On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the European Expert Group on the transition from institutional to community-based care (EEG) invited key stakeholders to discuss the situation of deinstitutionalisation in the Post 2020 EU Regulations and Funding Framework. Opened by Irene Bertana, Policy and Advocacy Officer of COFACE Europe and EEG co-chair, the online meeting on 28 October brought together participants from the European Commission, EU national governments and permanent representations, as well as civil society and intergovernmental organisations.
Deinstitutionalisation is a key obligation embedded in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which was signed and ratified by all EU Member States and the EU itself. In line with the right to independent living in the UNCRPD, as well as the right of children to live with their families as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Member States need to make all efforts to ensure the closure of institutional care services; this includes any residential setting where persons are isolated from the community and/or forced to live together, and do not have sufficient control over their lives and the decisions that affect them. This needs to be replaced with family- and community-based support that is person-centred and empowering.
The work towards deinstitutionalisation (DI) is particularly important in the light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. As outlined by Jana Hainsworth, Eurochild Secretary General, the outbreak highlighted the risks for health and life of residents in institutions such as overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions, forced medication and restraint. Particularly worrying are Eurochild observations of re-institutionalisation of children. Civil society therefore previously called upon the EU and its Member States to strengthen the provision of community-based services. The pandemic has ‘unveiled’ levels of inequality and social exclusion and this should be used to trigger long-term DI policy reforms.
According to Hainsworth, the Covid-19 pandemic also made it difficult to monitor the use of EU funds as emergency measures. Sabrina Ferraina from the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) observed that the social care sector, having reacted flexibly to the new challenges, now is on the verge of crisis where the funding needs to be addressed swiftly after being de-prioritised. Indeed, Maria-Anna Paraskeva, Senior Policy Expert at DG EMPL mentioned that the two key Coronavirus Response Investment Initiatives (CRII, CRII+) provided for greater flexibility in transferring resources where most needed and have temporarily removed the thematic concentration criteria for social inclusion. Following these changes, many Member States revised their financial programming with the objectives to primarily protect employment, to promote health and continued access to services, and allow for distance learning. The total amount of the European Social Fund (ESF) resources made available between July and September 2020 is estimated at EUR 3.2 billion. Within this context, it was also possible to transfer funds from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to the ESF (and vice-versa).
Beyond the Covid-19 outbreak, the meeting discussed systemic challenges in monitoring deinstitutionalisation processes. Andor Urmos, Policy Analist at DG REGIO, showed the importance of carefully analysing the funds that reinforce institutions, while acknowledging the need to give clear guidance on the DI transition and on which services and actions should be supported by EU funds. Ines Bulic Cojocariu, Deputy Director at the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL) presented findings from the current programming period (2014-2020), indicating that many EU Member States rather replaced large with small institutions. This was echoed by Jonas Ruskus, Expert Member of the Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, when presenting the Committee’s inquiry regarding Hungary. Next to investments into new but smaller residential settings, many persons continue to work in “sheltered workshops” within institutions and the number of persons under guardianship actually increased. On the other hand, Ines Bulic Cojocariu continued that big gaps of investment into community-based services remain, such as personal assistance and accessible housing, as well as a persistent lack of involving organisations representing persons with disabilities in the deinstitutionalisation processes.
A key instrument that can accompany EU officials and desk officers in DI implementation and monitoring is the EEG and Hope & Homes for Children Checklist to ensure EU-funded measures contribute to independent living by developing and ensuring access to family-based and community-based services. Presented by Milan Sverepa, Director of Inclusion Europe, the Checklist aims to support EU desk officers and Member States in ensuring their programming goals and actions promote independent living. In practice, the Checklist includes guidelines on programming procedures and other relevant policy procedures (e.g. from setting the objectives of programming documents to ensuring all relevant stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process).
Yet, central negotiations at EU level can be considered an opportunity to boost deinstitutionalisation. Elena Schubert from the Social Affairs, Disability and Inclusion Unit at DG EMPL underlined the importance of the upcoming European Disability Rights Strategy 2021-2030 and the European Child Guarantee, particularly in light of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Beyond these key strategies, deinstitutionalisation will be especially taken into account in the ERDF and the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+), within the ongoing negotiations under the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).
The meeting also showed the importance of linking desk officers with existing initiatives, such as the “UnLoc” initiative, represented by Elisabeta Moldovan in Romania, which supports persons leaving institutions to find apartments and employment. Elisabeta Moldovan herself lived in eight institutions for 25 years and is now active as a self-advocate. She outlined that many persons would like to leave institutions and she encouraged governments to increase their focus on initiatives that provide them with opportunities to live independently in the community. Aaron Greenberg, Senior Regional Advisor for Europe and Central Asia at UNICEF and EEG co-chair, closed the meeting by echoing the importance of really listening to people with direct experience of living in institutions and involving them at all levels and stages of the decision-making. The event positively showed that the importance of deinstitutionalisation is no longer at the core of discussions, but rather operational aspects (the how questions). In this respect, the EEG is happy to provide its expertise and jointly accompany desk officers and Member States in the transition process.
The EEG thanks all participants who have attended and contributed to the Open Meeting.
 EEG Joint Statement: “COVID-19 crisis: People living in institutions must not be written off”, 24th April 2020
 For similar analysis, the global Disability Rights Monitor recently launched its global report on how the Covid-19 pandemic particularly affected persons with disabilities worldwide: https://www.covid-drm.org/.