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What is gatekeeping in children’s care?

Concrete examples of the way gatekeeping can operate at different stages of a child’s involvement with the child welfare system are discussed
Florence, what is gatekeeping? Gatekeeping is basically the procedure by which we ensure we make the right decision for children’s care that relates to their needs and their best interests. It is a mechanism that helps us determine the best interest of the child and helps us implement the principle of necessity and suitability. So Delia, why gatekeeping? Why do we need gatekeeping? Well, gatekeeping is absolutely an essential ingredient in helping us understand and provide the best interventions to children and families who are at risk of separation, as well as support children who are in alternative care to receive appropriate services that meet the needs and circumstances at that point in time.
Gatekeeping also ensure that we make sure that we know what are their needs and that we respond to those needs by having those alternatives, the different services, that actually match the needs of the children. So it also is a mechanism that enables local authorities, communities to understand what the needs are and to match them to the right services. Do we need resources in order to implement gatekeeping? Yes, we definitely need resources. We need resources at the national level where we need some level of coordination to ensure that there is political will, there is resource behind these gatekeeping mechanisms.
We also need local resources– resources at the local level to ensure that those that need to be part of the decision in relation to children’s care are able to participate in those decisions. Gatekeeping helps us mobilise resources from the level of institutional care back into communities to children and families who might be at risk of separation, as well as towards the development and upkeep of high quality family-based alternative care. Gatekeeping plays an essential role in unlocking resources that might be used to keep institutional care facilities to being used effectively with great impact first and foremost preventing unnecessary separation and also for the provision of family-based alternative care.
In a system without a gatekeeping process in place we see a one way highway towards children being separated and placed in institutional care. Families experience risk situations. There is absolutely no identification. There is no support provided in a timely fashion, and then families reach a crisis situation. When the crisis occurs, professionals in countries where gatekeeping is not implemented remove those children, or even families push their children back into institutional care. We end up spending huge amounts of resources to keeping children in institutions for sometimes for their entire childhood.
Whilst families remain in communities experiencing exactly the same risk factors and experiencing crisis situations, gatekeeping helps us reverse this one way street and helps us develop a system that really matches the circumstances and the needs of the children and families in those communities. What are the key ingredients– what are the key components of an effective gatekeeping system? One of– one of the key learning we’ve done around gatekeeping, looking at examples from all over the world, is that you need some dedicated mechanisms to ensure that decision can be taken that brings in all of the relevant sectors. You are going to possibly have education issues. You often will have health issues. You will have child protection issues.
You need to bring these various actors around the table with the mandate to make decisions. So it requires a dedicated mechanism. It’s fascinating to see how gatekeeping can operate at different levels. We see gatekeeping being implemented effectively in small communities, in small rural communities where you bring people together and you help them understand how they can effectively identify families at risk, how they can support, and how they can find local resources in order to prevent children separation.
We see examples of gatekeeping being implemented at hospital level where young children are– used to be abandoned but where, with the support of a social worker and an effective gatekeeping mechanism, those children are helped to remain with their parents and receive sustained support. We’ve got a very concrete example of what you’ve just described. So in Bulgaria, for example, the mechanism was established at the hospital level with social workers encouraging supporting parents who are thinking of abandoning their child for one reason or the other, identifying what those reasons are, and identify what resources services can be provided to ensure the child is not abandoned unnecessarily.
Child Protection Network work effectively in rural communities where they operate in a fashion that really supports families and children. Yes, and in Indonesia, gatekeeping mechanisms are also very important to support the state to take responsibility that they have for children’s care by actually providing a mandate and an authority to place children in care. So what used to happen is that institutions will take the decision. A family, a community leader would bring the child and say that child needs to be in care, need to be in this institution, and the head of the institution would say, please come in, because it’s an addition resource for the head of the institution.
Instead what gatekeeping does before the head of an institution or the manager can take the decision to take their children, they have to go to the gatekeeping mechanism to actually get the authority to take the child in. And that’s got to be based on an assessment. So another key element of a gatekeeping mechanism is we actually need the skills and the workforce to make very comprehensive assessment and of need of the child, the need of that family, and what resources are available at the community level and the district level that are accessible to that family to help them and address the issues they’re facing.
So we can encapsulate the key ingredients of an effective gatekeeping mechanism being represented by the professionals, well-trained and abled and supported to be able to determine the best interest of the child, the people in the community, the leaders of those communities, and others who are unable to understand how with their own resources can support children and families, continued support, financial resourcing for the implementation of gatekeeping, and last but not least, we need services at community level, as well as a range of services that will enable us to match the needs and circumstances of children with the appropriate service at that point in time.
That’s a very good point, because even if you have a very good gatekeeping panel of mechanisms, unless you’ve got alternative services available, , that gatekeeping panel will only be able to say, yes, the child needs are that, but the services that we have is only that, which used to happen in many contexts. So what would happen is the child would have automatically be placed into residential care, because there were no alternatives.
Now the gatekeeping mechanism can actually support the local actors and the authorities together to identify what these alternatives are and how do we actually put them in place to ensure that they are more than one solution that actually match the child’s needs and not just what the services are at the local level. What is the role of gatekeeping in deinstitutionalisation and the broader child protection reform. It’s a really good question, because gatekeeping actually fulfils a really critical role of reform process. Without a gatekeeping mechanism, what we wish to do is actually establishing local alternative community family-based services.
But at the end of the day, while at the same time the institutions continue to recruit children, and it creates some kind of revolving door mechanism. What we want is to transfer as much as possible, the services that are residential-based to actually services that are family-based. The gatekeeping mechanism really enable us to do that by ensuring that as we develop and transform the services to address the needs of children and their families in the community, we don’t have institutions recruiting for children and bringing in more children into the institution compounding the institutionalisation of children. And from an institutional perspective, a good deinstitutionalisation plan will really help professionals identify the real reasons of why children are separated and placed in institutions.
In addition to that, we’ll enable professionals to understand where are the communities, who are the communities sending children into institution? And then the gatekeeping development can be prioritised in those communities, lessons could be learned, resources can be allocated before scaling up that process at national level. And talking about scaling up, Florence, how do we scale up good gatekeeping at community level? I think what the research and what the evidence from the practise shows is that you actually need at every level a gatekeeping mechanism, but they’re going to have different functions.
What’s really interesting in what you said, Delia, is that as the services get identified, the needs get identified, the drivers get identified, the needs for alternative services are identified, you also feed back that to the national level and the policies and the laws and those who have the resources. So it really enables the national level government to make decisions that are about what are the needs of the local level and let’s target those.
I would say that monitoring and evaluation, identifying the most critical indicators is absolutely critical to both implementing good and effective gatekeeping, but also to ensuring that a national level there is a solid framework that enables governments to adapt and further develop their Child Protection Systems to always respond to the evolving needs and circumstances of the children in their own context. Yes, and one of the things that we haven’t mentioned, which is key is you need the laws and the norms and the policies to ensure that the gatekeeping mechanisms have the resources and have the mandate to actually do their job at a different level.
So without the laws, without the normative environment, the framework that enables and that supports this mechanism, gatekeeping will not be able to function. Gatekeeping is a critical component of a functional, effective, child-focused child protection system. So one thing we’ve forgotten to mention which is absolutely critical is child participation. And we know from the experience of gatekeeping panels in a number of countries that by having children and young people involved in the gatekeeping process, both themselves when their own situation is being assessed, but also having young people who’ve been in care involved in the panel enables much better decision that are informed the experiences of children who have been in care.
In Moldova, for example, young people and children who’ve been in care are actually part of the gatekeeping panel enabling the other members of the gatekeeping to receive the experiences of children directly, or are able to really connect to the children who are being assessed by the gatekeeping panel. Gatekeeping is very important to be understood as an ongoing process. It is not a one off thing. Gatekeeping is critical to prevent the unnecessary separation of children, but is also the process by which the placement decision in alternative care is reviewed periodically to ensure that that form of alternative care continues to meet the needs and circumstances of children who are placed there and help the transition into long term families.

