Ending child institutionalisation in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Syria child.jpg

The EU has spent hundreds of millions of euros aimed at improving the lives of children in programmes that ended up locking them up in dysfunctional state institutions, writes Georgette Mulheir.

Georgette Mulheir is the Chief Executive Officer of Lumos, a foundation which helps prevent abandonment of children and babies.

Over the past decade, hundreds of millions of euros intended to improve the lives of the most vulnerable citizens in the EU in fact was spent on incarcerating them in large residential institutions that science has proved seriously harm their health, development and future life chances.

In Bulgaria, in 2007, for example, €140,000 of European Union aid was spent on renovating an institution for children and adults with severe disabilities. Three years later, the institution was investigated over high levels of death through malnutrition, and was highlighted in a report of the UN Committee against Torture.  

How was this possible?

As followers of European Union affairs will be well aware, ensuring that well-meaning high-level funding decisions have the intended impact on the ground in Member States is never easy.

It is a particularly difficult challenge to track the impact of funding aimed at improving the lives for some of Europe’s most vulnerable people – including children and young people in institutional care, many of them with physical and intellectual disabilities. Over the decades, their voices, their experiences and their needs have gone unheeded.

That is why a recent announcement by the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, has been welcomed warmly by those – including myself, as head of J.K. Rowling’s children’s charity, Lumos – who are working to end child institutionalisation in Europe.

Ms O’Reilly has launched an investigation into respect for fundamental rights in EU Cohesion Policy – which includes the aim of reducing poverty and social exclusion in poorer Member States through the use of European Structural and Investment Funds. At more than €350 billion for the 2014-2020 period, these funds represent over one third of the EU’s budget.

The Ombudsman’s investigation focuses on the Commission’s role in ensuring that EU funding is used in ways that comply with its Charter of Fundamental Rights – which include commitments to child welfare and safety.

Ms O’Reilly commented: “In many cases, these funds are supposed to help the most vulnerable members of society. But if, for example, there are complaints that EU money is used to “institutionalise” persons with disabilities instead of helping to integrate them, the Commission clearly needs to ensure the matter is investigated and corrective action taken if needed.”

The Bulgarian €140,000 was, in fact, officially ear-marked for ‘deinstitutionalisation’ (DI) – taking children from large, neglectful institutions and supporting in families in the community.

Not for the first time, funds designed for that purpose were misused to keep an institution running. Despite the EU-funded renovation, the regime in that Bulgarian institution failed to meet the most basic rights and needs of those in its care. Children with intellectual disabilities, in particular, need close and sustained adult attention to help them engage with the process of eating and drinking. Simply being given a bottle by an over-stretched member of staff, and left to get on with it is not enough. They will not eat properly and, because their communication skills are under-developed, they will not complain. So often, sadly, their silence is misinterpreted as satisfaction or even good behaviour whilst, in reality, they are slipping inexorably towards malnutrition and death.  (Mercifully, the situation in Bulgaria has improved dramatically. Lumos, in fact, was invited by the Bulgarian government to help introduce a new system to support eating and drinking, which removed children from danger of malnutrition and has saved hundreds of lives.  And the government has committed itself to ending the institutionalisation of children by 2025.)

Alongside other NGOs, Lumos spent four years advocating for pro-DI requirements to be attached to Cohesion Funding Regulations. These conditions were confirmed by the European Parliament in November 2013 and stipulate, in effect, that EU money cannot be spent on building or refurbishing orphanages and residential institutional settings. Now, Member States must spend it on the transition to community-based services that support children to live with their families and be fully included in all aspects of the life of their communities and schools.

Lumos helped create the influential European Expert Group on the Transition from Institutional to Community-Based Care. We worked with EC officials to produce common guidelines and ‘tool kits’, in 13 languages, which laid down in intricate detail the ingredients necessary to deliver a transition from institutional to community based services and how EU funds should be spent to make this happen.

These guidelines were endorsed by two European Commissioners. Their intent is to deliver the principles of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and they will be available to the Ombudsman as, in effect, a powerful investigative tool.

There are an estimated one million children in institutionalised care in the European region. Most nations have accepted the principle that removing children and young people from institutions is the right thing to do. Children raised in institutions are more likely to be involved in prostitution and crime, and to commit suicide. (For a fuller explanation of the harm caused by institutionalisation, read my article in The Equal Rights Review.)

For national governments, though, the challenge lies in taking EU money and actually doing the work to reform child services, which support families and ensure disabled children are included in mainstream schools.

Ms O’Reilly’s investigation will shine a powerful spotlight on the distribution and use of EU Structural Funds. She will assess whether funds already disbursed have been used correctly and  whether the plans for DI – which governments are required to present ex-ante, before the release of funds – reflect the fundamental rights of children and young people in institutions. There is plenty of help for countries to get this right. Lumos, for instance, works in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, as well as Moldova and Ukraine,

Ms O’Reilly does not, of course, have a magic wand (this is not a Harry Potter story!) She has suggested the Commission does not have clear sanctions at its disposal to deal with cases of the misuse of funds. However, her work will help the Commission to think about ways of enforcing respect for fundamental rights when EU funds are awarded. Separately, Lumos has invited all recently elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to sign a Pledge committing them to support DI.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we may remember awful images of institutionalised children in Ceausescu’s Romania. Much has changed in Romania among others: in Moldova, Lumos has helped the government reduce numbers in institutions by up to 70% in just five years.

But institutionalisation of children – with its inherent neglect of fundamental rights – is still widespread throughout the region. It is wholly right that one of the EU’s most important programmes – its funding to its poorest regions – should deliver fundamental rights to its most vulnerable citizens.

Subscribe to our newsletters