Promoting the child’s safety and well-being

Promoting the child’s safety and well-being is a constant and integrated part of your daily work and could also be described as a mindset. It means that you look at the child with their safety and well-being in mind in every situation.

Promoting the child’s well-being requires you to ensure that the child’s legal, social, health, psychological, material and educational needs are met1. This part of the toolkit discusses your role in the following:

  • Individual needs and risk assessment
  • Accommodation
  • Maintaining and restoring family links
  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Individual needs and risk assessment


    The purpose of the individual needs assessment is to define which support measures are in the best interests of the child. The needs assessment should be carried out by a multidisciplinary team in cooperation with the guardian and with the participation of others. This could include health professionals, child protection services or social workers, child psychologists, accommodation facility/care workers and teachers.

    Children are at risk of abuse, violence and exploitation – unaccompanied children in particular. Part of your task as a guardian is to assess these risks and to prevent abuse, violence and exploitation by choosing appropriate protection measures. Looking at the child and the circumstances they are in, you will constantly use your expertise and logic to do a risk assessment. Checklists have also been developed that will help you to see the whole picture and to make sure that no signs are overlooked or misinterpreted.


    The guardian should draw up an individual plan for the child based on the needs and risk assessment. This plan should take into account individual needs, risks and possible traumatising experiences to which the child may have been exposed. It should give due weight to the child’s views. The child may be involved in drawing up the plan, depending on their age and maturity. It is the guardian’s task to facilitate child participation by providing the child with adequate information and ensuring that their views are heard and given due weight. The plan should always be discussed with the child, and his or her agreement should be sought. Although an assessment of the child’s needs and risks will need to start from the moment a guardian is assigned, the individual plan for the child should be drawn up only after the guardian has a good understanding of the child’s needs, risks and wishes. The plan should be reviewed and adjusted at regular intervals.

    An individual plan should include at least the following core elements:

    • Accommodation arrangements
    • Safety and protection measures
    • Relationship with the parents
    • Social and psychological counselling and access to mental health services
    • Healthcare provision and medical treatment
    • Legal counselling and legal representation
    • Education, including language training
    • Migration status and international protection needs2


    Tools and training

    Tool: checklist of possible actions by the guardian in relation to the child’s safety

    • Inform the child about existing protection measures that could be taken.
    • Request a risk assessment for the child.
    • Actively participate in the risk assessment process along with representatives of other relevant authorities, law enforcement officials and the child’s legal representative.
    • Regularly assess the risk that the child may go missing from care.
    • Ensure that the views of the child are heard and given due weight, depending on their age and maturity.
    • Inform the relevant authorities when new information is available related to the child’s safety which might require changes to the protection measures applied.
    • Request that the risk assessment be reviewed and documented if new information surfaces which may require different or additional measures.
    • Ensure that the relevant authorities are notified without delay of a child’s disappearance and that efforts are made to find the child.
    • If a victim of trafficking is a third-country national, regularly remind all authorities involved not to share information on the child’s status as a victim of trafficking with the authorities in the country of origin before the risk assessment is finalised3.


    Individual needs tool: BIC instrument on conditions for upbringing

    The Dutch professor Kalverboer has developed the BIC-model (Best Interest of the Child), that specifies 14 conditions for good development. The basic assumption is that if all conditions are met, a favourable development of the child is guaranteed and we can speak of safety. This model is the basic way of working for diagnostic pedagogic assessments at the ‘Study Centre for Children, Migration and Law’ at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. It helps to outline the quality of the educational environment of the child and compare it with alternative situations. Decision-making in favour of the environment with the highest quality provides the child with development opportunities and is in their interest. The BIC-model has been adapted for unaccompanied children and can be found here.

    Individual needs tool: SDQ – Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ)

    The SDQ is a short screening list that measures the psychological problems and skills of children aged 2 to 17 years. There are different versions: one for teachers, one for parents and one for the child. The expertise centre at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands has had good experiences with using the SDQ for refugee children. The list is easy to score and is available in several languages. You can find the SDQ here.

    Tool: screening instruments for unaccompanied asylum seeking children

    A Dutch longitudinal research project (2001-2004) determined the level of psychological distress of unaccompanied children, their need for mental healthcare, the availability of mental healthcare for this group and, finally, the connection between all of these factors. The results of this research project give insight into the way accessibility of professional mental healthcare can be improved for unaccompanied children. A secondary aim of the project was to validate and standardise the screening instruments for this group. The instruments are suited for making a quick inventory of symptoms experienced by refugee children and adolescents. You can find them here.

