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Why do institutions damage the very children they are supposed to protect? If there weren't orphanages, where would all the orphans go? How could parents abandon their children? Click on your question below to read the answer to some of our frequently asked questions...


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  • Why do children end up in institutions?
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    A significant proportion of children in institutions are there because their families are poor.  Some research suggests that this accounts for the majority of children in institutions. Countries that rely heavily on institutions to look after vulnerable children tend to have few support services in the community.  If a family is in financial crisis and does not have enough money to meet their child's basic material needs, instead of being provided social support, they will be given no option but to place their child in an institution.

    Moreover, due to a lack of specialised healthcare and inclusive education in the community, parents of children with disabilities are made to feel they have no choice but to place their children in an institution.  Many are advised by healthcare professionals that the institution is the best pace for their child and that the State knows better than parents how to care for children.  In many communities, there is no inclusive education and, if parents want their child to go to school, the only choice is an institutional placement.  Local school buildings are not adapted to the needs of children with disbilities.  Stigma attached to disabilities means that parents fear for their children's futures - they worry how their children will cope when they grow up. 

    Across Europe there is a significant over-representation of children with disabilities in institutions and they are more likely to stay for longer periods of time than their peers.  In some countries, children with disabilities never leave institutions: at age 18 they are transferred to adult institutions where they remain until their death.

    Furthermore, across Europe and Central Asia, children from ethnic minority communities are signficantly over-represented in institutions. In many Central and Eastern European countries, Roma children are particularly vulnerable.  Due to discrimination, Roma children are routinely misdiagnosed as having learning disabililties.  This is often simply an educational delay because the child did not have the opportunity to attend kindergarten.  As a result they are arbitrarily separated from their parents and placed in residential special schools. 

    This situation is compounded by the pressure from communities, where parents of children in mainstream schools are reluctant to have their children educated together with Roma children.  This has resulted in generations of children in the same family being routinely separated from their parents.  Due to discrimination and this generational exclusion from access to formal education, Roma people are much more likely to live in poverty than the majority community.  This makes their children doubly vulnerable to institutionalisation.

    In a minority of cases, children are admitted to institutions because they are being abused and neglected.  But Lumos' research shows that in many instances, children had previously been referred to social services, when the family was vulnerable, and the lack of intervention allowed the situation to develop into a crisis.  In many countries, social workers lack assessment tools to ascertain the cause of the neglect - and there is a world of difference between a parent who has resources but wilfully neglects their child and one who cannot care properly for their child due to grinding poverty.  Admitting children who have been abused to institutions compounds the trauma they have suffered and leaves them vulnerable to further abuse.  Therefore institutionalising such children is a wholly inappropriate response to child abuse.

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  • Isn’t this is only way for some children to get an education?
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    There are a large number of children in Central and Eastern Europe placed in Residential Special Schools because they have a learning disability.  However, many of these schools are far away from their family homes. Many children have to leave their home, their family and friends to be able to go to school because there are not enough resources in the local mainstream schools to provide education for children with learning disabilities.

    There is a high number of children with disabilities living in Disability Institutions. Some of these children do not receive any formal education. In one European country, 60% of children with disabilities are not attending any formal education.

    The research shows that children in institutions are more likely to fail educationally and teenagers have poor work prospects, which will affect their ability to become independent and to contribute to society as adults.

    Lumos works to help develop inclusive education services and programmes which means children with disabilities can go to school alongside their peers and receive an education and live with their family at the same time.  By developing these services and training special educational needs teachers for this generation, we can help end the cycle of institutionalisation for future generations of children born with disabilities.

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  • Isn’t this the only way that some children can be protected if they are at risk of abuse at home?
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    • A significant number of children in Europe are admitted to institutions because they are being abused or neglected in their families.  Even countries with the best community services in place have to protect some children from abusive families.  But the definition of neglect varies and in many countries parental neglect is directly linked to poverty and a lack of support services.  Can institutionalisation possibly be the right response to the abuse of children?  In fact, research shows that placing children in institutions exacerbates the trauma they experience and exposes them to even greater risk of abuse and harm to their health and development.  Of course, children must not be left in situations of serious risk, but any intervention must surely start from the premise that we do no harm.

