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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

Children without parental care

© UNICEF/NYHQ2007-2751/Claudio Versiani
Isabel Homez, 91, holds her great-granddaughter Marlene Martinez, who is five. Indigenous Mayans, they live in an isolated rural part of the municipality of Chinautla, in Guatemala Department.

Children sometimes lose their first line of protection – their parents. Reasons for separation include abduction, trafficking, migration, living on the street, being displaced, or recruited by armed forces; living in alternative care due to health issues, educational reasons, household violence, poverty, death of parents, or stigma.

In 2008, in Central and Eastern Europe some 1.3 million children lived in public care; just under half of these lived in large-scale residential care facilities or boarding schools (UNICEF, At home or in a home, 2011). In the Middle East and Africa, over 300,000 children are estimated to live in residential care (UNICEF 2009 Progress for children). These numbers may be significantly underestimated.

UNICEF endorses the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009.  The Guidelines encourage efforts to maintain children with their families, where possible. When this is not in the child’s best interest, the State is responsible for protecting the rights of the child and ensuring appropriate alternative care: kinship care, foster care, other forms of family-based or family-like care, residential care or supervised independent living arrangements. Recourse to alternative care should only be made when necessary, and in forms appropriate to promote the child’s wellbeing, aiming to find a stable and safe long term response, including, where possible, reuniting the child with their family.  Evidence shows that the quality of alternative care is critical to child well-being. Children in long-term residential care are at risk of impaired cognitive, social and emotional development (particularly for those below the age of three).

UNICEF assists governments in strengthening their laws and policies to fully integrate the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (2009); encourages governments to strengthen social care (including community-based activities) and social protection services to support and strengthen families to prevent separation, and support family reintegration when possible.

The Guidelines apply in development contexts and in emergencies, where they recommend efforts are taken to trace and reunite families, and residential care is used as a temporary measure until children can be placed in family-type settings. They are in line with the Inter-Agency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children (2004) that apply during emergency situations.

Visit the resources page for more information.



Guidelines and manuals

United Nations, Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, 2010

Better Care Network and UNICEF, Manual for the Measurement of Indicators for Children in Formal Care, 2009

Endorsed by Department for International Development, United Kingdom (DFID UK), HelpAge International, Hope and Homes for Children, Institute of Development Studies, International Labour Organisation, Overseas Development Institute, Save the Children UK, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Bank, World Vision, Joint Statement on Child Sensitive Social Protection, 2009

UNICEF, Children in Informal Alternative Care, 2011

Partner resources

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