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How do children transition out of care settings?

Research indicates that the majority of children in alternative care — and their families — do want to be reunited
Father hugging his daughter in park
© Antic Milos, Shutterstock

The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children urge that “Removal of a child from the care of the family should be seen as […] temporary and for the shortest possible duration. Removal decisions should be regularly reviewed and the child’s return to parental care, once the original causes of removal have been resolved or have disappeared, should be in the best interests of the child”.

Other subjects covered in the Guidelines related to transition, and particularly reintegration into family and community, include all decisions concerning alternative care taking into account the desirability of a child’s alternative care placement being situated as close as possible to their normal place of residence.

This is particularly important for potential reintegration with their family and also helps to minimise disruption to their educational, cultural and social life.

Reuniting as a goal

Research indicates that the majority of children in alternative care — and their families — do want to be reunited. This is one reason the Guidelines urge us to consider reintegration back to parents and/or family as a primary goal.

However, it is recognised that there may be circumstances in which return to families is not the best option for children, and that transition to a permanent placement with a new family may finally be necessary.

In addition, although permanence and stability of a child’s care placement is a priority whilst in alternative care, ongoing review of care placements may indicate the desirability of moving a child into a more suitable care setting that better meets their interests, circumstances and wishes until reintegration is possible. This is particularly important if they have been residing in an institution.

Reaching the legal age

A further transition happens when children and young people reach the legal age when alternative care and/or related services are no longer available to them. This age can differ in different countries – in some countries the age might be 16, in others it is 18 and even 21 or 26, as, for example, in Scotland.

This transition requires specific consideration of preparing the pathway out of care and support for independent living.

All the above transition processes require careful preparation and ongoing follow-up support. The process involves more than just the physical return of children and young people to their family and community or into independent living, but also about gaining a sense of purpose, well-being and belonging once there.

Most importantly, we must not forget that all preparations and plans for transition must encompass the participation of children and young people.


Some terminology you may here used includes:

Care leaver

This is someone who is moving out of formal care placement for independent living when they attain the legal age this is mandatory.

Leaving care

This is a child or young person living in formal alternative care who reaches a legal age in which they are no longer entitled to live in a care placement. In most cases, they need to leave care and start their lives as independent adults. The term ‘leaving care’ describes that process. Leaving care includes the decision to leave and the process of moving towards independent living (transition).


A period or process of change as young people move from alternative care settings to being an independent adult. (An example: in SOS Children’s Villages, the term transition is often used for the transition from the SOS Children’s Village to the youth facility and from the youth facility to the semi-independent living programme before becoming fully independent).

Independent living

No longer living in a care placement.


The period when young people are no longer in a care setting and are living independently but in receipt of aftercare support.

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

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