Children in alternative care

Last update: December 2022 | Next update: May 2023

Around 2.9 million children are estimated to be living in residential care worldwide

Children may be separated from their parents and placed in alternative care for various reasons. The majority of children without parental care are living in family-based alternative care. However, some children find themselves in non-family settings such as residential care institutions that are often characterized by harmful living arrangements and for which there is wide recognition of the adverse impacts on children’s developmental outcomes and well-being.

This has led many countries to undertake efforts to reduce the number 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 or her family.