Children in residential institutions desperately vulnerable to abuse

Violence against children in residential institutions can be found across Europe and Central Asia, according to research gathered by UNICEF in the run-up to a major conference on violence against children. The research also reveals glaring gaps in knowledge and data.

“Children in residential institutions - from children’s homes to detention centres - are desperately vulnerable,” said Maria Calivis, UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. “They are vulnerable because they are separated from society in a ‘closed’ environment. And the more closed that environment is, the greater the risk of violence and the smaller the chance that it will be reported.

“We have to remember that things have already gone badly wrong for the children who end up in institutions,” she added. “They are already scarred by family troubles and that only increases their vulnerability.”

One of nine consultations worldwide, the Consultation on Violence Against Children in Europe and Central Asia takes place in Slovenia in early July and will feed into the Secretary General's Study on Violence Against Children due out in 2006.

Nobody knows exactly how many children are living in institutions in Europe and Central Asia. The most conservative estimates put the figure at around one million.

“There is a serious and fundamental knowledge gap on the numbers,” said Calivis “which makes the issue ‘invisible’ and undermines the chance of an effective response.”

The research is likely to fuel debate at the forthcoming Regional Consultation:

  • Ongoing investigations in Ireland testify to abuse over decades: an inquiry has received 3,000 complaints, 60 per cent of them from those over 50 who were abused as children in institutions ;
  • The Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern at the lack of a clear ban on corporal punishment in institutions in Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova; 
  • A report on Kazakhstan shows that 80 per cent of children in residential schools are treated “cruelly” ;
  • Interviews with children in institutions in the UK found that 62 out of 71 reported physical violence between children. Half had experienced physical violence ranging from knife attacks, kicks and punches to damage to their personal property and threats .
  • UNICEF sounds the alarm on juvenile justice, with research suggesting that juvenile offenders may face the greatest risk of violence in the earliest, pre-trial stages. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has raised the issue of police officers ill-treating children and young people in police custody in Albania, France, Georgia, Romania, Switzerland, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Young people may also be kept in pre-trial custody alongside adults, increasing the risk of abuse. In Germany there is evidence that they have been threatened, blackmailed and even raped . In Croatia, custodial staff have been seen to punch, kick or hit young people with batons .

“This is unacceptable,” said Calivis. “The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets the standards for children in institutions. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has spelled out their rights, including the right to a non-violent upbringing. The ground-rules are there, but they need to be followed.”

UNICEF calls on the ministers attending the July Consultation on Children and Violence to:

  • Legislate to ban all forms of violence against all children in all settings - institutions, schools, the home and the community;
  • Ensure that the institutionalisation or detention of children is a measure of last resort;
  • Set in motion the region-wide gathering of consistent, comparable and disaggregated data on children in institutions;
  • Screen staff working with these children, pay them properly and ensure that they are qualified to deal with the tensions and conflicts that can erupt into violence;
  • Create effective complaints channels for children in institutions and make sure that the children know about them;
  • Ensure that these children have regular contact with their own families, unless this would put them at risk.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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