Children separated from their families

Children can be separated from their families for a variety of reasons and in such instances the care provided must be the best for their continued well-being.



Children can be separated from their families during a crisis. Children may also be inappropriately separated and placed in foster care or an institution, due to a perception of family need or sometimes for more illicit reasons. In an institution, the wellbeing of most children is most at risk with institutional care lacking the necessary stimulus for a child to thrive and if separated for more illicit reasons can be the subject of exploitation and abuse.

Every emergency, whether a natural disaster or armed conflict, may lead to separation of children from their families and caregivers. In major humanitarian crises, the numbers can be high such as the refugee influx from Myanmar to Bangladesh in August 2017 where more than 1,000 children were identified as missing their families. 

Children may also be separated from their families for their own protection, such as in cases of domestic violence. However, many times children are inappropriately separated and placed in foster care or an institution due to a perception of family need or sometimes for more illicit reasons. Globally, many children placed in child care institutions have families. For example, it is estimated that at least 60 percent of children in institutions and homes in Nepal have at least one biological parent. Globally, there is also a higher likelihood that a child with a disability is in institutional care when they could participate in a fulfilling family environment.

Alternative care is a temporary service until a stable solution can be found for the child such as foster care or residential setting. Any placement must be based on the principles of necessity – finding a solution so that the child remains with family; and, appropriateness – finding the best place to ensure the wellbeing of the concerned child. These principles are detailed in the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, welcomed by the UN General Assembly in 2009, along with additional guidance on standards for the care of children outside of their families. 

One form of care that should never be an option is institutional care. In an institution, the wellbeing of children is often at risk with the care lacking the necessary stimulus for a child to thrive. Regulation and oversight of children’s home are inadequate in most countries in South Asia. Unfortunately, volunteers are often drawn to these institutions with the good intentions to assist but the end results for the child being harmful.


When children have been separated, whether they are placed in alternative care or separated during an emergency, UNICEF focuses on assessing if the child can be reunified with her/his family, and what is needed to ensure that this happens in a safe and sustainable manner. During emergencies, UNICEF works quickly to assist with family tracing and reunification to provide unaccompanied and separated children with services during this interim period. In contexts where there is not a wider crisis, gatekeeping and coordinated social services are primary interventions to make an assessment of the necessity and appropriateness of the placement in alternative care. Social services may be required to support the family at home, for example, parenting support programmes, and also to see if an alternative living arrangement is required. 

There is wide recognition of the adverse impacts of institutionalization on developmental outcomes and children’s wellbeing. This has led many countries to undertake efforts to reduce the number of children living in institutional care and, whenever possible, to prevent institutionalization in the first place, or to reunite children with their families in line with their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  and the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. 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. 

If arrangements for interim care are required, UNICEF promotes ways that preserve family unity, including of siblings, and that they are consistent with the aim of family reunification. 


These resources represent just a small selection of materials produced by UNICEF and its partners in the region. The list is regularly updated to include the latest information.