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Good practice dictates having a full range of orphan care options available for children in need, with priority placed on care within families. Family strengthening and prevention of unnecessary separation matter greatly. Once a child has been separated from parental care, the spectrum of family care options includes reunification, relative (kinship) care, foster care, guardianship, and adoption.

According to international guidance and best practice, children and youth should participate in the decisions regarding their care, according to their evolving capacities. Whenever possible, siblings should be placed together so these important family ties are not broken.

Reunification | This is the process of transitioning a child back to his or her family of origin. For children outside of parental care, including children in orphanages, foster care, or living on the street, reunification should be considered the best option if it is deemed safe and appropriate for the child. Reunification is a process, made up of many different steps, and is not a one-time event. Preparation of the child and the family, facilitating access to appropriate services and support, and ongoing monitoring are important elements of any reunification process. Past efforts in several countries have illustrated the necessity of considering all reasons why the child was initially separated from the family, addressing those before, during, and after the reunification process.

Relative or Kinship Care | In most countries, care with relatives, also called kinship care, is the most common form of care for orphans and children separated from parental care. This is frequently informal in nature but is a long-standing and culturally acceptable mode of care for children. Care by relatives offers the benefits of a family environment and supports the continuation of important familial, communal, and cultural ties. The extended family plays a significant role in both temporary and permanent orphan care but unfortunately receives little attention and support. Building upon existing cultural traditions of extended family care, including better monitoring and targeted support, is also a cost-effective way to ensure family care for a large population of children no longer living with parents.

Several studies have shown that some children placed in kinship care may face bias, exclusion, or discrimination from caregivers and community members or may be at risk of neglect, abuse, or exploitation. A growing body of evidence suggests that the closer the biological ties of the child and caregiver, the more secure and less discriminated against the child feels, with care by grandparents or older siblings reporting the best findings. Whether children are reunified with parents who have placed them in an orphanage or are placed in an alternative family-care setting such as kinship care, there will often be the need for continuing support from communities and local officials to ensure that children are protected and that caregivers have access to the appropriate material and social support.

Foster Care | Full-time care, provided by a non-related family, known as foster care, varies widely throughout the world. It is a growing alternative to residential care. Formal foster care is typically authorized and arranged by an administrative or judicial authority, which also provides oversight to ensure the best interests of the child are being met. Many countries have a history of informal fostering, such as when a child is placed in the care of a trusted neighbor or community member. Foster care can be temporary arrangements, or in some cases, permanent. Processes and procedures should be established to ensure that children and caregivers receive the necessary support and access to services.

Adoption | For children who have no possibility of remaining with parents or relatives, adoption can provide a permanent family. Research has demonstrated that an adoptive family environment can support improved developmental outcomes for children, especially those coming from orphanages. Statistics compiled by the United Nations show that 85% of all adoptions are domestic, numbering approximately 220,000 per year. Most of these formal domestic adoptions occur in middle- and upper-income countries like the United States, although “customary adoption,” though rarely recorded formally, is known to be common in middle- and low-income contexts.

In situations where a child is determined to be legally free for adoption and has no viable permanent family-care options available in their home country, inter-country adoption provides children the opportunity to have a permanent family. In 2010, roughly 29,000 inter-country adoptions occurred worldwide, but this number has been decreasing. Many efforts have been made to ensure that strong policies and procedures and appropriate government oversight are in place to ensure that inter-country adoptions are occurring in alignment with international norms and standards.

Care in Emergencies

In emergency contexts, evidence has shown that family tracing and reunification and family-based alternatives are much more effective responses than placement of children in orphanages. Rescuing children from emergencies by removing them from their communities or their country runs the risk of psychologically harming children, and significantly inhibits the possibility of eventual reunification, which is always the highest priority in emergency settings. Experiences from emergency settings such as Haiti and Rwanda show that most separated children have extended family, neighbors, or community members that are willing to care for them if they can be identified.

 After the tsunami in Indonesia, 80% of children were reunited with family members within six months after the disaster using family tracing and identification. To mitigate the unnecessary separation of children from their families during an emergency, prevention is vitally important. In areas that are prone to natural disasters like hurricanes, mudslides, or other calamities, communities must designate safe places and ensure that local plans are in place for how to care for any children that might become separated.


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