Current Status + Progress
At least 2.7 million children are living in residential care, but this is just the tip of the iceberg

There is wide recognition of the adverse impacts of institutionalization on developmental outcomes and children’s wellbeing. This has led many countries to undertake efforts to reduce the numbers of children living in institutional care and, whenever possible, to prevent institutionalization in the first place, or to reunite children with their families in line with their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. The Guidelines, welcomed by the UN General Assembly in 2009, encourage efforts to maintain children with their families, where possible. When this is not in the child’s best interest, the State is responsible for protecting the rights of the child and ensuring appropriate alternative care: kinship care, foster care, other forms of family-based or family-like care, residential care or supervised independent living arrangements. Recourse to alternative care should only be made when necessary, and in forms appropriate to promote the child’s wellbeing, aiming to find a stable and safe long term response, including, where possible, reuniting the child with his/her family.


Accurate and reliable figures of the numbers of children living in alternative care are essential for countries to meet these objectives, and their obligations in relation to the CRC. As children in alternative care cannot be identified through household surveys, whether such data are available or not and how reliable the existing figures are is, to a large extent, a reflection of how well the national administrative/registry system functions to capture and record information on these children. This information can then be used to develop or strengthen national monitoring systems, to improve service provision to children and families, to implement child care systems reforms that promote family strengthening and reunification, as well as to fulfil countries’ obligations under the CRC. In addition, the availability of accurate figures and disaggregated data on children living in institutions, in particular, can directly inform government policy and practice in support of deinstitutionalization, by providing clear information on the characteristics of children placed in these types of formal alternative care settings. This can also then be used to assess gaps in information and in service provision or to identify appropriate interventions for children vulnerable to family separation in order to reduce placement of children in formal alternative care and especially institutional care.

Despite its importance, many countries still lack accurate statistics on the number (and characteristics) of children living in alternative care. More specifically, official records in many countries capture only a small fraction of the actual number of children in residential care and children living in privately owned centers are often not counted. Therefore, there is an urgent need for countries to invest in efforts to produce useful, accurate and comprehensive listings of all existing residential care facilities as well as undertake, at regular intervals, thorough counts of the number of children living in these facilities in order to help strengthen official records. This will also provide concrete sources of administrative data on these children for improved and targeted service delivery and policy and programme development. Overall, it will therefore strengthen a government’s capacity to respond effectively to the specific needs of each child living in such contexts.

Approximately 2.7 million children between the ages of 0 and 17 years are estimated to be living in residential care globally, or 120 children per 100,000.

Recent Resources

Estimating the number of children in formal alternative care: challenges and results

Jun 1, 2017

The purpose of this paper is to provide a snapshot of the availability and coverage of data on children living in residential and foster care from some 142 countries covering more than 80 per cent of the world’s children. Utilizing these country-level figures, it is estimated that approximately 2.7 million children between the ages of 0 and 17 years could be living in institutional care worldwide. Where possible, the article also presents regional estimates of the number of children living in residential and foster care.

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