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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

Protecting vulnerable children through government support for families

No love like a family's love: Supporting alternatives to instutionalization


By Lely Djuhari

Efforts to keep children out of institutional care have succeeded in building stronger families and helping children reach their full potential. 

NEW YORK, United States of America, 23 September 2014 — Iliya, a 12-year-old boy from Serbia with Down syndrome, lived in a state-run institution for much of his life. Despite all efforts, it was not possible for him to return to his biological parents. Today, he is growing up in the care of a loving foster family.

“Iliya used to be a child who did not communicate with me at all. Not even with his eyes, in any possible way. He seemed to be very, very withdrawn,” says Slobodanka Marceta, his foster mother. “It’s almost unbelievable that in the past ten months, he’s put on seven or eight kilograms and grown ten inches. His whole appearance, his interaction has changed.” 

The best option

Children like Iliya were the focus of a discussion on the sidelines of a UNICEF Executive Board meeting in September co-hosted by Bulgaria. As of 2011, at least 1.4 million children in 26 countries across Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia were growing up without parental care, often in institutional settings. Providing support to families at risk of separation can reduce the need for institutional care and promote the right of all children to be raised in a nurturing family environment. It is a concern the world over. Across the CEE/CIS region, child care reforms aimed at supporting vulnerable children have been successful in keeping families together and helping vulnerable children to grow up in a family environment.

© UNICEF Video
Ilya, 12, spent much of his life in insitutional care, but now lives with a foster family. "His whole appearance, his interaction has changed," says his foster mother.

“Family-based care is the best option for children – and institutional care the least desirable alternative,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said during discussion. “For when we place children in loving, supportive environments, we do more than give them a safe home; we put them on the path to reaching their full potential and becoming fully contributing members of their societies.”

Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia are showing remarkable progress in childcare reforms supported by UNICEF. The strategic policy shift towards supporting vulnerable families avoids unnecessary family separation and the placement of children in institutions. To date, fewer children under age 3 are in institutional care, the proportion of children in infant homes has fallen, and more children in this age group are entering alternative community-based family-type care or foster care in the region.

“We are placing emphasis on prevention of separation. We are making strong emphasis throughout the social welfare centres to provide support to families at risk,” says Hrvoje Sadarić, Croatia’s Assistant Minister of Social Policy and Youth.

“It’s important for a child to grow up with his mother and father, siblings and extended family,” says Nesrin Çelik, the under-Secretary of Turkey’s Ministry of Family and Social Policies. “If that’s not possible, it’s important for a child to grow up in a healthy environment with people who can function as mother and father.”

Institutional care can undermine children’s physical, intellectual and emotional development. Research shows that family and community-based services are more cost-effective in the long run.

A new approach

The number of children in institutions is decreasing, but around half the 1.4 million children in the region who are growing up apart from their biological parents live in large-scale institutions. According to data from 2011, nine of out 10 children living in institutional care had one or both parents alive, and in some countries, children with disabilities represented up to 60 per cent of all children in institutions, due to the lack of specialized healthcare and inclusive education in their communities.

© UNICEF Video
Around half the 1.4 million children in the CEE/CIS region who are growing up apart from their biological parents live in large-scale institutions, according to the most recent data.

Some countries are trying a new approach – such as integrating social workers in the healthcare system, calling on agencies to work together to prevent baby abandonment.

“All social workers in education, social protection and health cooperate closely when they are assigned to support a family,” says Azhar Tulegaliyeva, Director of the Social Services in Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Health and Social Development.

Families at times place children in institutions when parents can’t cope because of poverty or, in some cases, as a result of the perceived stigma attached to children with disabilities, children from ethnic minorities or single parent families.

But an institution is not a home. And governments across the region are committed to getting children out of institutions – and back to their own parents or foster families.

“[Some] institutions are nice, they are tended properly, they’re clean and nice, and professionals work there. Says Nenad Ivanisevic, Serbia’s State Secretary for International Cooperation, Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veterans and Social Policy. “But what [the children] lack is family. This clearly demonstrates to us that the best environment for bringing up children is family.”

It’s showing results.

“[In Bulgaria], we’ve dramatically reduced the number of child care institutions. By 2015 our objectives is to completely terminate the existence of institutions for children with disabilities,” said H.E. Mr. Stephan Tafrov, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the United Nations and Vice-President of the UNICEF Executive Board, who chaired the discussion. 

Iliya’s foster parents continue to be encouraged by the progress he has made since leaving the institutions. That is why it is vital to help people overcome the challenges of keeping families together – in the region and around the world.



UNICEF Photography: Ensuring optimum alternative care

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