Children without or at risk of losing parental care represent a stain on Europe’s moral conscience.
One in ten children worldwide lives without the care of a parent or at risk of losing parental care. They rank disproportionately high among those left behind. These children—neglected, abandoned, abused, orphaned or displaced—are, in many ways, invisible.
With new European commissioners shortly to assume office, this is a key opportunity for the EU to achieve historic progress on children’s rights, in Europe and worldwide.
Much is at stake. Millions of children live in institutional care globally—despite the evidence that placement in institutions has detrimental social, psychological, emotional and physical implications through into adulthood. A report just presented at the United Nations General Assembly highlights how hundreds of thousands of children living in institutions are de facto deprived of their liberty.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has undoubtedly reduced child mortality and improved access to primary education worldwide. But quality care for children without, or at risk of losing, parental care remains an issue to be addressed.
Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children promulgated in 2009 outline clear steps on providing quality care and services for children who have no one to care for them. There is however little awareness among governments of the need to implement the guidelines.
In Europe, child poverty is on the rise, in the context of economic crisis and austerity policies. Almost 25 million children under 18 living in the European Union are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. And family separation is closely linked: poverty is one of the major causes of children being separated from their families in many European countries.
These realities are simply unacceptable for a European Union that praises itself for protecting fundamental rights and promoting social justice and has the potential to lead the global fight against poverty and inequality.
The EU has to recognise that investing in children means investing in future societies. It is about political commitment—proposed solutions are already on the table.
First, the European Parliament and the European Commission have to promote strongly the European Council’s endorsement of the Child Guarantee. The scheme is key in the fight against child poverty.
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It would ensure that every child living in poverty in Europe has access to the most basic services—including free healthcare, education, childcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition—as part of an integrated European plan. This in turn can help prevent unnecessary family separation occasioned by poverty.
Secondly, the new EU budget for the next seven years must include more investments to replace institutional care with preventive and good-quality alternative-care options. This requires a comprehensive approach to address the needs of children without parental care or at risk of losing it.
That should include investments in early intervention and support for families to prevent unnecessary separation and to provide a range of quality-care options. Children have to be heard in decisions affecting their lives, to ensure alternative care meets their individual needs.
Support for young people who live in alternative care cannot stop when they come of age. Young care-leavers need targeted social and economic support on their path to independent living.
This year marks not only the appointment of the new leaders of the EU. It is also a key year for children’s rights, with the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC and thetenth anniversary of the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.
In addition, a new UN resolution on children without parental care is under negotiation. This can be a great opportunity for EU policy-makers to set a milestone in achieving children’s rights.
Above all, we expect from the European Commission a robust EU Child Rights strategy, integrating UN-related frameworks and building on the efforts of the previous commission.
Joining Forces—an alliance of the six leading child-focused organisations—recently called for a second revolution for children’s rights. It urged governments and the global community to embrace all parts of the convention and invest in services reaching every child.
We cannot leave a single child behind. The appointment of a new commission is also a chance for a new beginning—to act and deliver on child’s rights.
Gitta Trauernicht is vice-president of SOS Children’s Villages International and a former minister for social affairs of Schleswig-Holstein and minister for social affairs, women, family and youth of Lower Saxony.