The importance of prevention
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) calls on States to play their role in ensuring the protection and well-being of all children. The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children urge States to ‘implement effective measures to prevent child abandonment, relinquishment and separation of the child from his/her family. Social policies and programmes should, empower families with attitudes, skills, capacities and tools to enable them to provide adequately for the protection, care and development of their children.’
In addition, the Guidelines clearly set out the obligation of the State to enable every child to remain in the care of his/her parents wherever possible. The Guidelines particularly consider: ‘Financial and material poverty, or conditions directly and uniquely imputable to such poverty, should never be the only justification for the removal of a child from parental care, for receiving a child into alternative care, or for preventing his/her reintegration, but should be seen as a signal for the need to provide appropriate support to the family.’ Furthermore, the Guidelines note that ‘Removal of a child from the care of the family should be seen as a measure of last resort’.
This means that, as far as possible, preventing the need for children to be taken care of outside the parental home has to be the foundation of any policy on alternative care. Here it should be noted that there are children who have been orphaned, who have lost parents as a result of their death, for whom remaining informally or, formally within their own extended family is often a first consideration in many countries.
However, we still see some States adopting an approach that actively encourages parents to place children in residential facilities when they feel unable to cope - whether for instance, because of financial difficulties, the child’s disability, or very often for a combination of socio-economic reasons. In such cases, the State is not fulfilling its role of primarily enabling and empowering parents to care for their children so that families can remain together; on the contrary, it seeks to demonstrate that it is both willing and more able to undertake the parental role. In countries where alternative care is essentially provided in residential facilities run by non-State entities, these providers may also be actively “recruiting” children into their care.
Preventing unnecessary placement in alternative care
We have seen that there are a wide range of reasons why children in different countries are in alternative care. Meeting the obligations in the CRC and implementing the Guidelines implies, among other things, combating the wide array of factors that can lead to family breakdown. This includes addressing problems linked to material poverty and lack of access to basic services, including social security, health and education, housing, and employment, as well as broad discrimination and marginalisation on the basis of ethnicity, gender, disability, and birth status. If these factors are not recognised and tackled, many children will enter the alternative care system unnecessarily.
Prevention is therefore key to respecting the “necessity” principle whereby placements in formal alternative care should require evidence of genuine risk of harm rather than being the almost automatic response for families in difficulty. This means making certain that everything possible is done to maintain children with their families under favourable conditions. This approach is grounded not only in the fundamental spirit of the CRC but also in many specific CRC provisions, such as health care (Article 24), education (Article 28), support for parents in their role (Article 18), conditions for separating a child from parents (Article 9), right to social security (Article 25) and protection from discrimination (Article 2).
It is important however, that the main thrusts of preventive efforts are determined on a country-to-country basis through the development of approaches to supporting family unity that are in line with the socio-cultural and economic context whilst always respecting the best interest of the child.
Three levels of prevention
There are three recognised levels at which action is required to prevent negative outcomes for communities, families, and children. Measures at each of these levels are key to child protection policies because they are designed, among other things, to enable parents to look after their children under positive conditions and therefore to avoid family breakdown.
We are now going to look at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of prevention in more detail.
The ‘See Also’ section below has links to other reading material that may be of interest to you.