Setting Standards for the World

How does one set standards for the world?  The United Nations is preparing Draft Guidelines for the Promotion of Appropriate Parental Care, the Protection of Children Deprived of Such Care, and the Provision of Alternative Care. The basic aim which triggered this venture is certainly laudable – providing protection and high standards of care for children who cannot be looked after by their families. Equally, the emphasis in the guidelines on supporting families so that they can look after children is the right basis to start from, which is why the draft Guidelines have such an awful long-winded title.


The Guidelines consist of nine parts, the first explaining the general purpose of the document. Part 2 covers general principles and perspectives, and part 3 the scope of the Guidelines. Part 4 focuses on family preservation and this is clearly a keystone to the document. Part 5 covers the framework of care provision, and part 6 the determination of the most appropriate form of care. Part 7 then goes on to look at the provision of alternative care in some detail. Parts 8 and 9 cover additional issues – care for children outside their countries of origin and care in emergency situations respectively.

In the latest draft that amounts to about thirty pages, and the Guidelines therefore can be seen to deal with the subject fairly comprehensively. The order of the material is logical and its twin foci in parts 4 and 7 make sense. A lot of the contents also are well written, even if they suffer, as nearly all international documents do, of “camel syndrome”, with inelegant language because of all the qualifying clauses and phrases which are added during discussion and negotiation.

The Guidelines should essentially be seen as a Good Thing, following on from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by offering special protection to children in difficulties. To wish to protect children and young people, and to offer them a good upbringing when their parents are not in a position to do so, has to be laudable.

And yet reading the draft left us with feelings of unease on four grounds.

Too much detail?

The guidance is very detailed. This means that it reflects the thinking of its authors, their cultures and their current systems of child welfare. This is a field where fashions change, new methods are brought in, and old methods are condemned. There is a risk that, the more detailed the Guidelines are, the more they will become dated very soon.

Alternatively, if the Guidelines are applied seriously, they could become a straitjacket, preventing further developments, innovation and improvements. There is a real risk that application of the Guidelines will make the processes involved (assessing children’s needs, devising individual care plans etc.) more bureaucratic, so that the processes themselves become dominant, overwhelming the individuality of children, the significance of their relationships with their carers and the need for imaginative, creative responses to each child.

How does one set standards, and yet avoid the dead hand of bureaucracy? That seems to us a conundrum that has existed since mankind started to write down laws and guidelines. The rules laid down in Leviticus, for example, show the complexity of trying to govern human behaviour with all its querks through formal guidelines imposed by religious law.

Variety of provision

By dividing provision into the basic sectors – parental care, fostering and residential care – the document ignores the very wide range of provision that exists and the blurring of the boundaries between the types of provision. This is a serious problem, because the Guidelines rank these types of provision in order of preference, which may well work against the interests of some children.

As a basic principle, for example, almost everyone would argue that children should be brought up in their birth families, but as soon as that is laid down as a Guideline, it is apparent that there are many exceptions – cultures where a number of families live together, societies where single parenthood is common, or children who do not wish to live in the close confines of family life, for example. The shift from a norm against which plans for a child can be tested to a Guideline which should be applied is significant. In our view, the fundamental principle should be to match plans to meeting the individual’s needs.

The question of variety of provision becomes marked when fostering and residential care are contrasted. There is such a wide variety of formulations of provision that the boundary is in practice blurred and it is hard at times to say how provision should be labelled. Our view is that it is more important to innovate and seek new ways of matching provision to children’s needs than to pigeonhole services and place them in order of preference.

There is a clear anti-residential bias throughout the Guidelines. While we understand why many countries might be reacting against the large old orphanages which were set up in response to historical requirements, the current formulation that residential care is to be avoided and as short as possible is not in children’s best interests.  Many young people in British children’s homes, for example, positively choose the residential setting because of their painful experiences of the family setting, and once settled, they need to stay as long as their personal needs require. The document appears to ignore their right to make this choice. I

It also appears that the boundaries of residential care have not been thought out properly. Residential schools, centres for children with disabilities and establishments for young offenders are all excluded, for example. If the Guidelines are clear that residential care homes should be small, why should this advice not be applied to prisons for young people or boarding schools? If, by corollary, the size of those establishments does not matter, why does it in children’s homes?

It has to be remembered that these Guidelines are not just about professionals arguing for improvements in provision in their own countries, taking account of their respective economies and cultures, but they are to be applied world-wide. In our view, there is a need to appreciate the variety of provision, rather than to reduce it, and it is certainly more important that a child or young person has people s/he can relate to, is respected, valued and listened to, whatever setting they are in, than that the setting has a particular sort of label. There may be many forms of provision which meet children’s needs, and they should not be put in rank order.

Cultural differences

There are references to kafala and curatorship and to the important role played by extended families in some parts of the world, but overall the document makes very little allowance for different cultures.  It seems to start from the assumption that the Guidelines should be applied internationally, with occasional exceptions made where cultures have developed acceptable alternatives.

This seems to be viewing the situation from the lofty heights of the UN. We would prefer to start from the bottom up. Children are members of their families, which are set in neighbourhoods and communities, within wider countries and cultures. The question is how the authorities, including the UN, can best support the families and communities from the bottom up, rather than impose requirements from the top down. The cultural diversity should be celebrated rather than diminished.

Mad or bad?

A final footnote. A distinction is proposed between offenders and "those in need of protection". In Britain the Children Act 1969 was passed specifically to ensure that the two groups were merged. It is a debate which goes on, and there is probably no simple answer. Clearly there are offenders who are very well adjusted to their delinquent subcultures, but other young offenders may be disturbed or abused and need protection. Equally, some children labelled as in need of protection may also need a degree of control, if only to stop them abusing others as a sad result of their sufferings.

All these children have the needs and rights of their age group, whether they offend or not, and meeting their common needs as children and young people for the five key requirements laid down in Every Child Matters is much more important than dividing them artificially into two groups.

In conclusion

Children with special needs do require protection, especially when their families cannot care for them, and these Guidelines are therefore important. The concerns raised in this article do not imply that the whole venture is flawed. Any development, though, does carry the seeds of its unintended consequences, and if the points we raise here are not taken into consideration, we predict that twenty years from now, people will be criticising the Guidelines, and may be pointing to the questions raised in this article.

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