Institution building in Austria with church in the background. Text says "this is institution for children in Austria"

by Petra Flieger

In 2006, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on all State parties “to set up programmes for de-institutionalization of children with disabilities, re-placing them with their families, extended families or foster care system”[1]. Children with disabilities should therefore not live in institutions, but in a family, which should receive appropriate support for this. But what is actually meant by “institution”? The Guidelines on Deinstitutionalization recently published by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities define this quite clearly: For children, any placement outside a family is an institution. Whereby family does not only mean the family of origin or an adoptive family, but also growing up with relatives or in an extended, substitute or foster family. Institutions, according to the guidelines, always mean segregation; they are not compatible with inclusive education. Therefore, the State parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) should legally recognize that institutionalization on the basis of disability is a prohibited form of discrimination.[2]

In Austria, there are different kind of institutions for children with disabilities, e.g.:

Boarding facilities at special schools where sometimes even children of preschool or elementary school age live during the week because there is no inclusive kindergarten or elementary school place in their community of origin. Often there is a lack of family supporting services and parents have to opt for institutionalising their disabled child due to overload.

Large institutions where children with disabilities live together with disabled adults, e. g. St. Pius in Upper Austria, Marienhof in Carinthia, the Caritas-Village St. Anton in Salzburg, the Pius-Institute in Styria or the Care Centre Perchtoldsdorf in Lower Austria.

Group homes only for children and young people with disabilities, e. g. the all-year-group of the Elisabethinum in Tyrol or the HABIT-Kids group homes for young disabled people in Vienna.

In Carinthia, despite all human rights recommendations, a new residential facility for disabled children is currently being built. Disability organizations have therefore filed a complaint with the EU Commission, arguing that the use of EU funds for the new building violates, among others, the European Convention on Human Rights.[3]  They are not alone in their criticism: in 2020, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also expressed great concern about “the high number of children with disabilities in institutional care.” One member of the Committee commented during the constructive dialogue of the State review: “It seems you’re going into the wrong direction, building new institutions.” Austria was asked to formulate “a coherent strategy for deinstitutionalization and prevention of separation of children with disabilities from their families” in the new National Action Plan on Disability (NAP).  However, the NAP Disability 2022-2030, adopted by the Council of Ministers in July 2022, again fails to provide such a strategy.

Living in an institution often has negative consequences for children and young people. International studies show, among other things, that physical growth as well as cognitive and social-emotional development can be severely impaired. The longer children live in institutions, the more severe are the negative effects on their development. Above all, they lack a continuous, reliable relationship with adult caregivers who are not bound by institutionally defined, often rigid structures.[4]

The best possible individual growth and development of a child, enshrined as a subjective right in Art 1 of the Federal Costitutional Act on the Rights of Children, is not possible in institutions. Moreover, attending a special school, which is typically linked with the institutionalization of disabled children, does not only prevent non-discriminatory, high-quality education, but also the development of sustainable social networks.[5] The widespread institutionalization of girls and boys with disabilities leads in the wrong direction, Austria has a great need for reform here. A first step would be to create awareness for the deinstitutionalization of children with disabilities nationwide. Then, the necessary measures have to be taken systematically and effectively. The new Guidelines on Deinstitutionalization of the UN-CRPD  Committee would be a good guidance.

[1] Committee of the Rights of the Child (2006) General Comment Nr. 9. The Rights of Children with Disabilities.

[2] UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2022). Guidelines on Deinstitutionalisation; including emergencies.

[3] Full text of the complaint:

[4] See van IJzendoorn et al. (2020). Institutionalisation and deinstitutionalisation of children 1: a systematic and integrative review of evidence regarding effects on development. Lancet Psychiatry 2020;7: 703–20.

[5] See Flieger, Petra (2012). Ein kritischer Blick auf den Mythos von der besonders guten Förderung in der Sonderschule.