In Europe a rough estimate of one million children live in alternative care settings (Eurochild National Survey: Children in Alternative Care, January 2010). The various care systems that exist for these children were discussed in the International Conference “Quality in Alternative Care” organised by SOS Children's Villages International in Prague on 4-6 April 2011. The conference aimed at providing a platform for exchange of good practice examples in the implementation of quality care standards, changes in policies and practices, and in the de-institutionalisation processes.
According to the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, all decisions concerning alternative care should be made trying to keep the child as close as possible to their family and habitual place of residence. Alternative care, guidelines say, may take the form of informal care with any private arrangement within a family environment, or formal care provided in a family environment ordered by a competent authority or in residential facilities.
The Alexander Foundation looked at the Quality4Children standards in the Netherlands and explained how the organization, having come across the standards, tried to include them in every mainstream policy (education, school curricula, care, and research). Their idea is that the standards have to be implemented by taking full account of the point of view of children and families.
Hans Grietens (University of Groningen) looked at Child and Youth participation in outcome research. He presented the results of a project with young delinquent girls, who had had a long history of having been in care, abused or rejected by their families. Grietens insisted that listening to them is only the beginning: “It is important to listen to children and include their voices, but this takes time”. Results may come as a shock because what children say may be different from what policy makers do or plan to do, but if taken seriously - their stories may serve as an informed practice.
The panel on de-institutionalisation included speaker Jean-Claude Legrand (UNICEF), Jana Hainsworth (Eurochild) and Michael Poeltl (SOS Children's Villages International). Legrand insisted that the focus should be on prevention, avoiding children being separated from families; he recalled that the early years are essential since they represent the physical and psychological foundations of the individual. Legrand called for the youngest children (0-3) not to be placed in institutions. Jana Hainsworth recalled that the EU’s Lisbon Treaty explicitly recognises the protection of children’s rights and wondered if sufficient attention has been given to prevention policies.
ESN has done a great deal of work on social work and care with children and families and sees local public social services as an important agent in guaranteeing the rights of vulnerable children. This may particularly include promoting the shift from institutional to community care (e.g. fostering, adoption, prevention work) for children whose parents cannot look after them.