Child Welfare Crisis

▪ 1996

by David Tobis
      The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly in 1989, affirmed the rights of the world's children to be protected against all forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. By 1995 it had been ratified by 180 nations, which made it the most widely adopted convention in human rights history. The agreement recognized the family as the primary caregiver, responsible for the growth and well-being of children. It asserted that families should receive the necessary assistance to fulfill this responsibility so that children could remain with their parents except when doing so would not be in their best interest. It also stated that children should be entitled to special protection by the state if their families could not care for them.

      UNICEF uses the designation "children in especially difficult circumstances" to describe those youngsters who require the special protection outlined in the convention. Although systematic data do not exist, hundreds of millions of the world's two billion children are living in especially difficult circumstances. Ironically, it appeared in 1995 that more children were living in such conditions than when the Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force. This increase was one of the main factors contributing to the child welfare crisis.

      Traditionally the family, the clan, and the community were the primary sources of assistance for children in need. Increasingly, however, government had assumed the responsibility of caring for these children, providing child welfare services—either direct help to families or substitute (i.e., foster) care—when traditional sources of help were unavailable. In recent years fewer government resources relative to need were made available for these children, a situation that exacerbated the crisis.

      The conditions that placed children at risk and the assistance provided varied widely from one country to another. For purposes of comparison, four areas could be identified: the industrialized nations, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the less developed nations, and those countries experiencing civil war or internal disintegration.

Industrialized Nations.
      In the industrialized world increased unemployment and poverty resulted in an increase in the number of children needing special protection. Policy shifts and budgetary problems unraveled social safety nets, contributing simultaneously to an increase in the number of children placed in substitute care and a deterioration in the conditions of care.

      The United States, one of the wealthiest industrialized nations, historically provided very limited financial assistance or child welfare services to families; generally, help was given only after children and families had encountered severe problems, and then most funding went for out-of-home care rather than for family preservation. In 1995 many U.S. states further restricted the conditions under which mothers and children could receive financial assistance (no state provided benefits for families at or above the poverty level), and both houses of Congress approved the elimination of the 50-year-old entitlement to financial assistance for individuals living in poverty, though the change had not yet become law. The number of children found to be abused or neglected was increasing, reaching 1,036,000 in 1994, 1.6% of the child population. In the absence of adequate assistance for families, the number of children in foster care also increased, from a low of 250,000 in 1983 to 460,000 in 1995.

      As political support for child welfare programs diminished, funding—which for years was inadequate for meeting the growing need—also was reduced, forcing state agencies to cut or curtail services. In New York, for example, limits were placed on the amount of time children in need could remain in substitute care.

      In contrast to the situation in the U.S., a number of European countries and Japan succeeded in protecting or improving essential child welfare services in spite of fiscal pressure of varying degrees of severity.

Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.
      The demise of communism resulted in the elimination, privatization, or reduction of many social services and family supports, which, although of inconsistent quality, had been widely available and virtually free. The loss of these programs, coupled with an unprecedented peacetime deterioration in the standard of living, resulted in increases in several countries in the number of children abandoned in maternity wards and hospitals, placed in custodial institutions, living on the street, or involved in acts of delinquency.

Less Developed Nations.
      The essential focus of human development efforts in less developed nations had long been on basic health care, education, nutrition, and survival rather than on special protection for children at risk. In recent years increased poverty in large parts of the less developed world had endangered more children than ever before. At the same time, rapid urbanization and industrialization undermined the extended family and the community, institutions through which child welfare problems were formerly resolved.

      The practice of child labour accounted for perhaps the greatest proportion of children in especially difficult circumstances. The International Labor Organization estimated that as many as 200 million children under the age of 15 were out of school and working to support themselves and their families. Working youngsters in African cities, many of them "street children," represented as much as 20% of the urban child population. Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines had an estimated 500,000 child prostitutes.

      The HIV/AIDS pandemic not only caused the death of large numbers of parents in the less developed world but also affected those who might otherwise provide substitute care for orphans. According to the World Health Organization, by the year 2000, 10 million children would be without one or both parents as a result of AIDS. In Uganda alone, at least 150,000 children were orphaned by AIDS.

      Placing children in institutions continued to be favoured in most less developed countries over informal foster care by relatives. These facilities were generally austere and regimented and sheltered only a small portion of the children in need of protection. Defence for Children International estimated that between six million and eight million children worldwide lived in institutions. Very few needed to be in such restrictive settings. Most could be better cared for by extended families or community networks, in temporary family foster care, or in permanent adoptive homes.

Nations Experiencing Civil War or Internal Disintegration.
      With the end of the Cold War, the number of children affected by armed conflict and social disintegration, rather than decreasing, increased significantly, particularly in Africa but also in Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Half of the 23 million refugees and 25 million displaced persons in the world were children. In Rwanda alone 114,000 children were separated from their families or orphaned as a result of mass killings, exodus, and epidemics in 1994.

      Relief agencies increasingly worked toward strengthening vulnerable families and promoting family reunification. Restoring families became nearly impossible in some areas, however, as many countries with large refugee populations made their immigration policies more restrictive.

The Future.
      The conditions that caused children to live in especially difficult circumstances did not appear likely to diminish, and few new resources would be devoted to remedying such problems. UNICEF estimated that countries would devote only a small amount—an annual addition of $1.05 per child to the end of the century—toward the conditions of children at risk. Although industrialized nations pledged at least 0.7% of their gross national product in official development assistance to the less developed world, only Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and The Netherlands had followed through on this commitment.

      Nevertheless, in the 1990s there was a gradual acceptance worldwide that children had legal rights, and children themselves were increasingly aware of these rights. Until 1995 the main focus of UN agencies had been universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. With this goal near, the focus shifted to implementation of the convention, which would truly benefit children.

David Tobis is director of social welfare research, Center for the Study of Family Policy, Hunter College, New York City, and a consultant to UNICEF and the World Bank.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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