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Family-based alternative care – Foster care

This article describes foster care and how it can work effectively for unaccompanied and separated children on the move.
A man in a tshirt is sitting on a couch in front of a short table. To his left is a woman in a head covering. To her left is a teenage girl sitting on a small plastic chair. There is also a young boy and teenage boy. They are eating at the table.

Foster care is described in the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children as a form of family-based care. It is an alternative care placement:

‘where children are placed by a competent authority for the purpose of alternative care in the domestic environment of a family other than the children’s own family that has been selected, qualified, approved, and supervised for providing such care’.
Foster care should be considered before looking at other formal alternative care responses since it offers children the opportunity to live in a family environment. We should note, however, that in many different country settings, the term ‘foster care’ does not always match this definition but is being used to describe many different forms of family-based and community-based care including informal care with relatives and care in small group homes.
Foster care is appropriate for children who are in countries of transit and for those who have reached the country of final destination. It should ideally be a form of temporary alternative care until a sustainable solution is found. However, some children remain in foster care for long periods.
If foster care is to work effectively and safely for unaccompanied and separated children, there should be:
  • A rigorous process of selection and training of foster carers against agreed standards and criteria. Training should consider specific needs of unaccompanied and separated children, as for example psychosocial support, an understanding and appreciation of the background they come from, and the difficulties they may have experienced
  • Careful matching of children and prospective carers. This may, for example, take into consideration the foster carer’s ability to take care of children who are very young, come from a very different socio-cultural background, have a disability, or have suffered serious trauma
  • Steps to ensure children are kept fully informed throughout the fostering process. When a placement is under consideration, children should be able to express their wishes and opinions about the proposed placement, and have serious consideration given to their views
  • On-going review, support, and guidance for foster carers and foster children once the placement has been arranged. Once again, the child’s comments and views should be listened to
We should remind ourselves of the necessity to coordinate with the national child protection systems and integrate unaccompanied and separated children into existing national foster care provision, whenever possible.
Some of the lessons learned from a pilot foster care project in Hungary specifically for unaccompanied and separated children, from the report by Eurochild and SOS Children’s Villages Let Children Be Children: Lessons from the Field on the Protection and Integration of Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe include:
  • Respecting and helping children to maintain their cultural identity is an important factor to consider. While integration into the local community is important, research has shown that cultural and ethnic compatibility of the child and the foster family is likely to strengthen the child’s sense of cultural identity. Children should therefore be given the opportunity to maintain their cultural, linguistic, religious, and other identity. This is an important consideration when matching children with foster parents. This also requires the availability of a sufficient number of foster parents from different backgrounds.
Please note, however, that we should also consider the messages given to us by a number of young people we spoke to during the development of this course. They told us that their preference would be a placement with a local family from the country they are now residing in. They feel this would better help them with integration into the local society. These contrasting views once again demonstrate how important it is to consult every child in order to help identify the most appropriate solution for each one.
  • It is important that unaccompanied and separated children’s vulnerabilities and risks of exploitation and trafficking are taken into consideration when developing placement in foster care
  • Lengthy procedures can exacerbate the specific vulnerabilities of unaccompanied children, so processes taken to finalise a placement in foster care should be conducted in a timely manner that appropriately meets the situation of these children. For example, lengthy and complicated procedures to place unaccompanied children in appropriate foster care can increase the risk of leaving any current temporary placement and becoming victims of abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

Variations on foster arrangements

Sometimes informal care arrangements are transformed into formal foster care, if this is the wish of everyone and the carers are assessed as being able to carry out the responsibilities of foster carers well.
In various countries where family law is based on Islamic law, variations on fostering use the kafala system. International Social Service have defined kafala as a child protection measure that is mostly prevalent in Islamic law countries and is recognised in article 20 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and 161 of the UN Guidelines. Kafala is generally defined as a person’s (kafil) commitment to voluntarily take care of the specific needs, maintenance, education and protection of a child deprived of his/her family (makfoul). However, its meaning, legal effects, and implementation differ from country to country, ranging from financial support for institutionalised children to daily care in a family environment.
We should remember, however, that the UN Guidelines recommend:
‘placement with a view to adoption or kafala of Islamic law not be considered as a suitable initial option for an unaccompanied or separated child. States are therefore encouraged to consider this option only after efforts to determine the location of his/her parents, extended family or habitual carers have been exhausted.’

The ‘See Also’ section below has links to other reading material that may be of interest to you.

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Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

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