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The reasons children come into care

The reasons children come into care by Maria Herzcog
Why are children referred to the care system? At least there are two levels of the possible answers. First of all, if you are looking at the theoretical, more complex approach, not the practical approach, then we have to say that there are several issues not clarified by many on what is the role of the parents and the responsibility of the parents, the community, and the state in ensuring the upbringing of the children and their well-being.
And this is absolutely essential because if you are blaming the parents for not being good enough parents but not facilitating them with the needed resources, knowledge, and skills, then how can we expect them to be good enough parents in a world where actually, expectations towards the parents are lost, and it’s growing? It is becoming a very complex issue who is suitable for parenting, who is a good parent, and how should or shouldn’t the community and the state be contributing to the developing of children, what are the roles concerning the finances, the in-kind support, the contribution to the education, health care, and social well-being of children. The other level of the issue is the more practical one, if you like.
And we are looking at the reasons, the concrete reasons, why children are referred to the care system. It can be very misleading. Obviously, it differs very widely throughout the world. But what we have detected– that the main, not always visible reason is poverty, deprivation, material, and other form of deprivation. But even when we are talking about poverty, what we see is that the children are referred for some reasons to care system that are closely related to poverty, but it’s not necessarily only the poverty of the family, but also, the lack of other resources, like the lack of transportation, the lack of adequate health care, the lack of adequate education, or social services.
And oftentimes, the service providers or the local municipalities are also very poor. So they can’t support the parents and the families and the children even if it would be desirable, and also part of the legislation. Now, there are obviously many other reasons why children are referred to the care system. And in most instances, children are referred to the care system as a consequence of poverty or other kind of deprivations because of neglect or abuse or because the parents are not capable fulfilling their parenting responsibilities and duties. And why I’m so hesitant when I’m talking about these reasons– but there are a mixture of reasons.
And there are quite complex issues when it comes to the referring of the children and the resource and other factor that there is a very, very limited information and data on the exact reasons leading not only directly, but also indirectly, to the referral of the children to a care system. Why is it important that we consider a rights-based approach when dealing with children who are referred to the care system? Again, there are many layers of the answer. First of all, because the UNCRC is the most widely ratified convention, human rights convention.
Now, although not binding, but ratified by almost all the countries in the world, and even the United States, often accused for not ratifying, but they signed the convention, and also the two optional protocols. So they are also trying to implement as far as they can. And the Convention on the Rights of the Child is very clearly describing the rights of children to a fair and rights-based life, where their well-being is one of the goals to be achieved. And this is based on the notion that we are all human beings, and children are also human beings, entitled to all the rights.
But as they are more vulnerable than the adults, so they have specific rights enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols. Now, when we are talking about the alternative care, there is another very important document, the UN Guidelines on the Alternative Care of Children. That is also backing up the convention itself and enhancing the importance of specifically focusing on alternative care. When the convention was prepared, as we see now, although it’s very comprehensive and try to cover all the needed areas of child rights, there have been many lacking or not so well-articulated components. And as time is passing by, we obviously try to add on in whatever area we feel this kind of need.
And alternative care is definitely one of the areas. It is a coincidence, though, that when the convention was for the first time accepted by the UN General Assembly, it was in 1989, which was exactly the year when transition, political economic transition, happened in Central and Eastern Europe. And this is an interesting coincidence because then it took a while for many to recognise the need for deinstitutionalisation of children based on their horrific experiences and the visual experiences, also, on television and in the media of the Romanian orphanages. And slowly, the whole world has learned much, much more about those children who haven’t been so visible, not only in Eastern Europe, but all over the world.
And as children’s rights have evolved, to say, and also have become much more and more known and accepted, more and more vulnerable groups of the children have become in the focus. And children in alternative care– also, not only those in alternative care in general, but specific subgroups of the children– children with disabilities, ethnic minorities, refugee children, unaccompanied minors, children in street situation– they have also become into the focus. And we’ve started working on the specific areas. Now, when it comes to the rights-based approach, it is obvious that children living in their families in a nurturing, warm, nice environment also need, in many instances, special protection.