    Tool: guidelines for assessing suicidal intent

    Nidos in the Netherlands has developed guidelines for guardians to assess suicidal intent. These guidelines are based on guidelines developed by Ad Kerkhof, Dutch professor of Clinical Psychology, Psychopathology and Suicide Prevention. You will find the tool here.

    Tool: checklist for signs of human trafficking

    Nidos also developed a checklist with ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ signs of human trafficking, based on literature and experiences. This list is useful during the first meeting with the child after their arrival, and for any other moment during the guardianship when you may need to decide on appropriate protection measures, like moving the child to a protected shelter. The list can be found on page 34 of the ALFACA-manual.

    Tool: steps that can be taken to identify and protect children who may have been trafficked

    In the UK, ECPAT describes in ‘Lighting the way’ (2017) the steps that lawyers, legal guardians and child trafficking advocates in the UK can take to better identify and protect children who may have been trafficked. The report offers practical guidance for professionals and authorities to improve the care of these children. You will find the tool here.

    Tool: guidance on determining the best interests of the child

    The UNHCR Guidelines on Determining the Best Interests of the Child‘ (2008) and the UNHCR and International Rescue Committee Field handbook for the implementation of UNHCR BID guidelines‘ (2011), provide comprehensive guidance to responsible authorities and practitioners involved in decision-making and explain how to apply the best interests’ principle in practice, when identifying and implementing durable solutions for unaccompanied children. They both describe how to use a BIA and BID form.

    Tool: toolkit on guidance for unaccompanied Eritrean children in the Netherlands

    In 2018, the Dutch Veerkracht (resilience) project, set up by Nidos and Arq Psychotrauma Expert Group and run as part of the Dutch AMIF (Asylum, Migration & Integration Fund) programme, developed a useful toolkit (in Dutch) on guidance for unaccompanied Eritrean children. The toolkit provides knowledge, insights, concrete tips and tools for supporting the resilience and independence of unaccompanied children.

    Training: massive Online Open Course for Children on the Move (MOOC4CoM)

    The Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS), based at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and other partners, are offering an online open course from 2019. The training will help workers adopt a ‘do no harm’ and best interests approach, preventing and protecting children from violence through appropriate care options that are in line with international standards. The MOOC aims to increase the knowledge of front-line workers and support improved practices as they make decisions about the care and best interest of children on the move. More information can be found here.

    Policy guidelines on protection of children from violence
    in 2009, the Council of Europe developed policy guidelines on integrated national strategies for the protection of children from violence. You can find them here.

    Guidance on prevention and response to unaccompanied children going missing
    The SUMMIT-project handbook (2016) describes how to prevent and respond to unaccompanied children going missing. It also provides practical templates and checklists. It is available here.

    Good practices

    Germany: permission form before travelling

    JSN, the organisation providing guardianship for unaccompanied children in the German region of Süd-Niedersachsen (Southern Lower Saxony), has created a tool to ensure the child’s safety and protect them from trafficking when they want to travel.

    A guardian or social worker fills in a form together with the child, noting name, address and phone number of the person they want to visit, before giving permission to travel. The guardian or social worker has to contact that person and check the address. Youth welfare organisations from different municipalities cooperate in this procedure to avoid human trafficking. You can find the form here.


    The Scottish Guardianship Service is a project run by Scottish Refugee Council in partnership with Aberlour Childcare Trust, both experts in their fields. The service offers face-to-face support and outreach support for all separated children in Scotland who have made themselves known to the authorities. It also supports local authorities and external agencies, providing information, advice and guidance about children in the asylum and immigration processes. The overall aim of the service is to improve the separated child’s experience and understanding of the immigration and welfare processes, and to ensure they receive services appropriate to their needs and entitlements. The Guardianship Service has developed a practice manual that also contains a useful grid for mapping out key domains in a child’s life that can have an impact on their resilience. This tool can help to identify strengths and build up the weaker areas in a child’s life. You can find the grid on page 19 of the Practice Manual.

  • Accommodation


    EU member states are obliged to provide adequate support to unaccompanied children, including accommodation. As a guardian, you are usually responsible for accommodating a child in the right form of reception. The responsibility for their daily care will probably lie with other services.

    In ensuring adequate living conditions, the guardian should visit the child in the place where they are staying and consult with the child in a confidential setting. The guardian should follow up on any alleged violation of, complaint about or breach observed of the child’s rights13.


