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Protection of Children in Alternative Care

Discover good practices and key considerations for setting up emergency alternative care plans during COVID-19.

It can be expected that the number of children at risk and in need of alternative care (including interim care) will increase as a result of:

  • Containment measures that temporarily separate children from families;
  • Death or illness of primary caregivers;
  • Increased protection concerns—violence, abuse, exploitation, and neglect; and
  • The long-term socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on families’ capacity to care for and protect children.

Both children at risk of separation and those already in alternative care during the COVID-19 pandemic will need appropriate, safe, and continued services.

In most cases, parents and caregivers will be able to rely on other family members and relatives to step in to care for their children. However, in some cases, alternative care arrangements will be needed.

Efforts to pre-emptively scale up the capacity of family-based care and social protection systems are critical to enhancing family resilience and preventing unnecessary use of residential care.

Emergency plans for alternative care must:

  • Prioritize support to family-based alternative care providers (kinship and foster care);
  • Ensure the use of residential care is a last resort and is strictly limited to the emergency phase; and
  • Take into account the fluidity and likely duration of the emergency, looking at a minimum of 18 months.

In contexts where there are no operational child welfare authorities, child protection actors should work with community leaders and providers, including community health and education workers, to develop such plans.

Emergency alternative care plans that are developed at the national or inter-agency level should include, at a minimum:

  • A clear policy statement that prioritizes family-based care alternatives and the prevention of separation over recourse to residential care. It should be circulated to health care facilities, police stations, courts, local councils, and community child protection structures/mechanisms.
  • A focus on ensuring that alternative care services are classified as ‘essential services’ within government emergency management frameworks.
  • Revised gatekeeping procedures, including online and telephone screening of referrals, assessment of necessity and suitability of care placement, and authorization of placement and monitoring by child welfare authorities for circumstances where face-face processes are not possible.
  • Restrictions or prohibitions on the irregular admission of children into residential care facilities during the pandemic. Service providers should be required to immediately notify authorities if a child is brought to their facility through informal gatekeeping mechanisms.
  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), where possible developed by local authorities, to address interim care needs of separated or unaccompanied children, including clear guidance on steps to be taken in the event such a child has been exposed to or has symptoms of the virus and requires a period of isolation. SOPs should prioritize the prevention of unnecessary recourse to residential care in response to COVID-19, including for children with disabilities.
  • A moratorium (temporary ban) on the establishment of new residential care facilities issued by child welfare authorities.
  • Clear guidance that is distributed to all service providers on requirements for social distancing, isolation, and quarantine measures within residential care settings.
  • A ban on closing residential care facilities rapidly and without effective care and support plans in place for each child.
  • Measures for governments, in partnership with relevant actors, that ensure supply chains of essential goods (food, hygiene products, and essential/basic medicine) and critical services (including those specifically needed for children with disabilities) to alternative care service providers remain prioritized if purchasing and travel restrictions are imposed or if goods become scarce and difficult to source through ordinary means.
  • A review of key personnel/staff, including case workers, with plans for temporary replacement staff for those who need to self-quarantine or isolate.
  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for the orderly family reintegration of children from alternative care who can be cared for by their families and whose reintegration should therefore be prioritized. This must include documentation of where the child returned to and current contact information.
  • Strengthened capacities of hotlines and child helplines for children, families, and care facilities to report any case of abuse or neglect at a time when face-face support may be reduced.

For comprehensive guidance on alternative care in COVID-19, we encourage you to use this resource developed jointly by the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, The Better Care Network, and UNICEF: Protection of Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Children and Alternative Care—Immediate Response Measures.

Your Task

  • What actions have been taking place in your context to adapt alternative care providers and services for children at risk during COVID-19?
  • What key components or considerations for alternative care in COVID-19 are most relevant to your context?

If you are unsure, you can ask a colleague or research online.

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Protecting Children during COVID-19 and other Infectious Disease Outbreaks

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