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Ending the institutionalisation of 240,000 children across Latin America and the Caribbean

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Ending the institutionalisation of 240,000 children across Latin America and the Caribbean

Today, Lumos and the British Embassy in Panama brought together global and regional child protection experts to discuss strategies to tackle the institutionalisation of children across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). It comes as Lumos, the international children’s rights organisation founded by J.K. Rowling, expands its work within the LAC region, where an estimated 240,000 children continue to live in institutional care. [1].

Hosted in partnership with the British Ambassador to Panama, His Excellency Damion Potter, the event highlighted emerging good practice across the region, and outlined what steps must be taken to transform care for the most vulnerable children.Speakers and panellists in attendance included youth advocates, academics, civil society representatives and delegates from regional and global child rights agencies.

Georgette Mulheir, CEO of Lumos, said:

“Institutional care puts children at an increased risk of violence, abuse and neglect. However, examples from around world show that reform is possible, cost-effective and delivers better outcomes for children, even in the most challenging of circumstances.

We are delighted to welcome today’s esteemed group of experts and advocates to share progress, strengthen ties, and consider how we can collectively build upon recent successes in transforming care across the region.”

Over 80 years of research from around the world has demonstrated that growing up in institutional care can cause significant harm to children. They are deprived of loving parental care and can suffer lifelong physical and psychological harm as a consequence.[1] Babies in particular fail to develop as they should without one-to-one parental interaction, and research has demonstrated the severe impact of institutionalisation on early brain development.[2]

Children end up in institutions because of poverty, war, natural disaster, disability and social exclusion. A lack of services and support in the community often means parents feel they have no other option but to place their child in an institution. The majority of children in institutions have at least one living parent and, with a little additional support, most children could live with their birth or extended families.[3]Despite the evidence, there is a lack of understanding of the harm of institutions. Many people think that institutions are a social good, or that better alternatives do not exist, so they continue to invest in and donate to these institutions.

Despite growing momentum across the LAC region to tackle the issue, children and families continue to face barriers in accessing universal services including education and health care, as well as targeted support services. Many countries have taken positive steps towards meeting the standards established by the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but further work is needed to translate policies into practice.

His Excellency Damion Potter, the British Ambassador to Panama said:

“I am delighted to host Lumos Foundation and a select group of panellists in my Residence to discuss this important matter. I am also pleased of Lumos expansion in Latin America and for choosing Panama as a base for its regional offices – I wish the organisation great success in its future activities and hope that we can make progress to safeguard the welfare of our children.”

The event also saw the release of From Institutions to the Community: The Fundamor Experience of Transforming Care for HIV-Positive Children and Young People in Colombia.The report details the lessons learned from one of the first documented deinstitutionalisation processes in Colombia and outlines a series of recommendations of how current barriers in the system can be overcome. Emerging findings highlight positive outcomes for children that moved from the institution to family-based care and that alternatives to institutions are cost-effective and viable.


[1] Berens, A. & Nelson, C. (2015) The science of early adversity: is there a role for large institutions in the care of vulnerable children? The Lancet. 2015.

[2] Nelson, C. & Koga, S. (2004). Effects of Institutionalisation on Brain and Behavioural Development in Young Children: Findings from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. Paper presented at the International Conference on ‘Mapping the Number and Characteristics of Children Under Three in Institutions across Europe at Risk of Harm.’ EU Daphne Programme 2002-2003 and WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhage

[3] Csáky, C. (2009). Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why We Should be Investing in Family-Based Care. London, UK: Save the Children, p7.