Breaking a vicious circle: missing children and institutionalisation

Three professionally dressed men and women sit behind a desk in a plain white office room, while a woman in a suit stands next to a screen on the wall, talking through a presentation.

Irina Papancheva, Head of EU Advocacy at Hope and Homes for Children, recently spoke in the workshop ‘Missing and Deinstitutionalisation’ at the Missing Children Europe’s Under the Radar conference. The conference marked both the launch of the organisation’s report RADAR – Running Away: Drivers, Awareness, and Responses and their twentieth anniversary. Here are Irina’s reflections: 

Institutions for children are still often perceived as social good even though over 100 years of research from across the world demonstrate the significant harm they cause children, mostly because of the lack of stable, continuous and loving parental care. A recent Missing Children Europe’s research report ‘RADAR – Running Away: Drivers, Awareness, and Responses‘ explained that children living in care homes are overrepresented among runaways and are identified as one of the most at-risk groups of young people with a high likelihood of running away and having trouble accessing help. In fact, according to the report, in 2019, the second most common location children ran away from in Europe was the care home or children’s home where they were living.  

Not an orphan, but being orphaned 

Here comes the second paradox. Over 80% of children living in institutions, the so-called ‘orphanages,’ have at least one living parent. Nevertheless, they have been left behind due to poverty, disability (more precisely lack of adequate family-based support) and war. It is not surprising then that one of the common reasons children living in care running away is their desire to rejoin their families or somebody close to them, as the RADAR report states.

Never a home  

Other reasons for running away are issues around conflict and the quality of care homes. Hope and Homes for Children defines an institution as any residential setting where children and young people are subjected to an ‘institutional culture’. This is characterised by features such as depersonalisation, rigidity of routine, lack of individual support or personal treatment, residents’ lack of control over their lives and over decisions affecting them, and lack of prioritisation of their individualised needs.

Children in institutions are often excluded from the wider community, with limited contact with birth families or caregivers. Many have very little knowledge of their own cultural heritage and traditions.  

“Institutions are not in the best interest of the child, despite the good intentions. They are characterised by lack of individualised care and love,”

Bernard Rorke, Advocacy and Policy Manager at European Roma Rights Center at Under the Radar conference.

It is not surprising then that children run away in search of something different, something which feels more like home.  

A question of freedom  

The United Nations Human Rights Committee outlined that the placement of a child in institutional care amounts to deprivation of liberty. The 2019 UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty argued that this results in 5.4 million children being deprived of liberty per year, in various types of institutions worldwide.

An engine for trafficking and modern slavery  

The placement of children in institutions can represent a form of trafficking and modern slavery.  

One fourth of victims of trafficking in Europe are children, mostly from vulnerable background, including refugee children and children in institutions”

Iris Abraham, Member of cabinet of Dubravka Šuica, Commissioner for Democracy and Demography, at the Under the Radar conference launching the RADAR report. 

Evidence from different countries demonstrates how institutions can act as central participants in a web of modern slavery and trafficking of children.

The demand for children to fill up institutions is fuelling the systematic recruitment of children into institutions – a pattern that is increasingly being recognised as ‘orphanage trafficking’: the recruitment of children into residential care institutions for the purpose of profit and exploitation. The relationship between children’s institutions and human trafficking compounds the harmful nature of both phenomena. 

“Often children from Roma communities are forcibly removed from their families and placed in institutions”

Bernard Rorke, Advocacy and Policy Manager at European Roma Rights Center at Under the Radar conference.

As the case for care reform continues to be made in many parts of the world, it is critical to recognise and understand these links so that interventions, advocacy and policies can be put in place to disrupt the systems and processes that negatively impact children’s lives. 

Changing the pattern  

The RADAR report makes three recommendations regarding children living in care homes: 

  • Maintaining regular contact between children in alternative care and their families and ensuring that any visitation or contact schedules are co-developed and agreed upon with the child. 
  • Improving the quality of alternative care by strengthening the role of staff members in care homes as trusted adults for children, reducing the number of children living together in a care home and creating a child-centred, participatory and inclusive environment where children are consulted and invited to participate in developing house rules and protocols. 
  • Investment in deinstitutionalisation and quality, family-based alternative care. 

“Family is the best place for children to thrive and children need individualised and continuous care,”

Zuzana Konradova, Thematic Coordinator Children in Alternative Care, Eurochild, highlighting the importance of ending institutionalisation.

Zuzana Konradova also recommended ending the institutionalisation of children and focusing on prevention and family support programmes.

Measures to shift from institutional to family- and community-based care must be part of an integrated child protection system. This system must be child-centred and rights-based to ensure children do not fall through the cracks, either by going missing or ending up in institutions, which could easily lead to the former.  Breaking a vicious circle starts with changing the pattern. 

Author: Irina Papancheva


RADAR – Running Away: Drivers, Awareness, and Responses 

“Families. Not Institutions.”