reunification and reintegration and safe transition to independent life. UNICEF also works with governments and national statistical offices to improve the availability, comparability and quality of data on children in alternative care.

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Notes to editors:

The report brings together data collected by the TransMonEE network, DataCare initiative and other sources from across the region. It provides an analysis of data on children in alternative care and adoption, and developments and challenges in collecting and reporting comparable and disaggregated quality data.

UNICEF’s work to improve the availability, quality and comparability of data on children in alternative care includes the DataCare initiative together with Eurochild and the partnership with a network of 30 national statistical offices in the region on improving data within the TransMonEE initiative. UNICEF also advocated for and supported the development of the Conference of European Statisticians' guidance on statistics on children and is working with European Union partners to monitor and compare the situation of children in alternative care across Europe within the framework of the European Child Guarantee.

Media contacts

Georgina Diallo
Advocacy and communication manager
UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Office
Tel: +41 76 320 68 14

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