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Session 9/13

Page 2/4: Topic A: Child development – institution versus foster family placement

Topic A: Child development – institution versus foster family placement


Approximately 90.000 European children three years or younger are placed away from their parents in public care, and the number is growing. In many European countries it is mandatory that children younger than two should be placed in foster families and not in institutions. However, some countries still use institutions even for young children. Studies of old Hospital Model Russian and Romanian orphanages compared to foster families document that children thrive much better when placed in foster families. This has made some scientists conclude that all children placed outside home should be placed in foster families. This conclusion is probably only somewhat correct, and the scientists were so terrified about what they saw in the old Hospital Model orphanages that they jumped to a much too general conclusion.


  • It is a fact that many children will live in institutions even in the future.
  • Qualified foster families are not always available.
  • If they are available, it is difficult to control the caregiving standards. Some foster families practice neglect, violence, or abuse children.
  • It is much more difficult to educate and monitor foster families to professional standards.
  •  Example: Romania moved most institutionalized children into foster care, and now has major problems in education and supervision because the families live in remote places.
  • Foster families are as vulnerable as any other families – they too get divorced, lose jobs or have other problems in offering continuous caregiving.
  • Children with certain physical and behavioural handicaps (such as brain damage or attachment disorder problems) tend to stress the foster family, cause a breakdown and subsequent replacements. Institutions are usually more competent and can include children with more severe problems for a longer period.
  • It is difficult to predict a match between foster parent and especially children over 2 years. Especially teenagers may not always experience a happy relation with foster parents.
  • Severe conflicts between foster family and biological family can occur, especially between dysfunctional parents and a foster family.
  • Studies of Danish kindergartens document that children from dysfunctional families improve in development if they spend most of the day in the institution with educated staffs.

Having said this, the reason why most children thrive better in foster families is probably that the child has one or two stable adult caregivers as attachment figures around the clock, and a group – the foster family – feeling responsible for the child. Also, the chances of participating in society activities like other children can be more favorable. Young children (under three) you should always try to offer for adoption, foster family placement, or support biological relatives in taking their children back. The chances of giving a child secure attachment and making a good match are much greater if the foster family receives the child as early in its life as possible. This is documented by studies of foster placement and adopted children.


It is important to understand that the real difference in child development outcome is probably in relations management and the organization of work plans, rather than in foster family versus institution. It is also a question of caretaking quality: do the caregivers provide Secure Attachment caretaker behavior? Foster family placement is strong on individual relations and group belonging, but they are vulnerable to change in persons and severe child problems. Institutions are superior in long term and stable caregiving, and they can possess more professional knowledge for children with severe physical or social problems. However, institutions may have problems in offering personal relations and continuity. The main continuity problem in institutions is the work shifts and the fact that it is natural for staff to change jobs. You can compensate very much for the negative effects of living in an institution if you can offer a few stable caregivers, and adults and peers who are not only together, but also have a strong sense of belonging to each other.
An example: a Romanian orphanage for children 7 -14 years is split up, so that the boys now live 4-6 children together in a number of flats in the local city. They are looked after by a two teams working in 12 hour shifts. The boys see each other like brothers and participate in all aspects of normal child life, inviting friends for play at home; they are in the local football team, etc.
How can we create the best possible conditions for offering continuous caretaking and group belonging for institutionalized children?


You will work with the practical topics in a later session – this discussion is just to get an idea of your way of organizing social relations:

20 minutes

  • If we look at our children, how many are younger than three?
  • How many of them have a social behavior and age that makes them fit for foster family placement? (do not discuss if this is actually possible at the moment)
  • With our present work shifts: to what degree are we able to offer them the same caregivers during their waking hours, enabling them to form long term relations?
  • The children in our care: to what degree do we give them a group they can feel that they belong to?
  • How do we encourage long term relations between children and their peers?
  • What activities/values do we use for encouraging long term relations between the children?
  • Do our children have social obligations for group members – such as older children having certain duties in caring for younger children, practical or other activities that encourage the feeling of being a group member?
  • Do we divide child groups by age (all babies together, all toddlers together, all schoolchildren together), or by specific groups they grow up in?
  • Is our institution like a village with “families”, or like an institution divided by age?