    Article: it is a house but it isn’t my home

    The University of Groningen compared the views of unaccompanied children living in four different types of care facilities in the Netherlands – on their well-being, living circumstances and place in Dutch society. The research showed that children in foster care fare best and are most positive about their place in Dutch society. Children in small living units and small living groups often miss affectionate bonds, care, support and stability in their lives. Children living in larger groups at reception centres called campuses most often expressed feelings of loneliness and sadness and of being excluded from Dutch society. They experienced a lack of care and support from adults. The quality of the child-rearing environment in campuses was judged by the researchers as being so low that these facilities appear to be unfit for unaccompanied children. The study is described in the article ‘It is a house but it isn’t my home’ (2016), which can be found here.

    Tools and training

    Tool: checklist for possible action by the guardian in relation to accommodation and material assistance

    • Verify that accommodation and residential care arrangements are adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. The guardian should report any issues to be addressed to those providing housing to the child, and cultural mediators should be involved and consulted, where appropriate.
    • Provide the child with information on their rights and duties in relation to the accommodation facilities and make sure that the child is aware of those rights and of how to lodge a complaint.
    • Make sure that the child is informed about the rights and duties of the personnel and the care givers in accommodation facilities, and that the child is able to distinguish their role and responsibilities from those of the guardian.
    • Promote the child’s access to leisure activities, including play and recreational activities appropriate to their age, maturity and interests. Such activities should be offered within the accommodation facilities or in the community when appropriate, and should aim to facilitate the child’s communication and interactions with peers and the local community14.


    Tool to assess and improve reception conditions

    The CONNECT-project (2014) developed the tool LOCAL COOPERATION FOR UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN. The tool can be used to assess and improve local reception conditions. It also contains an action plan and helpful worksheets and is available here.

    Good practices

    Greece: supported independent living (SIL)

    METAdrasi is in favour of alternative care provision such as the innovative foster care programme for young children in Athens and Thessaloniki. But with UNICEF’s support, METAdrasi also launched the first SIL apartment for unaccompanied children in Greece in January 2018. The objective of the SIL pilot is to lay the foundations for implementing supported independent living as an additional care form. It also aims to provide safe accommodation and a package of support services (psychosocial support, medical care, education, access to guardianship and legal aid, interpreters). These give the appropriate level of care and supervision, while supporting the 16-18 year olds’ self-reliance, acquisition and development of life skills, and transition to independence and adulthood.

    The Netherlands: protected shelter for victims of trafficking

    After an official pilot which started in January 2008, protected shelters became a regular part of the Dutch reception system for unaccompanied children at the end of 2010. Unaccompanied children who are 13 years or older and belong to the category of children that are at great risk of disappearing because of human trafficking, have been housed in a protected shelter ever since. There are three sites with a total capacity of 66 places that receive the support of four guardians from Nidos. A fourth location opened in January 2016 in the south of the Netherlands and its 24 places have been deducted from the other three locations in the north. The locations are run by specialised youth care institutions which are contracted by COA (Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers).

    Finland: municipality of Hämeenkyrö

    In Finland, the accommodation of unaccompanied children is divided into two phases: reception and integration. In the reception phase, the child will usually live in group housing or supported housing. In the integration phase, after receiving their residence permit and a ‘municipality of residence’, they usually move to a family group home. This might mean moving to another area completely, depending on where they receive a municipality of residence. The municipality of Hämeenkyrö allows all unaccompanied children to live in the same family group housing, regardless of the asylum status. They also have access to aftercare until they reach 21 years of age. More information in Finnish.

  • Maintaining and restoring family links


    As their guardian, you get to know the child by knowing their extended family: who is important to the child, who wants the child to be doing well, who can be of help in the situation the child finds themselves in, and what does the family want for the child?

    Unaccompanied children usually come from an extended family culture and involving the family network in the guidance is natural and logical. As described earlier, several studies reveal that contact with the biological family is an important protective factor for unaccompanied children. The biological family can play an important role in:

    • assisting the child;
    • taking away the burden on the child when the goal of the flight is not met;
    • taking away the pressure on the child regarding family reunification;
    • worries about the child’s behaviour (pedagogic authority);
    • health problems;
    • working out return plans;
    • decisions that have to be made;
    • placement in a reception family; if the biological family approves of the placement, it is supportive to the child15.


    You will need to use your conversations with the child to map their position within their family and their social and support network, in order to find out what part these people could play in the child’s life.


    Both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Social Service (ISS) provide practical help with restoring family links. The ICRC’s Trace the Face website is particularly useful. On this website, a number of national Red Cross societies in Europe publish photos of people looking for their missing relatives. You will find the Trace the Face website here.

