The adoption of the European Child Guarantee is a big step forward. It will take another, however, to end institutional care.
At the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO) meeting of June 14th, the 27 member states of the European Union unanimously adopted the European Child Guarantee. Even before the pandemic, over 18 million children in the EU experienced poverty or social exclusion and this has been exacerbated by Covid-19. A guarantee to protect all children in need from such a fate was thus much needed.
The adoption of the Child Guarantee is a monumental event in the quest for a strong social Europe, delivering on past commitments to reduce child poverty and promote wellbeing. Over the past six years, the Eurochild network has been advocating an EU instrument acknowledging the necessity to tackle child poverty and social exclusion across the union and providing the means and political will to do so.
Much of what Eurochild has sought has been incorporated into the Child Guarantee. It requires that member states provide free education and healthcare for children in need and develop national action plans. There is also a solid financial basis to support the Child Guarantee and the necessary instrument has been adopted by the Council of the EU.
The Child Guarantee marks an essential step in the EU’s efforts to ensure the human rights of children are protected and promoted, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which came into force in 1990 and foregrounds the best interests of the child. It is thus however highly problematic that article 10d and recital 24 of the Child Guarantee indicate that ‘institutional care’ of children can still be adopted as a last resort. Moreover, the text wrongly supports the transition from foster care to family-based care, not recognising that foster care is internationally understood as one of the possible typologies of family-based care.
Across Europe, hundreds of thousands of children are growing up in institutions—large residential settings characterised by depersonalisation and routine. While originally intended to protect vulnerable children or provide necessary medical care, such centres delay and damage children’s emotional, social, cognitive and physical development and their mental health. Placing a child in an institution is not in their best interest and contrary to the rules that guide how EU funding should be used to support ending institutional care (‘deinstitutionalisation’). Such wording not only risks jeopardising the crucial steps forward in recent years by many member states but also threatens to legitimise the systematic placement of children in need in institutional settings.
Ending institutional care is linked to tackling child poverty, strengthening families and promoting family- and community-based care. Over the past year, Eurochild has worked with its members, UNICEF and more than 50 national experts across Europe to map how EU member states (and the United Kingdom) collect data on children in alternative care. A recent interim report found that many countries are reforming their child-protection data systems, suggesting potential demand for mutual learning and support throughout the EU.
Despite the progress made since the launch of the UNCRC, millions of children globally are still living without their basic rights. Their lives are affected by poverty, violence, conflict, climate change and the pandemic. Respecting the rights of children is crucial to achieving more equal and thriving societies. Much more needs to be done by the member states and the EU institutions to ensure children can realise their human rights.
The most effective way to ensure the Child Guarantee improves the lived experiences of children and their human rights is to guarantee their ability to participate in national democratic decision-making. Child participation is essential: children should not be viewed as only objects of government and social policy but rather as contributors to policy formation.
Nor should participation be limited to policies which directly concern children, as a wide range of public policies impinge on their lives. As member states implement the Child Guarantee, they need to promote partnerships with children, allowing children to express their views, feelings and opinions on how best to move forward in particular national contexts.
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Over the next nine months, member states are expected to develop national implementation plans. Governments must draw on the knowledge and expertise of organisations working with and for children at local and national levels. Meaningful engagement with civil-society organisations—as well as individual children and parents—will be essential in the drafting, implementing and monitoring of these plans.
The adoption of the Child Guarantee is to be celebrated. We cannot however sit back and expect a document to guarantee a dignified life for children or lift children out of poverty. The Child Guarantee consists only of recommendations—not measurable obligations—placing the onus on the member states to shape and modify national policies accordingly.
To achieve the aim of the Child Guarantee—‘to prevent and combat social exclusion by guaranteeing access of children in need to a set of key services, thereby also contributing to upholding the rights of the child by combating child poverty and fostering equal opportunities’—intensive activity at all levels of government and society is needed. This requires collaboration across ministries, agencies, local actors and civil society.
Much remains to be done. Eurochild welcomed the commitment in the recent European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan to lift five million children out of poverty by 2030. Considering the impact of the pandemic, however, it is disappointing that member states did not raise their ambition to cutting child poverty by half by that year—a commitment which would have been in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
To make the Child Guarantee a reality for all children in need across the EU—including ending institutional care for children—the member states and civil-society organisations must work together. The Eurochild network can offer its expertise to ensure all stakeholders are involved in developing ambitious national action plans.