But those who are deprived of family care and who are not having an opportunity to live in a supportive network in a community- or family-based situation– they need even more attention and much, much more help. What should we be doing to prevent the unnecessary separation of children from their parents? It seems to be a common sense for all those working in child welfare, child protection, but we have to repeat it again and again because many don’t seem to understand what is the direct and indirect relationship between universal services provided to children in health, education, social services, then more targeted for special groups who need more attention, and very specialised to also serve the individualised needs of children.
Now, if you look at the investment in children, as this is an expression used more and more– and there is a clear recommendation made by the European Commission in 2013, for instance, investing in children, breaking the cycle of disadvantage– this is expressing exactly what we should do– providing high-quality, accessible, and preferably free services to all children so that we can prevent any kind of deprivation, and based on their individualised needs, supporting them and their families so that the parents can fulfil the obligations they’ve got. If you look at the convention, then the Article 5 is talking about the parents’ primary responsibility to take good care of their children.
However, there is a second point in the Article 5 saying that the state has to support, in all means, the parents to fulfil their obligations. And there is an article also, the 20th, which is also talking about this state support. Now, I guess this is going back to our original question, what is the share of responsibility. And I guess it is quite obvious that in almost all countries in the world nowadays, it seems to be evident that every child born is entitled to certain services. Obviously, depending on the country’s opportunities and financial and other resources, it varies widely what kind of services are available.
But what we can say– that if the parents and the children are getting the needed support and we can ensure that our aim is to provide a community-based service provision to everybody, then we can prevent most of the out-of-home placements and separation of children from parents. We cannot live in an ideal world where we can dream about situations where no child would be abused or neglected or abandoned. So I’m not saying, and I’m not naive saying, that we can resolve this.
But we can say for sure that investing in children from this perspective, also, and into families and parenting would mean that we can achieve a point where there is a universal understanding, but also universal service provision, that can serve the best interests of children. And that could contribute not only to the well-being of children, but also a much less stigmatising manner and a much more child-friendly approach when children can live in their own environment with their own families, but they are entitled to every possible service needed.
On the other hand, we also have to provide much better training and a much higher prestige to all those professionals who are working with children because what we’ve learned– that the quality of care, not only the parental care, but also the care of house visitors, paediatricians, or kindergarten teachers, or teachers at schools, social workers, and all the other helping professionals– police forces, judges, prosecutors, whoever is working with children and the administration– that is a very important contributing factor. Nowadays, what we are facing is that those working with families and children are not very highly valued, and especially not very well-paid.
So if we are improving the care system, the local community-based– then it is not only much better and serving the best interest of the children, but on the long run and looking at the whole picture, it is also much more cost-effective and much more efficient. I wouldn’t say cheaper. I would rather say that the money is much better spent.

In this video Dr Ian Milligan, International Project Advisor at CELCIS in the University of Strathclyde, talks to Maria Herczog and asks her to share her understanding of why children come into care. Maria has a PhD in sociology and works as an international expert and consultant. For over 30 years Maria has been undertaking research as well as teaching in universities on subjects that include child protection, child welfare and child rights. Maria has a list of publications that includes books, book chapters, and journal articles. For 8 years Maria was a member of the UN Committee of the Rights of the Child, and between 2004 and 2010 she was President of Eurochild. Maria also served on the board of the International Federation of Social Workers between 1994 and 2000.

Maria introduces us to the different reasons children are referred to the alternative care system. She reflects on how the causes for family separation can be complex. Maria tells us about the importance of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and how the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children assist us in our better understanding of articles of the CRC that specifically relate to alternative care and what should be considered when making decisions about children and their care and protection. Maria notes the importance of investing in high quality community based services for children and their families so that parents can fulfil their obligations to take care of their children as outlined in the CRC. She also highlights the lack of accurate data about why children come into care and how important it is that countries start to collect and analyse this information.

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

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