    Tools and training

    Tool: checklist for possible action by the guardian in relation to family tracing

    • Encourage family tracing as soon as possible following identification and with the child’s consent.
    • Note that family tracing (restoring family links) should not take place if there are serious grounds for believing that this might endanger the child or family members.
    • Based on each child’s particular situation, assist the child in family tracing and/or establishing and maintaining communication and links with their family, where this is found to be in the child’s best interests.
    • Cooperate with the public authorities involved and possibly seek the assistance of other relevant organisations and authorities, e.g. the International Organization for Migration or the Red Cross.
    • After successful family tracing, and before family reunification and return, ensure that a risk assessment is conducted to assess the suitability of the parents and/or other family members to care for the child and represent their interests.
    • In any efforts to trace or reunite families, act in the child’s best interests and respect any requirements laid down in law16.


    Good practices

    The Netherlands

    Contact with the biological family when in a reception family

    Just like a child in foster care, an unaccompanied child has a huge connection with their biological family, feeling a strong loyalty to them. They may be afraid that they will like their stay with the reception family so much that it will feel like they are betraying their biological family. They may also be afraid to lose their own family if they get attached to the reception family. Nidos has found that it is best to respect the child in this, and that it is very supporting to both the child and the reception family if they have contact (preferably on a regular basis) with the child’s biological family. Dutch foster care states that it is important that the biological parents give the child ‘emotional permission’ to stay with the foster family. That makes it easier for the child to connect with this ‘new’ family. Mutual trust and respect between the biological family and the reception family supports the child in their adjustment to the reception family17.

    Cross-Border Networking

    In its search for effective methods, Nidos has gathered and refined many positive experiences of involving the family network. Based on a methodological set-up similar to Family Group Conference from New Zealand, a Cross-Border Networking (CBN) methodology was launched in 2013. The core of the methodology is that existing, new and imaginary networks are involved in support and guidance from the start. Since the arrival of particularly Syrian and Eritrean children in 2014-2015, it has become normal in Nidos’s work for them to be in contact with the family from the moment Nidos gets acquainted with the child. There is no barrier to doing so because the child has a right of asylum and the family is in favour of contact to enable family reunification as soon as possible. Especially with Syrian children, it is often easy to get in touch with the family by phone or using Skype.


    The Danish Red Cross has positive experiences in taking an active role, if the child agrees, in contacting the family abroad as soon as possible. They explain the realistic opportunities for the child and the possibilities for family reunification, and talk about how the family can contribute to this. Unattainable expectations can be eliminated this way, relieving the children of a heavy burden. The use of smartphones makes cooperating with family abroad much easier than before18.

  • Healthcare


    As a guardian, you have a special role with regard to the child’s health. Your role is to provide children with relevant information, facilitate the child’s access to medical services, and provide support when important decisions need to be taken4. You have a supervisory role if any healthcare or psychological care is necessary, and you may be the person who has to give permission for the provision of healthcare services to the child.

    Special consideration should be given to healthcare issues that are gender-specific or related to the type of exploitation experienced, such as:

    • reproductive health issues for female victims of trafficking;
    • voluntary testing and confidential counselling for transmittable diseases in children trafficked for sexual exploitation;
    • drug and/or alcohol addiction5.



    Psychological well-being

    Several behavioural and emotional problems are seen in refugee children in general and unaccompanied children in particular: sleep problems, panic attacks, social withdrawal, apathy, nightmares, diverse development problems, headache, hyperactive behaviour, depression, passivity, concentration disorders, symptoms of anxiety, loneliness, separation anxiety, low self-esteem, digestive disorders and problems with eating6.

    Trauma and stress

    Unaccompanied children often have to deal with traumas, loss, unpleasant travel experiences and worries about family that stayed behind as well as stress about the asylum procedure and family reunification. A negative outcome of the asylum procedure and other residence procedures, or a long family reunification procedure, can have a very harmful effect, giving the children even more stress. Stress resulting from uncertainty and tension does not enable trauma recovery7.

    Psychological help

    The emotional well-being of unaccompanied children is a serious concern for their support and reception. Self-destructive and suicidal behaviour is frequently seen in large reception centres, although not in reception in families.

    We may assume that unaccompanied children are not always referred to psychological care services in good time. Mental healthcare organisations are not always culturally appropriate or suitable for the unstable situation of these children. Transcultural psychological support, if available, is better suited to refugees8.

