Although all countries consider parents to be responsible for the welfare of their children, they also have legislation enabling the State to remove children who appear to be in danger, physically, morally, or intellectually, due to the parents' conduct. Once it has become necessary for the child to live apart from his parents, the treatment which is offered varies widely: countries may rely entirely on residential care, almost entirely on fostering, or on mixture of both. Placement in foster homes and the running of residential institutions may be either in the hands mainly of voluntary bodies, almost entirely a matter for the state, or a mixture of both. Deficiencies of the foster care system include: unnecessary state intervention in family life; concentration of work on ensuring the fairness of proceedings, expanding the availability of services to unnecessary and lengthy foster care; inappropriate placements and abusive treatment; lack of accountability of public agencies responsible for children in out-of-home placements; lack of representation for parents in cases where the state attempts to take away their children based on allegations of abuse or neglect. Comprehensive emergency services for abused and neglected children exist in only a few communities, and services for families are rarely available to prevent foster care placement or to facilitate family reunification.
Persons or institutions which assume the guardianship or custody of minors in this way receive assistance but are also subject to the supervision of the child welfare and assistance services.
In 1970 there were 27,841 children in state custody in Austria (with 73% in foster homes and 27% in institutional care); approximately 25,000 in the Netherlands (52% in foster homes and 48% in institutions); and 62,206 in the UK (50% in foster homes and 50% in institutions).
A number of investigators have studied in great detail the adverse effects of institutional care, especially on infants and young children. They clearly show that the continuity of a warm relationship with a mother or mother-substitute is essential for mental health. Prolonged deprivation of maternal care during a young child's first three years may leave permanent damage to his personality - the first year of life seems to be of critical importance. Observations of pre-school and school-age children reveal that their adjustment is very poor in many respects. In particular there is marked inability to form interpersonal relationships: they have no capacity to care for people or to make friends. They show no real feelings and no emotional response in normal conditions. They seem inaccessible and exasperating to those trying to help. They show a curious lack of concern. They are often aggressive and destructive. Running away, stealing and lying are also frequently encountered. They have very poor performance at school, lacking interest and concentration. Their capacity for abstract thinking seems to be affected. Institutionalization during the first year of life affects language and social development most severely, and the longer the institutionalization the greater the damage.
It is clear that most children who enter public care are underprivileged from birth. If the effects of institutional care are added to this, with its high rate of emotional disturbance and educational retardation, the picture is grim indeed. Children placed in foster homes seem to suffer less ill effects, but research on the rate and after-effects of foster-home breakdown is so sketchy that no firm statement can be made. Only adoption at an early age appears to reverse the unfavourable factors. Finally, the financial cost of caring for children apart from their parents is extremely high.