How are we to provide appropriate and constructive solutions for children unable to benefit from parental care? This question – about what we now call “alternative care” – has moved steadily up the international agenda of child protection concerns over the past 25 years in particular. In so doing, it has in turn brought to light many other questions, for example:
- What are the true reasons and drivers behind the fact that a given child is placed or accepted in alternative care?
- Do all children in alternative care really need to be there?
- What is the State doing to prevent separation and support families?
- What are the defining features of an “institution” vis-à-vis other residential care settings that can be considered suitable?
- In the rush to “deinstitutionalisation”, are we sometimes compromising on the quality of care settings offered instead?
- What are the real-life experiences, expectations and demands of young people who have been in alternative care?
- Do all children in alternative care really need to be there? How can States better support parents in their caregiving role?
To go some way to responding to questions such as these, and taking inspiration from the relevant provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children were developed. They were approved by the UN General Assembly in December 2009.
The significance of these Guidelines lies not only in their substance but also in the way they were brought to fruition. The need for standards in this sphere was highlighted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2005. As a result, international NGOs and UNICEF joined forces with individual experts and young people with experience of alternative care to produce an initial draft text in early 2006. The Brazilian Authorities then went on to spearhead intergovernmental negotiations to finalise the document and secure its acceptance in 2009. In other words, the content of the Guidelines stems from unusually broad participation and support for developing an internationally-recognised text.
The Guidelines are “desirable orientations for policy and practice” and, reflecting the broad participation in their development, are intended for “all sectors directly or indirectly concerned”: not just governments but also non-State bodies as well as individual professionals. To assist those involved, at all levels, to become familiar with the main principles and thrusts of the Guidelines, an Implementation Handbook (“Moving Forward” ) was produced in 2012. A monitoring tool (“Tracking Progress”) is now being rolled out, designed to help determine the extent to which necessary alternative care reforms grounded in the Guidelines are being set in place in each country.
This first international conference to focus explicitly on implementing the Guidelines* is therefore a logical next step in this series of initiatives to promote better policy and practice in alternative care. It is now time to take stock of achievements and to recognise the issues and obstacles that, as experience to date has shown, constitute special challenges for securing compliance with the Guidelines in different situations.
In this way, we should be able to lay down solid bases for strategizing to ensure that the use and quality of alternative care correspond more and more closely to the human rights and needs of the children involved.
* Of course, other highly relevant conferences on general or specific alternative care issues have been held since 2009 and are potentially in the pipeline, including:
- 2009 Kenya: International Conference in Africa on Family based care for children (Link)
- 2010 Argentina: Participation of the Articulated Project RELAF/ISS Seminar. (Link)
- 2011 Prague: International Conference “Quality in Alternative Care” (Link)
- 2011 Africa: The Way Forward project (Link)
- 2012 Senegal: Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa Conference - Mobilising around Family Strengthening and Alternative Care (Link)
- 2012 CEE/CIS: Regional conference on prevention/ de-institutionalisation for under 3
- 2013 Mexico: “Strengthening the advances. Creating tools for the accomplishment on the Rights to live in family and in community” (Link)
- 2016 Geneva: “Buliding on the momentum”
- 2017+ Regional implementation conferences would be promoted targeting practitioners on the ground who are implementing the Guidelines with a similar focus on progress and challenges, including specific regional issues (e.g.: baby boxes and child abandonment in Eastern Europe, foster care recruitment in Asia, social protection measures in Africa)