      It is easy to understand why, in many countries, social workers remove children from families where they are being abused or neglected.  There are far too many horror stories in the press of severe abuse and even deaths of children who have been left with abusive families.  However, if we consider the numbers of children separated from their families because of child abuse or neglect across the region, we find a striking picture.  One study that considered the institutionalisation of children across Europe found that the number of children institutionalised because of abuse and neglect was significantly higher in the countries that rely heavily on institutional care to look after vulnerable children.

      But the picture of ‘neglect’ itself is not straightforward.  There is a significant difference between the parent who has enough resources to live and wilfully denies food to their child, and the parent who does not care for their child properly because of an addiction to alcohol or drugs.  And there is a world of difference between this and the parent who is unable to provide their child with sufficient food, clothing or shelter due to grinding poverty.  This presents a huge challenge for social workers to identify the cause of the harm and neglect, in order to propose the response that will best meet the needs of the child.


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  • What is the alternative? How else can vulnerable children be best cared for?
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    The alternative to institutionalisation is to provide quality family and community based services. This includes the development of inclusive and accessible universal services, so that children with disabilities can receive health and education services whilst remaining in their families and communities. Further targeted health, education and social services are also required for children with specific needs.  This allows children to grow up in a caring family environment where their individual needs are taken into account and met. Evidence shows that babies can recover completely from the damage caused by institutionalisation as long as they are placed in families before the age of six months.

    There is considerable expertise in the field, based on experiences in countries which have already undergone this process. These are gathered together in Common European Guidelines on the Transition from Institutional to Community Based Care, produced by the European Expert Group on the Transition from Institutional to Community-based Care. The Group was convened in February 2009 by Vladimir Špidla, then Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, in order to address the issues of institutional care reform in the European Union.  These Guidelines can be downloaded in several languages at:

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  • What happens if you close these institutions? Where would the children go?
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    The process of de-institutionalisation (DI) is a complex and lengthy process and the closure of institutions and orphanages, particularly those where Lumos is working, does not happen in isolation from the local and national authorities.

    In the process of closing an institution, all the children are assessed individually as each child’s situation and needs are different.  There will be a case conference to decide the best placement for each of the children and the support they need. Children and their families will be invited to attend these case conferences.

    In these case conferences, a multi-disciplinary team will first consider if it is possible for children to return to live with their families, their parents or other members of their family, like an auntie or uncle or grandparent.

    If it is possible and in the best interest for the child to return home, a social worker will then work closely with the child’s family to identify what support they need and develop a plan to prepare the family and the child to return home.

    If it is not possible for the child to return home to his family, then a foster care placement will be considered. A foster carer is a person who has been approved and trained to care for children in their own home.

    For a small number of older children or children who have complex needs a placement in a small residential home may be best. These homes should be small and provide a family environment and be located in the community.

    All the children will be involved in a preparation programme to help get them ready for moving to their new family placements.

    Our Lumos teams work in partnership with the local authorities in each country to ensure that the most appropriate family placements are found for each individual child and that they are supported once they move.

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  • How do you define 'families'
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    Appropriate, protective, and permanent family care involves a nurturing, lifelong commitment to a child by an adult or adults with parental roles and responsibilities. These family relationships should provide physical and emotional support, a sense of belonging, and generally involve legal recognition of parental and child rights and responsibilities.

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  • What about adoption?
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    Research from across the world shows that the majority of children within institutions and orphanages have a living parent or parents [see here our factsheet with figures from around the world here]. Lumos’ experience suggests that, with the right support, most children should be able to return safely to their own birth or extended families.   Where it is not possible to return a child to their parents or extended family – because they do not have relatives, because it is not in their best interests, or because all efforts to return them have failed – appropriate, protective alternative family care is likely to be in the child’s best interest.  
    Any decision to place a child with a family should be made on the basis of a comprehensive individual assessment of the child, carried out by suitably qualified professionals, mandated by an appropriate authority.  This requires professionals who are well qualified, coordinated, and sufficient in number, as well as a suitable range of care options from which to choose.  Where these elements are lacking, the child’s best interests are often compromised leading to poor decisions and poor outcomes for children. 
    Where the child’s assessment suggests that adoption is in the child’s best interests, the child should be placed for adoption in their country of origin. Exceptionally, where placement in another country is considered, it should be strictly in accordance with article 21(b) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Lumos also acknowledges The Hague Convention, which seeks to protect children and their families against the risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad. It also seeks to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children. 
    The Hague Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.