Global study on children deprived of liberty

Manfred Nowak, Independent Expert leading the global study on children deprived of liberty


In its resolution 69/157 of 18 December 2014, the General Assembly invited the Secretary-General to commission an in-depth study on children deprived of liberty. In October 2016, Manfred Nowak (Austria) was appointed as Independent Expert leading the study, which is the first scientific attempt, on the basis of global data, to comprehend the magnitude of the situation of children deprived of liberty, its possible justifications and root causes, as well as conditions of detention and their harmful impact on the health and development of children. The study also identifies best practices in non-custodial solutions applied by States in relation to the following six situations: (a) detention of children in the administration of justice; (b) children living in prisons with their primary caregivers; (c) migration-related detention; (d) deprivation of liberty in institutions; (e) detention in the context of armed conflict; and (f) on national security grounds. The study proposes recommendations to support States and the United Nations in dealing with this phenomenon.

The present report summarizes the detailed findings of the global study on children deprived of liberty, which will be available in printed, electronic and child - friendly versions. It was prepared through a participatory process, which included regional, subregional, national and thematic consultations, as well as expert meetings. Many Governments, United Nations agencies and other stakeholders provided comprehensive responses to a questionnaire transmitted to them in February 2018.

The Independent Expert is grateful for the support provided by Governments, United Nations agencies and bodies, other international and regional organizations, civil society organizations, the academic community and, in particular, children.

The report is also available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish.

Read the full study here.

Some key paragraphs within the report include:

3. Many children may find themselves in a vicious cycle of different situations of deprivation of liberty throughout their childhood, which might start in an “orphanage”, followed by various institutions for educational supervision and drug rehabilitation until culminating in imprisonment and reoffending. Deprivation of liberty means deprivation of rights, agency, visibility, opportunities and love. Depriving children of liberty is depriving them of their childhood.

63. The pathways that unnecessarily lead children to be separated from families include socioeconomic conditions, discrimination, family violence and lack of access to essential services (e.g., health, education, rehabilitation, treatment). Some children end up in institutions owing to the incorrect application of the best interests principle. Systems favouring institutions are sometimes characterized by profit motives or commodification of the care of children. Many States lack gatekeeping systems, which are necessary to prevent the placement of a child in care outside of the immediate family and to ensure that any such placement is suitable to meet the child’s needs and preferences.

64. Evidence shows that institutions are often characterized by living arrangements that are inherently harmful to children. The characteristics include but are not limited to: separation and isolation from families and the wider community; forced co-habitation; depersonalization; lack of individual care and love; instability of caregiver relationships; lack of caregiver responsiveness; lack of self-determination; and fixed routines not tailored to the child’s needs and preferences. The most egregious and direct forms of deprivation of liberty include solitary confinement, physical restraints and forced medication. Conditions in institutions are often characterized by violence, sexual abuse and neglect, amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment. Failure to register institutions and inadequate monitoring and complaints mechanisms raise the risk of human rights violations for the children involved.

65. Research for the study and the Independent Expert’s first-hand experience, as a former Special Rapporteur on torture, clearly indicate that children should not be institutionalized to receive care, protection, education, rehabilitation or treatment, as it cannot substitute for the benefits of growing up in a family or in a family-type setting within the community. This need for deinstitutionalization has already been expressed by States, when adopting the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (General Assembly resolution 64/142) in 2009.

83. The Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children of 2009 seem to have had an impact on the deinstitutionalization practices of States. While in the global study on violence against children of 2006, the total number of children in institutions was given as 8 million, research conducted for the current study estimate the number to be between 3.5 and 5.5 million. Deinstitutionalization measures have been adopted, for example, in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Central Asia. Many of those children, including those with disabilities, have now been reunited with their families or placed in family-type settings in the community.

92. Similar considerations apply to children deprived of liberty in institutions. In principle, the United Nations, in its Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (General Assembly resolution 64/142) envisages that States should refrain from institutionalizing children who are in need of care, protection, education, rehabilitation or treatment. Where the immediate family is unable to care for a child with disabilities, article 23 (5) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires States to “undertake every effort to provide alternative care within the wider family, and, failing that, within the community in a family setting”.

94. The most important reason for the large number of children in detention is the lack of adequate support for families, caregivers and communities to provide appropriate care to children and encourage their development. Such support and effective cooperation between parents, child welfare, social protection, education, health, law enforcement and the justice system would prevent children from being placed in institutions and coming into conflict with the law.

99. To address the root causes of deprivation of liberty of children, States should invest significant resources to reduce inequalities and support families to empower them to foster the physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development of their children, including children with disabilities.

126. States should target the causes of the separation of children from their families and provide the necessary preventive measures through support for families and strengthened child protection and social support systems. States should invest in a well-planned, trained and supported social service workforce, as well as integrated case management systems.

127. States should develop and implement a strategy for progressive deinstitutionalization which includes significant investments in family and community-based support and services. States should prioritize the closure of large-scale institutions and avoid the creation of new institutions.

128. States should undertake a process to assess children presently in institutions and make all efforts to return them safely to their immediate family, extended family, or, failing that, in a family-type setting integrated into the community, on the basis of the best interests of the child, and taking into account the child’s will and preferences.

129. While prevention and deinstitutionalization are being carried out, States should ensure that all alternative care options respect the rights of all children and implement measures that guarantee the full participation of all children. States should provide effective support for safe and well-prepared transitioning out of care into independent living, after-care services and the reintegration of children back into their families and communities.

130. States are also urged to map all institutions within the country, whether private or public, whether presently registered or not, and regardless of how children arrived there, and conduct an independent review of each institution. States should operationalize a system of registration, licensing, regulation and inspection which ensures that providers of alternative care meet internationally recognized standards.

131. States shall ensure that children being placed in hospitals, psychiatric facilities and rehabilitation centres, including for substance abuse, be properly counted and included in systemic transformation and deinstitutionalization efforts.