This opinion article was written by Marianne Thyssen, outgoing European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. For more like this, see our early childhood newsfeed.
An estimated 360 000 children in the European Union live in institutions.
Deprived of a secure and loving atmosphere, they are likely to experience lifelong trauma and often struggle to build stable lives. Young people who grew up in institutions are more prone to addictions and tend to drop out of school. As adults, they have a high risk of staying unemployed and even ending up homeless.
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Allowing this situation to continue goes against our obligations under international law and our moral duty to provide children with the opportunities they need to thrive.
But what is the alternative?
Contrary to popular belief, many children in institutions have at least one living parent. They are often in institutions because their parents believe that they cannot adequately support, feed or clothe them.
This means that almost all children can be kept out of institutions if we provide their parents with appropriate counselling and material support. Taking such preventive measures is our collective responsibility and the best investment we can make.
Setting things right
The cost of setting things right during adolescence or adulthood is much higher than the investment needed to give children a good start in life.
This is why, guided by a solid international and EU legal framework, the European Commission has been championing the issue of deinstitutionalisation.
Though we have made great progress, now is not the time to slow down
European policy and funding have paved the way for EU countries to shift from institutional to family- and community-based care supporting the reforms for this transition. Thanks to European guidance and funding, we have been successful in considerably decreasing the number of institutionalised children from probably more than 1 million children to an estimated 360,000 in the last two decades.
For example, Bulgaria reduced the number of children in specialised residential institutions from 7,587 in 2010 to less than 1,000 children in 2017. What is also important, EU’s commitment to deinstitutionalisation has sent a strong political signal in the larger Eastern and Central European region.
For example, in Serbia, the number of children in institutional care has decreased from 2,672 to 743 over the last 15 years, with the number of children in foster care increasing from 1,173 to 5,320 over a similar period.
The future of care
Though we have made great progress, now is not the time to slow down.
The European Commission is working on multiple fronts to ensure that all children can grow up in dignity and with the support they need.
The European Semester of economic and social policy coordination continues to guide and support EU countries on their path towards family and community-based care.
Ursula von der Leyen has already indicated that she would create a European Child Guarantee, picking up on the idea proposed by the European Parliament
This year, 20 of the 27 country reports drawn up in the context of the European Semester recommend to invest in this shift. These investments will continue to be supported by EU funding, helping to fulfil our common commitments under the European Pillar of Social Rights.
I expect that EU Member States continue undertaking the necessary reforms to ensure that vulnerable children can enjoy their most fundamental rights. The Commission will keep supporting this shift with ambitious policy and funding frameworks.
In her Guidelines, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has already indicated that she would create a European Child Guarantee, picking up on the idea proposed by the European Parliament. This tool should help ensure that every child in Europe at risk of poverty or social exclusion has access to the most basic of rights.
The long-term goal must be a full transition from an institutional care system to a system reliant on community-level services and family-based care. Together we can reach this goal, creating a brighter future for our most vulnerable citizens and for our societies. — Marianne Thyssen
(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo)