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Introduction to terminology

Introduction to terminology of Alternative Care of Children
Definition of word terminology in dictionary

The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children

In this step we will begin to learn about the terminology and definitions used in the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. As we will be referring to the Guidelines a great deal during the course we suggest you download them. The Guidelines are available in English, Spanish, French and some other languages. We also suggest you download the handbook Moving Forward as this is another document we will use throughout the course.

The Guidelines might seem quite a lot to read and consider. Do not worry, we will be working through them together, explaining what they mean and, how we can use them in practice.


The way that alternative care settings and measures are referred to can vary widely from one country to another and this sometimes causes confusion.

For example, in many countries the term “foster care” designates only formal family-based care ordered or approved by a competent authority (e.g. a court or social services) whereas in some societies it may correspond to any formal or informal care in a family-based setting, and in the USA, for example, it is often used to describe the formal alternative care system as a whole (thus, including residential facilities).

Similarly, the generic term most commonly used for residential alternative care facilities may be “institutions”, “orphanages” or “children’s homes”.

In this course, the basic terminology we use is grounded in the definitions and descriptions found in the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care for Children. The following are the main terms used:

Alternative care

Overnight care of a child provided by persons or entities, for any reason other than for recreational purposes not linked with parents’ unwillingness or inability to provide care.

Informal alternative care

Arrangements made privately whereby a child is looked after by extended family members or others in the community who are known to the child, without any intervention of the authorities. This is known as informal kinship care.

Formal alternative care

All care provided in a family environment which has been ordered or authorised by a competent authority, as well as all care provided in a residential facility, whether or not it has been ordered or approved by a competent authority.
There are two main forms of alternative care:
a) Family-based care
Under family-based care, the child is looked after in the family home of the carers. This may be on an informal or formal basis. It therefore includes informal kinship care. The main formal family-based arrangement is foster care, ordered, or approved by a competent authority. However, it can take different forms in different countries, including formalised kinship care and certain types of guardianship where the child actually lives with his/her guardian.
b) Residential care
A child in residential care is looked after in a group setting that is not family-based, i.e. is not the family home of the carers. The diversity of residential facilities throughout the world is enormous ranging from small-group homes and specialist centres to so-called orphanages and other large establishments often known as institutions. It is vital to maintain a clear distinction between the different forms of residential care.
All these concepts will be discussed in more detail later in the course – but we will see that there are no absolute definitions because of the variety of ways and conditions under which different societies organise alternative care for their children.
Other useful descriptors include:

Competent authority

An officially designated body, such as a court, social service or other State or non-State body, entrusted with the right and responsibility to make decisions relating to alternative care.


A systematic set of procedures that encompass the mechanisms of assessment and, individual case planning and management, so that all those involved in the care of children can make well informed decisions and individualised choices in the best interest of each child. Such processes should ensure that alternative care is only used when necessary, the most suitable alternative care or other support is offered to meet a child’s individual needs, children are reunified with family if and when as soon as possible, those ageing out of care receive the most appropriate support, and permanent alternatives are found if required.

Respite care

Day-care or planned short-term care arrangements for children whose parents would be unable to cope full-time.


Leaving a child anonymously without organising their future care, though usually in a place where the child is likely to be found, e.g. on the street.


Purposefully surrendering the care of a child to another person, body, or facility.

You can find further definitions and descriptions in the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children and on page 32 of the handbook written to accompany the Guidelines, Moving Forward : Implementing the ‘Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children’.. You can also find further definitions related to gatekeeping practice in Making Decisions for the Better Care of Children: The role of gatekeeping in strengthening family-based care and reforming alternative care systems.

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Getting Care Right for All Children: Implementing the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children

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