Poverty Remains a Europe-wide Cause for Children’s Institutionalisation

Opening Doors

Hundreds of thousands of children across Europe are growing up in institutional care. The consequences are devastating for children, families and society. Opening Doors for Europe’s Children – a pan-European campaign advocating for strengthening families and ending institutional care – has created a new generation of country fact sheets that document the evidence on deinstitutionalisation (DI) and the status of implementing care reforms during the transition from institutional to family- and community-based care in 15 European countries. The latest country snapshots look at recent, comparable and country-specific information on characteristics and the functioning of the child protection and care systems across EU member states, pre-accession countries and countries within the EU neighbourhood.

Campaign’s latest findings demonstrate that:

Main reasons for children entering institutional care

Poverty: Poverty remains the Europe-wide cause for children’s separation from their families. Tackling the roots of child poverty should go hand-in-hand with ending institutional care for children. Broad public opinion accepts institutional care as a traditional form of care, and leading national NGOs in Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hungary report increase in the number of children who were placed in institutional care by their biological parents because of poverty. Opening Doors national coordinators in Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova, Latvia and Serbia say that poverty remains the main cause.

Disability: In most of the participating countries, children with disabilities are at the highest risk of being institutionalised due to the lack of support to families and inclusive education in the local area. In Belgium, children with disabilities are among the most discriminated categories that enter public care. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece and Serbia children with disabilities live in the same institutions as adults, and those entering institutions might have to spend their whole lives behind the closed doors as there are no opportunities for independent community living. Investment in prevention and support services at local level, including for vulnerable families or children with disabilities, is lagging behind.

Migration: Due to the recent influx of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in Europe, new institutional structures are getting opened to accommodate these children. Migrant and refugee children do not have access to quality care. In reception, transit and destination countries where the Opening Doors Campaign operates, we find that children are being discriminated due to their migrant status. In Greece, children both unaccompanied and those living with their families are growing up in refugee camps or in inappropriate facilities with limited access to education or community based activities. In Bulgaria, children are often getting placed in detention centres and after that to big institutional settings. In Austria, there are 130 institutions for unaccompanied children, often sheltering up to 50 children per time. The same situation we find in Belgium were children are being placed in big reception centers and institutional care settings. Foster care solutions as alternative to institutionalisation is rare.

Key achievements towards DI reforms in Europe

DI has been acknowledged at the national level in most of the countries participating in the campaign. Many national governments have made significant progress towards DI. For example, in Romania the number of children growing up in institutional care decreased by 92% since 2000; institutional care in Bulgaria has decreased by 80% since 2009. Many governments – e.g. in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Latvia, Ukraine and Lithuania – have committed to a phased programme of reform, and several other governments have legislated against the placement of children under the age of 3 in institutions and partnered with NGOs to close some institutions. Important changes in EU policy and the regulations that govern how EU Funds are spent had been achieved putting deinstitutionalisation firmly on the EU political agenda. EU funds are supporting care reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria and Latvia. The campaign set out to convert these developments into changes on the ground and, therefore, to improve the lives of children growing up in institutional care.

Key challenges towards the transition from institutional to family- and community-based care in Europe

There is more to be done to accelerate the end of institutional care for children in Europe. In practice, national governments’ plans to reform institutional care systems have often focused on reorganising the existing institutions rather than closing them (e.g. Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine). In Poland, Hungary, Estonia or Bulgaria, for instance, deinstitutionalisation has meant splitting large residential facilities into smaller units. However, this does not necessarily imply the improvement in the quality of care. Children remain at a great risk if there is insufficient oversight of the quality of care.

Our campaign partners have observed that funds are mostly being used to build parallel services rather than investing in ‘soft measures’ such as re-training and training of staff, supporting independent living skills and personalised transition plans, and strengthening existing services in the community. Furthermore, in Belgium and Austria, European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) ignores investments in the transition from institutional to community-based care completely, focusing solely on employment measures.

Engagement of civil society in implementation of care reforms across Europe

Civil society remains instrumental and often undertakes the State’s role in developing pioneering services and implementing DI activities in the community due to lack of expertise or funding in the public sector (e.g. foster care training for both parents and professionals, family support and strengthening).

Common myths about DI

Institutional culture is deeply rooted in the minds of public from many campaign countries. The general public accepts institutional care as a traditional form of care, and rarely challenges it.

Read our Myth Buster


The data for this submission was compiled by: FICE Austria, FICE Spain and FEDAIA in Spain, La Port Ouverte in Belgium, Hope and Homes for Children in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, National Network for Children in Bulgaria, Igale Lapsele Pere in Estonia, Roots Research Center in Greece, Family Child Youth Association in Hungary, SOS Children’s Villages in Latvia and Lithuania, Child and Family Foundation in Poland and MODS in Serbia. It was primarily sourced from the official state sources; however, it is open to different interpretations and is not necessarily comprehensive