    Tools and training

    Tool: checklist for possible action by the guardian in relation to healthcare

    • Ensure that the child is provided with the necessary health card or other document which entitles the child to access healthcare services.
    • Refer the child to the relevant medical service, make appointments, accompany the child, make sure that they keep track of their appointments and follow-up checks, and make sure that the child understands the information received.
    • Alert the healthcare provider to the need to provide appropriate and child-friendly information to the child in a language they understand, when relevant.
    • Give, or assist the child in giving, informed consent before any examination or testing is done or treatment is initiated, if required by domestic law.
    • Ensure that children do not undergo unnecessary medical examinations.
    • Ensure that a specialist assesses the child’s psychosocial needs and, if necessary, initiates treatment.
    • Request healthcare providers to pay particular attention to gender and cultural considerations, including, for example, enabling girls to be seen by a female doctor if they prefer, or ensuring that food during hospitalisation is culturally appropriate.
    • Facilitate adequate interpretation services9.


    Tool: checklist for signs of physical and psychological problems in children

    This checklist, developed by the Netherlands institute for Human Rights and Medical Assessment (iMMO), can be of help in identifying physical and psychological problems. The list derives from the Istanbul Protocol (UN, 1999).

    Tool on psychological help

    More information on psychological help can be found in the in-depth material that is part of the ALFACA-project. This material describes the ways to support unaccompanied children with development issues. These children need extra support for their personal development. The material deals with a number of problematic attachment and psychological problems that may put the development of young unaccompanied children at risk. These include trauma, depression, suicidal behaviour and inappropriate behaviour. Ways to offer specific psychological assistance to refugees are also discussed. Several issues are addressed from a variety of angles, influenced by experiences in different European countries. This helps professionals to choose the approach which is the most suitable in their particular situation.

    The material was developed primarily for specialised professionals. It offers targeted training for those interested in supporting unaccompanied children with personal development issues, such as therapists, psychologists, behavioural scientists and other practitioners responsible for treatment. The material can be found here.

    Tool: PALOMA handbook on supporting refugees’ mental health (in Finnish)

    This handbook has a vast list of tools for supporting mental health and it also has a section about working in a culturally sensitive way. Guardians will find both the general and specific information very useful. The handbook is available here.

    Tool: culturally sensitive approach to mental health (in Finnish)

    This tool offers information on a culturally sensitive approach to mental health developed by the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa. The tool can be found here.

    Good practices

    The Netherlands: dealing with traumatic experiences

    The general advice in the Netherlands is to get children back into a daily routine as soon as possible after traumatic experiences. This allows them to experience safety in the present, which reduces the stress of having been in danger (hyperarousal). Experts are also aware that trauma debriefing brings with it the risk of being traumatised again and should therefore be done as little as possible.

    Traumatised refugee children who are not capable of recovering themselves need specialist care. Being traumatised can also hinder progress on the asylum request if a child is not able to make a statement about their traumatic experiences.

    Implications for guidance:

    • offer children a suitable (daily) routine as soon as possible
    • only discuss traumatic experiences with children who have made it clear that they are willing to do so (no unsolicited interviewing)
    • acquire knowledge on processing trauma and trauma-related symptoms
    • offer professional care if symptoms persist
    • bring to the attention of the lawyer and the interviewer that trauma may prevent correct answers being given during an interview for the asylum procedure10.

    Sweden: treatment centres for victims of torture and war

    The Red Cross in Sweden has several treatment centres for victims of torture and war. You will find information about the treatment centres here.

  • Education


    In respecting the right of a child to education, EU member states should consider ensuring access for all children beyond the mandatory schooling age and beyond the provisions of compulsory education. School enrolment should take place following any necessary recovery period for the child and in consultation with the child. Children should have access to language courses, where appropriate.

    As a guardian, you should collect information on the child’s past educational experience, provide the child with appropriate information on available educational opportunities and programmes, and then develop, together with the child, a personal education plan. This specific plan should form part of the broader individual plan drawn up for the child.

    You should ensure that the child receives all necessary psychological and educational support for their integration into the school environment, and to overcome any learning difficulties resulting from post-traumatic disorder or from a longer school absence11.

    Tools and training

    Tool: checklist for possible action by the guardian in relation to education

    • Take all action required for the child’s successful enrolment in a school or other educational institution, based on the education plan.
    • Contact the school staff frequently and request information on the child’s progress and his or her behaviour at school.
    • Attend school meetings and parent-teacher meetings.
    • Discuss challenges and concerns with the child’s teachers.
    • Talk to the child about their education plan and possible challenges that they face, and, when needed, arrange adequate support in cooperation with other parties, for example NGOs providing language courses or support classes12.


    Good practices

    Germany: additional lessons

    Refugees in Germany go to special classes to learn the language. Jugendhilfe Süd-Niedersachsen provides extra help for unaccompanied children by offering them additional German lessons and helping them with other subjects that are taught in school.