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Jean Geran: The needs of children are best served by family-based alternatives to institutional care

Jean Geran Jean Geran is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute. She served as the director for democracy and human rights on the National Security Council at the White House and was a Member of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, responsible for issues including democracy, human rights, trafficking in persons, women, children, refugees, governance and rule of law.

Strong and healthy families are not only critical for fixing a broken Britain, they also are the best line of protection for millions of children around the world who have been orphaned, abandoned or otherwise separated from their parents.  Without a family, millions of children globally are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, trafficking and emotional trauma.  They are languishing in care institutions, enslaved in brothels or brick kilns, forced to fight as soldiers, abandoned, or living alone in refugee camps or on the streets.  We must work together more effectively to rescue and place these children in families who will protect and care for them.

The care of a family is critical for the physical, emotional and psychological development of any child, especially in the early years.  Strengthening families to prevent separation is the best way to ensure that each child grows up in a safe and loving family but social ills inevitably lead to separation.  Conservative plans to support marriage and strengthen families could go a long way in addressing this challenge here in Great Britain.  But as several related Centre for Social Justice reports reveal about children in care, gangsearly years intervention, family breakdown and family law, there is a lot that needs fixing.  There are over 60,000 children in care, with adoption rates at a 10-year low and demand for foster families at an all time high.  

While there are pockets of excellence around the country, the adoption system as a whole is a mess, especially as it relates to ethnic minority child placements.  An Adoption Research Initiative Study finds that in a sample of looked after children from three local authorities with large minority ethnic populations, 83% of white children were in adoptive placements with only 42% and 36% of black or Asian children placed respectively.  In addition, 60% of the Asian children and 42% of the black children have had their adoption plan rescinded.  This is due both to a dearth of ethnic minority families willing to adopt and an overly narrow application of ethnic matching criteria for adoption decisions.

Oddly, the same matching criteria are not applied to foster families.  We, therefore, find the sad scenario where a white foster family may decide to adopt the minority child they have grown to love but are unable to do so due to ethnic differences.  The child is moved again, and none of this is in the best interest of the child.  Aversion to inter-racial placements also underlies the lack of a transparent and functioning inter-country adoption system.  This kind of adoption is challenging everywhere, but the lack of a clear system makes it even more difficult to do correctly to protect the best interests of the child.  Post adoption support is also lacking for both domestic and inter-country adoptions.

A recent report by Policy Exchange makes several good recommendations for improving adoption services.  We need smarter and more pragmatic policies and systems to process each individual child’s case in a timely and appropriate way.  Targeted investment in this area could lead to significant cost savings over time for local authorities through more strategic, innovative partnerships between the public and voluntary sectors. 

While these are fixes needed here in the UK, every country struggles with these issues.  The challenges are especially acute in developing countries with even weaker systems.  Recent events in Haiti highlight the urgent need for better structures and more timely and transparent processing of individual orphan and vulnerable child cases everywhere.  To address this global challenge, the Legatum Institute is today launching the EACH Campaign promoting family-based care for orphans and vulnerable children. 

The campaign brings together many individuals, organisations and governments working to find a family for each separated child.  Through diverse partnerships, greater advocacy and more effective collaboration, we seek to strengthen child welfare institutions, reform legal frameworks, and promote family-based alternatives to institutional care that serve the needs of each child.  While the global challenges may seem insurmountable, they become more concrete when you focus on one child at a time.  It’s a responsibility we all share, because each British child deserves a family and so does each Honduran, Russian, Hungarian, Rwandan, Cambodian, Indian, and American child.


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