Few people associate the European Union with the protection of children’s rights. Most people think of it in terms of a single market and freedom of movement. But with greater economic integration comes massive social change.
Unknown to many, there are a host of organisations working behind the scenes to make sure that EU laws and policies protect human rights and drive social progress across Member States.
One area where this work is showing concrete results is deinstitutionalisation.
When Romania became an EU Member State in 2007, the application was accepted on the condition that Romania reform its child protection system; in 1990, there were an estimated 100,000 children growing up in orphanages, there are now less than 7,000. Most large-scale institutions have been closed, and the children have been reintegrated into their biological families, or are cared for in families through foster or kinship care.
EU funding and pressure played a large part in this transformation. However, much more remains to be done.
Millions at work
Institutional care denies people choice and control over their lives.
For children, growing up unable to form healthy attachments can be particularly damaging and have lifelong consequences.
The last 10 years have seen renewed attention being paid to how the EU can help Member States meet their obligations to international human rights standards. Following several years of awareness-raising and monitoring, it is now prohibited to spend any EU money on building or renovating institutions. Unfortunately, EU funds are still sometimes used to invest in institutional care because of a lack of awareness among national governments and in the European Commission.
‘The concerted advocacy with national civil society organisations and recommendations from the EU have been a success’
For example, one Hungarian institution has received almost €0.5 million ($0.55 million) through the EU’s energy efficiency programme, despite being reported to the authorities for its degrading treatment of adults with disabilities. Elsewhere, Bulgaria has invested in more than 200 family-type placement centres, many of which are at risk of becoming micro institutions.
Despite this, there are positive changes; Member States are now required to report on how they are reforming their care systems in order to move away from institutional care, and how they offer more family-based alternatives and services in the community. In return, they are supported by EU funds earmarked to support the process of deinstitutionalisation.
EU funding is invested in closing institutions, improving the quality and range of alternative care options, improving community-based services for children and young people ageing out of care, as well as families at risk. During the current funding period, 2014–2020, €76 million ($82.9 million) of structural funds have been allocated for this process in Lithuania alone; Bulgaria and Romania have both received over €100 million ($109 million), and Latvia has received more than €90 million ($98.2 million) for its deinstitutionalisation reform.
Ending institutional care in Europe
As a membership network promoting children’s rights in Europe, Eurochild works to ensure that the EU supports child protection reforms wherever needed. In 2012, together with Hope and Homes for Children, they launched the Opening Doors for Europe’s Children campaign, working with civil society in 12 European countries to ensure effective use of EU funds and policy to catalyse reforms.
In 2015, they expanded the campaign to 16 countries, bringing onboard other international partners — SOS Children’s Villages, the International Foster Care Organisation and FICE Europe. Importantly, this also included Western European countries: Belgium, Austria and Spain.
The campaign worked by providing evidence on what was and wasn’t working in each country so that the EU could put pressure on the Member State (or accession/neighbourhood country), in what they call ‘top-down, bottom-up’ advocacy.
The concerted advocacy with national civil society organisations and recommendations from the EU have been a success.
In 2018, family-based care grew while institutions for children were in decline in the majority of the Opening Doors campaign countries. For example, in Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Serbia and Moldova, the number of children without parental care who grow up in foster and kinship families exceeded the number of children living in institutions.
To support the development of family-based solutions, Bulgaria, Croatia and Estonia launched nationwide campaigns to promote foster care and to encourage the recruitment of new foster carers for children without parental care. Austria is paving the way to improve the quality and access to family-based care for unaccompanied migrant children as an alternative to reception centres.
In addition to the increase in the number of children in family-based care, the quality of family-based placements has also improved. For instance, according to a new law in Lithuania, each municipality has the duty to develop a network of care centres responsible for recruitment, training and support of professional foster carers.
Despite generally positive trends in foster care in Europe, there is still an insufficient number of foster families in Croatia, Estonia, Romania and Greece.
The campaign comes to an end in early 2020, but the work will continue. Thanks in part to our influence, the proposals for the next round of EU funding programmes take the EU’s commitment to deinstitutionalisation one step further.
The job is not done yet
The issue is now considered to be relevant for all EU countries, not only those with an ‘identified need’, and the transition from institutional to community-based care now needs to be reflected in every country’s strategy for poverty reduction and social inclusion. They have also insisted on the active involvement of civil society in the planning, implementation and monitoring of EU funding programmes.
According to their best estimates, there are still several hundreds of thousands of children growing up in large-scale, segregated institutional care settings in Europe today. Closing these institutions and investing in a wide range of services and supports for vulnerable children and families is critical to achieving social progress and more inclusive societies.
The EU should be at the forefront of driving this change.
This article was originally published by Apolitical. You can read it here.