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Large Institutions

Video with Nigel Cantwell explaining the features of a residential institutions
One of the big issues, of course, in terms of care and in terms of trying to look at what appropriate care constitutes, is trying to define when a residential care facility becomes something that we call an institution. There is no global accepted definition of what is an institution, and the guidelines, in fact, simply talk about an institution as being a large, residential facility. Now, it’s absolutely clear that the size of a facility is an important element in defining whether or not it is an institution. You wouldn’t have something that is called an institution if it was looking after two or three children, for example.
But where the limit is put is very difficult to determine in terms of the size of the facility. So what are the other features of an institution? Well, one of them is the fact that very often, or almost always, the approach of an institution is looking at the day-to-day care of children simply in terms of their physical needs– shelter, clothing, food of varying quality. But looking only at their physical needs and not looking at their emotional needs, not looking at questions of attachment with caregivers, et cetera. And particularly, not looking at how they can be helped to develop as children to become reintegrated members of the community.
They’re looking just from day to day at meeting certain basic needs of the child. The second feature, which is very much linked to that, is the fact that the institution has a regime which is grounded in the needs of the organisation, as such. Rather than the needs of the children, and in particular, the needs of the individual children in their care. So it’s very much regimented in order to ensure that the facility operates in a manner that is most efficient for the staff and for the the directors, if you wish, as opposed to the children themselves. Another feature of an institution is its isolation. Isolation can be brought about in several ways.
One is, for example, never to allow children from the institution to go outside. In other words, that everything is provided for within the walls of the institution in terms even of education, if that’s provided. Another way of ensuring isolation is that you don’t let the community in. So that the children have no contact with the outside world, and the outside world doesn’t know what’s going on in the facility. And of course, compounding that is the geographical isolation of many such facilities. In other words, that they are placed outside of major centres and are difficult to access for anybody, including the family of the children.
And of course, many institutions actually dissuade parents and family members from keeping in contact with their children. Of course, all these features are unacceptable in terms of the guidelines and in terms of residential care, but it’s extremely important not to look at institutions as being representative of residential care. So always look at the features of a facility, and see if they correspond to what we would call an institution. Rather than looking at institutions as more or less the equivalent of residential care.

In this video we hear from Nigel Cantwell. Nigel has been working for the human rights of children for over 30 years. His experience comprises both the development of international standards and helping to devise policies for their implementation at national level. Nigel was the lead consultant for the development of the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. Nigel tells us about the features of a children’s residential institution.

Residential care, referred to in the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children as ‘family-like’ care, is specifically about alternative care provided in a small, non family-based setting. However, there is a concern about institutions – there are large residential settings including orphanages and large ‘children’s homes’, detention centres, emergency shelters, and other large residential facilities.

If we are considering unsuitable residential settings, we should recognise the documented, potentially damaging, long-term impact on any child placed in them – including unaccompanied and separated children. These negative outcomes are due to many of the factors we considered in the previous course steps including absence of a primary caregiver with whom to bond, poor access to basic services, abuse, and isolation from the ‘outside world’.

Because of the problems associated with institutions, some countries have already phased out this type of care for children, or are on the way to doing so. This is known as a process of deinstitutionalisation. However, there are other countries where, for various reasons, the current alternative care system for children, including those who are unaccompanied and separated, consists almost entirely of different forms of large residential settings i.e. ‘institutions’. And indeed, in some countries, in response to a large influx of refugee and migrant children, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, some States have re-opened institutions that they had previously closed.

In Nigel’s definition of an institution you will hear how he considers such issues as:

  • Size
  • The regimented daily routines for children
  • The basic physical care on offer
  • How the locations of institutions often isolate children from the community
  • Failure to address such issues as attachment and the emotional needs and well-being of children

For further reading we particularly recommend you look at page 43 of the handbook ‘Moving Forward: Implementing the ‘Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children’.

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