Developing residential care in Chile. By Cate Robinson

In Chile there are approximately 9600 children and young people in residential care.  Deinstitutionalisation has been an ongoing process since the 1990’s and has been successful in reducing the size of institutions and the numbers of children in care.  Children are no longer accommodated due to poverty alone, and significant work has been achieved in supporting families to maintain or regain responsibility for their children.  Some small non-governmental organisations have managed to focus on better quality care and have created more home like environments.  A large number of the children’s homes however still have an average capacity to accommodate 20 or more children and young people, and a few institutions provide for much larger numbers, having capacity for between 50 and 100.  Of even greater concern is that these homes have been known to go well beyond their maximum capacity, increasing worker stress, reducing ability to meet need, and often putting children at risk.

Currently the deinstitutionalisation agenda is focused on younger children, especially between the ages of 0 – 3, and it could be suggested that little attention is being paid to older children or adolescents.  Indeed there are some children and young people who may have complex and challenging behaviours, who will not be able to return home to their families, nor will they be able to live with foster carers, or be adopted.  For these children and young people, good quality residential care can potentially provide them with what they need, reducing the risk of placement breakdown, and hopefully improving their capacity to have better outcomes now and in the future.  These young people need for residential care to be organised in small, family like homes, with carers who are well trained with a wide range of theories and practices.  Furthermore, they are people who know how to be with children, creating loving and nurturing relationships, understanding how these can help a young person to heal.

Residential care staff in Chile have no qualifications and limited training.  Indeed they are often well intentioned women who ‘do their best’ for the young people, but frequently find themselves faced with behaviours and situations that they do not know how to manage.  Last year I was involved in focus groups with workers within a large NGO.  A common theme from discussions was that workers felt that the profile of children and young people is increasingly complex, and it appears that this may be an accurate perception.  Chile is considered to be the most well developed of the South American countries, but 7.5% of all children are still affected by extreme poverty (Ministerio de Desarrollo, 2013) and 71% are affected by some form of violence (Larrain and Bascuñán, 2012).  Furthermore there are significant concerns for the mental health of children and young people with there being a high prevalence of psychiatric disorders (Vicente et al. 2012).  As is the case in most countries, it is the most vulnerable of these groups that end up in residential child care.

In the last year it has been acknowledged that the child protection system in Chile is in crisis and in need of urgent improvements.  This came to a fore in April last year, when an 11 year old girl died in one of the larger residential institutions.  The results from the enquiry that followed, suggested that the girl had been restrained by workers and that some time later she had suffered from heart failure.  At that time Sename, the government organisation responsible for child care and protection, published a figure stating that 185 children had died whilst living in care between the years of 2005 and 2016.  However, Unicef then challenged this by advising that in 2010 alone they had found that 75 children had died.  After a few months of further investigation Sename confirmed that there had been a total of 865 deaths within the period of the 11 years.

With these figures and all the other research we have on child development and outcomes for children in care, it is clear that deinstitutionalisation continues to be necessary.  Essential to this  process however, is the creation of a child protection system that works, and has various types of resources available to meet the needs of many different children.  Within this system, residential homes should be a positive option for care, where the workers have access to high quality training and development, and supervision that supports them to provide the best possible healing environment for children and young people.

On an international level the need to improve worker training is recognised as being essential, and furthermore it is recommended that it should be a priority for local government investment (Chaitken et al. 2017).  Niels Rygaard at the Fairstart Foundation provides an example of an international training service that is supporting partners to improve practice in Africa and other countries.  There are currently no organisations in Chile providing training designed specifically to meet the needs of workers in alternative care settings.  However, with the current progress being made in child protection reform, and the desperate need for workers to be more skilled and feel more capable, I believe that it is the perfect time for this development.  I have decided that with my organisation Wings for Success Coaching and Consultancy I am ready to combine my experience, skill, knowledge, and motivation, to provide high quality training that meets international standards, in a local context.  I am developing modules of training using subjects that make up the core themes of connection (personal (i.e. attachment and relationships), and systemic (i.e. family and community)), healing, achievement, and effective home management, within a framework of strengths and wellbeing.  I will work in partnership with colleagues across alternative care settings in Chile, so that we can develop a stronger work force, and provide good quality care, meanwhile creating sustainable change that improves the lives of vulnerable children and young people now, and in the future.

Please visit my website to find out more and contact me personally through [email protected].

I currently have no external financial backing therefore I welcome anyone who is interested in sponsoring me, so please do get in touch.


Cate Robinson is originally from Scotland where she attended Strathclyde University to gain her BA DipSW in Residential Child Care and later to complete an Mphil.  The Mphil focused on researching the needs of social workers engaged in direct work with children.  Cate has 10 years experience working as a child protection social worker within a children and families team.  Cate is also a qualified life coach.  Cate’s passion for Chile and working with children started during a gap year with Project Trust, when she worked in a nursery and lived within a girls home in Santiago.  She has returned to Chile many times, and since 2015 was involved in research with an NGO to improve their services in residential child care.  Cate Robinson is a mentor for young people with her organisation Wings for Success Coaching and Consultancy, and she is now expanding into training for workers in alternative care.  Cate is also joint country representative for Project Trust in Chile, helping to support current volunteers through their gap year .


Chaitkin, S, Cantwell, N, Gale, C, Milligan, I, Flagothier, C, O’Kane, C, Connelly, G, 2017, Towards the right care for children: Orientations for reforming alternative care systems, Africa, Asia, Latin America, European Union.

Larrain, S, Bascuñán, C, 2012, 4th Study on child abuse, Unicef, Chile

Ministerio de Desarrollo, 2013, Encuesta Casen, 1990 a 2013, Gobierno de Chile

Vicente, B, Saldivia, S, de la Barra, F, Melipillan, R, Valdivia, M, Kohn, R, 2012, Prevalence of psychiatric disorders among Chilean children and adolescents, Revista médica de Chile, 140,    447 – 457

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