In the video above, Florence Martin, Director of the Better Care Network, and Delia Pop, previous Director of Programmes and Global Advocacy for Hope and Homes for Children, discuss the concept of “gatekeeping” in relation to children’s care, the role it plays in ensuring informed and appropriate decisions about children’s care, and how it operates in practice in different contexts and stages.

Florence and Delia explain what gatekeeping is, its place in implementing the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children and what it looks like in practice, using examples from a number of countries and contexts.

They tell us about what lessons have been learnt regarding operationalising gatekeeping and in particular, what key elements have been identified as essential to making gatekeeping effective.

The child welfare system

Florence and Delia provide concrete examples of the way gatekeeping can operate at different stages of a child’s involvement with the child welfare system, from responding to first concerns and preventing unnecessary separation to ensuring successful reintegration of a child into his or her family, or the provision of a stable, safe and nurturing alternative care option.

The particular role gatekeeping plays in reforms of child care and protection systems, especially to support a process of deinstitutionalisation and a shift towards more appropriate family-based options, is also discussed.

Other questions explored include how gatekeeping can work to ensure limited resources are better directed and managed to respond to the needs of children and their families; what the challenges are in establishing and maintaining an effective gatekeeping system; and how children and their families can be actively involved in shaping gatekeeping systems, with examples from Moldova, Rwanda, and Indonesia, among others.

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

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