Institutions are not the answer in the cases of child abuse and neglect

19.11.12

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.

In many countries, this is where the problem starts in earnest.  Particularly in Central and Eastern Europe (C.E.E), social work is a relatively new profession.  It is under-resourced and under-valued.  As a result, social workers are often low-paid (sometimes extremely so) with high case loads, lacking the basic resources such as transport and a telephone.  In one country, extremely dedicated social workers told me they hitched lifts in rural areas in order to address urgent cases of child abuse.  In many countries I have visited, social workers regularly take money from their own pockets to buy food for families in extreme poverty, because they do not have access to a budget to support families in crisis.

Lumos’ research across a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe has found a similar and disturbing pattern.  We have studied individual cases referred to social services.  Many social workers are overloaded and told us that they predominantly dealt with cases of family crisis, where there was serious risk to the child.  The most frequent response was an institutional placement because, they felt, ‘at least the child will be safe there’

"...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."

EXPLORE LUMOS
We Suggest
  • Safeguarding Children by Monitoring and Improving Standards of Social Care
    Safeguarding Children by Monitoring and Improving Standards of Social Care thumbnail
  • 'I was told by the doctor to leave my child...'
    'I was told by the doctor to leave my child...' thumbnail
Associated stories
  • Rediscovering the love of a family: Andre*’s story
    Rediscovering the love of a family: Andre*’s story thumbnail
  • Ion's Story
    Ion's Story thumbnail
  • Why International Advocacy?
    Why International Advocacy? thumbnail
  • Drivers of Institutionalisation
    Drivers of Institutionalisation thumbnail
  • Seven Levels of Engagement
    Seven Levels of Engagement thumbnail
  • Families in emergency situations
    Families in emergency situations thumbnail
RESEARCH
×