Researchers at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology express their concern in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) today (Friday 24 February) at the number of children in institutional care in Europe.

They have discovered that out of 52 countries in the World Health Organisation (WHO) European region, 46 countries have a total of over 43,800 children under the age of 3 in institutional care. This represents 14 infants and toddlers in every 10,000 living in ‘hospital’ like environments without a parent, despite the fact that more than 50 years of research has provided evidence that institutional care is detrimental to the behavioural, social and brain development of young children.

Professor Kevin Browne, lead investigator from the Centre, says, ‘Children under 3 in institutional care rarely have the opportunity to form an attachment to a parent or care giver in this setting and, at such an early stage, growing up in this kind of environment can have negative effects on neural functioning at this crucial period of brain development.’

International adoption is not always in the best interests of the child and should only be used as a last resort, but the researchers found that, in some countries, it is being used as an alternative to long-term institutional care. Adoption agencies and the parents they represent often assume that many children in residential care are orphans - a myth propagated by the word ‘orphanages’ – when, in fact, only 4% of young children in institutional care have no living biological parent. The majority of children have been left in institutions by families living in social and economic deprivation without access to community services.

Professor Browne continues, ‘It is clear that many children who are deemed by adoption agencies to be orphans, still have living parents in need of family support. It is crucial that this message is relayed to the general public so that prospective adoption parents know the real facts of the situation. Under international law, the child has the right to grow up with his/her own parents and relatives and to receive sufficient help from Government services to maximise the chances of this happening.’

His co-investigator Dr Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis added, ‘Education and training for policy makers is urgently needed on the appropriate care and placement of young children in adversity and the rehabilitation of their parents. Any form of alternative, family based care must provide high quality care that enhances the development and protection of the child. Surrogate families require careful selection, support and monitoring to prevent the child continuing to experience poor parenting, maltreatment and additional moves.’

In the absence of a health and social care emergency, the researchers conclude that no child under 3 years should be placed in an institution without a parent. In cases of emergency, the child should move to a foster home as soon as possible and the family of origin assessed.


Notes to Editors

Professor Kevin Browne, expert on child care and protection from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology, is working with leading children’s writer, JK Rowling and MEP Baroness Nicholson as part of a High Level Group to ensure the respect and protection of the rights of children and young people in Romania and eastern Europe.

Professor Browne has been working for many years with MEP, Baroness Emma Nicholson, to remove children from care homes in Romania and other European countries. Together with JK Rowling they have launched a charity to help young children who are placed in institutional care to create both awareness of their plight, and to raise funds.

For further information

Kate Chapple, Press Officer, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772 or 07789 921164.