Mind the implementation gap: how child care can be improved globally

06 July 2017

Dr Chrissie Gale, international lead for CELCIS, reflects on research which could help shape the drive for better alternative care for children in countries around the world.

A version of this article was first published by London School of Economics (LSE) and Political Science International Development on 6 June 2017.

Caring for children who haven't had the best start in life is something we all want to get right. Here in Scotland, this is something we take seriously. It's reflected in Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC), our national approach to improving outcomes for children.

But we are not alone in our ambitions to improve the life chances of our children. Across the globe, for many different reasons, hundreds of thousands of children cannot live with their parents. 'Alternative care' is the provision of a safe and caring setting for children to live in whilst they are unable to stay with their families - foster care being an example of this. There are many instances of governments and communities rising to the challenge of providing better alternative care for children.

How does the care system work globally and how can it be improved?

This is the exact question I, alongside colleagues at SOS Children's Villages International, set out to answer in our recent report as the result of a European Commission project. We looked at three different continents – Asia, Africa and Latin America – and assessed what their alternative care systems look like.

We discovered that the popular assumption that national laws, standards and policies are a significant barrier to providing improved alternative care for children isn't necessarily true. Instead, lack of political will or ability to implement regulations and put resources in place to develop family support services along with a skilled workforce is the bigger mountain to climb.

In many countries policies transferred from western countries are not necessarily culturally or contextually appropriate. Countries need to develop practices that are right for them. For example, around the world, most children out of parental care are in extended family or kinship care. So greater care is needed not to impose ideas where that might threaten suitable existing provision.

Governments should particularly concentrate on preventing family separation, but also provide the most suitable alternative care for children where separation is absolutely necessary.

Fostering and thinking outside the box

Throughout the research process I went to Chile, Ecuador and Nepal and found some amazing positives. For instance, I visited an SOS Children's Village – which is a supportive community where children can grow up with all their care needs met - where the woman in charge had a problem of children bringing stray dogs home. She put the dogs back on the street but they always came back. Thinking outside the box, she got the children to foster the dogs. It helped them see and appreciate what it's like to take someone vulnerable and care for them, with the idea of helping a dog become part of the community. This way, the children can reflect on their own experiences of care.

Residential facilities as private businesses

On the negative side we saw many residential facilities set up as private businesses. Some owners encourage families to bring children in promising, for instance, better education whilst however, having a primary aim of collecting money from donors.

Some donors are individuals: in Nepal, trekkers visit a so-called orphanage, become friends of the 'orphanage' and go back to Europe or North America to raise money for it, sometimes through a small firm or faith-based organisation. There is no available data, but in some cases it is estimated over 95% of the children have at least one or both living parent, and if families were supported with this money they wouldn't give up children in the first place.

To me, this was one of the most concerning findings. The lack of knowledge that some donors have in the western world of where their money is actually going. This is something that needs to be addressed, and promptly.

Voices of children

What was absolutely crucial as part of the research process, was listening to and understanding the voices of the young people themselves. We heard from more than 170 children and young people. The priority for almost all was family, even for those from very poor families or at risk of harm. They wanted their families supported so they could return to them. Once they reach an age where they have to leave care, many children and young people are at risk of homelessness and, often having lost contact with their families, have no social network and may lack even the most basic living skills. This is hugely challenging and is a vicious circle that needs broken.

Towards a better future

The European Union has worked tirelessly for years in central and Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union countries to support the elimination of large residential institutions for children. They now want to share the lessons learned with other places, hence why we embarked on this project.

In the past 10 to 15 years many countries have developed a legal and policy framework around children in care but, as explored above, we found the real challenge is implementing those rules.

We have gained real insight into how changes might be made, which has led to recommendations we hope might make a positive and lasting difference to children all over the world. One of the most crucial of these being that the European Commission should re-educate donors to stop the flow of money from developed countries to harmful institutions and for example, place it in family support programmes.

It's about gatekeeping: services should prevent the gate opening unnecessarily for children to go into alternative care, and open it for children to come out. The EU is committed to making positive changes for children at risk of separation from their families or already in alternative care: this research is a first step to informing future policy and galvanising resources to make those changes.

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