Over the past two decades, the European Union (EU) has become a global leader in care reform for children, first within its borders, and, more recently, beyond.
Currently, all EU funding regulations and relevant policies contain measures for shifting from institutional to family and community-based care, thanks to the continuous, close collaboration between civil society and the EU institutions.
However, we have increasingly been advocating for transferring this approach to the EU accession process.
EU candidate countries share a common aspiration: becoming an EU Member State. To achieve this, they must undertake reforms in a number of areas and align with the EU standards, the so called ‘EU acquis’. As Hope and Homes for Children, we strive to ensure that the EU monitors and supports child protection and care system reform in EU candidate countries, as an integral part of their accession journey.
And we’re starting to see some very promising recent developments.
Advancing care reform throughout Europe
In October, the European Commission recommended further advancement of care reform in all ten 2023 Progress Reports that constitute the EU Enlargement Package. This brings an unprecedented opportunity for simultaneous care reform processes throughout Europe, that could effectively lead to the end of child institutionalisation, and result in children growing up in safe and caring families.
These are just some of the relevant excerpts from the reports:
Learning from the past: European Commission brown bag lunch on child protection and care reform in EU enlargement countries
- De-institutionalisation actions are taking place, but need to be further taken forward at a sufficient pace. (Albania)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to urgently develop and adopt a deinstitutionalisation strategy to move towards community-based care.
- Georgia lacks a national strategy on the de-institutionalisation of children. However, the government has made steps to deinstitutionalise remaining non-state regulated religious residential institutions. Further measures are needed to address the lack of proper standards in boarding schools.
- A comprehensive strategy for child protection is necessary to accelerate deinstitutionalisation and the transition towards quality, family- and community-based care services, including with an adequate focus on preparing children to leave care. (Kosovo)
- …deinstitutionalisation of children with disabilities is progressing, [but] insufficiently qualified staff, lack of resources and poor infrastructure hinder the specialised care and support for institutionalised children with disabilities. (Moldova)
- The deinstitutionalisation strategy, initially planned for Q4 2022, has yet to be adopted. (Montenegro)
- Implementation of the 2018-2027 national deinstitutionalisation strategy continues. This involves a transition from institutional care to family and community-based care with support from social services. (North Macedonia)
- implement and report in good time on the strategies on anti-discrimination that includes the rights of LGBTIQ persons, gender equality, violence against women, and deinstitutionalisation; actively counter hate-motivated crimes and establish a track record of investigation and convictions (Serbia)
- Ukraine should develop and adopt a comprehensive de-institutionalisation reform of childcare and launch its implementation, considering the situation of displaced children in the upcoming year.
- Adequate funding should be directed towards reinforcing community-based care and ensuring proper deinstitutionalisation. Particular concern is caused by the construction of new institutions following the earthquakes and the wars in Syria and Ukraine. (Turkey)
Bringing our experience to bear
Following the Enlargement Package publication, the Commission held an internal webinar, focused on care reform, in close collaboration with us and Lumos. EU representatives, based in Brussels and EU candidate countries alike, joined the online event and shared key EU commitments and initiatives to support child protection and care reform in EU candidate countries. This event was a timely opportunity to discuss current opportunities to promote progress in countries in the process of accessing EU membership with EU staff.
Alongside others, we shared insights from former and ongoing EU accession processes, in particular Bulgaria. Our colleagues gave joint recommendations on how to ensure child protection and care reform is achieved in the midst of the EU accession process. We shared lessons learnt from Bulgaria, where progress is down to resolute political will and technical and financial assistance from the European Union – including pooled resources between the EU Directorate-Generals for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO) and Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (EMPL), and collaboration with civil society organisations like us.
Despite this, our experts highlighted that efforts must be maintained to ensure the completion of child care reform in Bulgaria, where four institutions for young children with disabilities remain. This ‘looking back’ exercise resonated with our experts from Ukraine and Moldova; our work in these countries will continue to draw on our years of experience working in past and current EU accession countries alike.
Making care reform a reality
This is all very positive, but in order for care reform to really advance and be completed in a quality and sustainable way, it must be properly funded. This would mean governments making sure that some of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) III, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation (NDICI) funding, as well as under any new funding instrument or package, are ringfenced for care reform. As we have been operational in Ukraine and Moldova for decades, it is only natural that we follow more closely the developments in these countries.
Recently, there have been two outstanding opportunities for advancing their care reform: the Ukraine Facility Regulation and the EU Support Package for the Republic of Moldova.
- the objectives listed in the Ukraine Facility Regulation, such as
- contributing to the recovery, reconstruction and modernisation of the country, and
- progressively aligning with the EU acquis
- and the high number of institutionalised children, addressed also in the EC Opinion on Ukraine’s application for membership of the European Union,
it is logical that the Ukraine Facility, and the mirroring Ukraine Plan, support a comprehensive reform of the child protection and care system in Ukraine.
Moreover, the European Commission has already granted €10m to Ukraine for the development of a modern child care strategy. Funding its implementation is the next step for securing family care for the thousands of institutionalised and orphaned children, threatened by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
As care reform was not included in the original EC proposal, we mobilised eleven key child and disability rights Ukrainian and international organisations and networks around joint proposals for amendments. The European Parliament has taken these on board in their report on the Regulation. We then directed our advocacy efforts towards the Council and the Commission and are now expecting the outcome of the trialogues, the negotiations between the three EU decision-making bodies.
Similarly, the EU Support Package for the Republic of Moldova could be instrumental for completing care reform for children in Moldova. Especially, when the 2022-2026 National Child Protection Programme and Action Plan provide the necessary base for completing the care reform of children. The implementation however has been delayed due to lack of resources. Our analysis, endorsed by 11 Moldovan and international organisations, demonstrates that care reform could be funded under two of the three Package priorities: Economic development and connectivity and Administrative capacity. A successfully completed reform in an EU candidate country will set an example for all the other accession and partner countries.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Ultimately, systematic inclusion of child care reform as a key, priority requirement for EU accession requires resolute political will.
We believe we can secure this by:
- advocating towards the EU to ensure it champions child care reform in the negotiations towards accession
- supporting national and regional child care advocates, so they can seize opportunities to advocate for child care reform in the context of EU accession.
To support the launch and implementation of care reform in EU candidate countries, we’re currently working on producing guiding documents tailored to these two audiences. These build on our decades of experiences in the European Eastern Neighbourhood region. We are looking at launching them early next year, with the hope that they will be a useful tool for governments, EU institutions and civil society actors, working on care reform for children.
Authors: Irina Papancheva, Marie Raverdeau