Greenlandic children in out-of-home care live in fear of the future

A drawing of a child arriving at a nursing home, Bonnie Jensen, Arctic Hub, out of care homes, Greenland, science, research

Some of the many Greenlandic children living in out-of-home care across the country are not thriving, according to a new Phd dissertation.

By Laura Philbert, Polarfronten


Every year, more than four times as many children in Greenland are placed in out-of-home care and in residential institutions than Denmark. But according to Bonnie Jensen, assistant professor at Illisimatusarfik – the University of Greenland, we lack real knowledge about what the children actually think about living in these institutions. In connection with her PhD dissertation, she has spoken to 38 children across the country. The conversations show that some children live in what she calls a constant state of insecurity. Bonnie Jensen, who has worked with vulnerable children and young people throughout her entire working life and has been responsible for all children’s out-of-home care in Greenland, says:


“One of the things that has made the biggest impression is how little the children know about their own lives. Many of them don’t know why they are placed or how long they can be allowed to stay where they are. Some of them are afraid that someone may come in half an hour, tomorrow or next week and say that they have to move to another place. Imagine having to live with that uncertainty.”


She explains that about half of the children she has spoken to are not happy living where they live.


“We place children to make them feel better than they did where they were before. That’s the starting point. And how can we make sure the place they live is better than the one they came from? Only by asking the children if they feel well where they live,” recommends Bonnie Jensen.


Her primary criticism is that the initiatives already in place to help the children are failing because they are based on how the adults think the children are doing. “We lack basic knowledge about the area, and we lack better insights into how children feel about being placed. The more you know, the easier it is to find solutions,” she says.


Want closer ties to adults

Based on her conversations with the 38 children, she points out that an important task lies ahead in relation to the pedagogical work. Many of the children say that they miss having closer ties to the adults in the out-of-home cares.


“The children want more ’good adults’. According to the children, good adults are those who have time to go for a walk, time to listen and just be there for them, and who doesn’t scold too much. Just like all other children,” says Bonnie Jensen.


But if the children are to feel safe enough to form good relationships with the adults, they need to overcome the insecurity that many of them live with.


“The pedagogical work at residential institutions is based on relationships, and it’s extremely difficult to establish a relationship with someone, if you don’t know if you, or they, are going to be there tomorrow.”


In Bonnie Jensen’s conversations, it turned out that the places where the children were happy to live came down to where they had good relationships with the adults. And where the children were not happy to live, it owed to a lack of family and lack of relationships with the adults.


“It goes hand in hand, because if you are in a place where you’re really happy for the adults, then the longing for your mother is perhaps easier to bear,” says Bonnie Jensen.

The family should be more involved 

When a child is placed in a home, it is often in a city far away from the childs home. And in Greenland, children are only entitled to two visits a year. This means that many of the children have only sparse contact with their family, says Bonnie Jensen. 


Many of the children simply lose touch with their family, and thats awfulThey miss having contact with their biological family. Of course, there may be cases where the child for one reason or another doesnt need to have contact with his or her parents. But a family is still quite big. It could be, for example, an uncle, an aunt or a grandfather, but the children especially tend to miss having more contact with their siblings,” she says. 


She believes the possibility for the children to have more contact with their family should be explored. It could be, for example, via Skype, phone calls or arranging visits from family members. 


In addition, the family can play a greater role when it comes to placing the child with the help of so-called family counseling, says Bonnie Jensen. 


With family counseling, you ask the child, the family, and the network what they think is best for the child. Instead of letting a social worker who may not know either the child or the childs family decide where the child should be placed. It also opens up for more family placements, where the child is put into care with relatives, so the child can stay close to its home and maintain relationships,” she explains. 


And Bonnie Jensen believes that alternatives to placements in residential institutions should be explored further. In addition to being enormously expensive for society, a placement is also enormously stressful for the child. Former placed children are overrepresented in homelessness statistics and in psychiatry. They have poorer education, they go to prison more often, and their own children are placed more often, explains Bonnie Jensen with reference to numerous international studies. 


“You can work more with early intervention and family treatment rather than placement. 

If a family is really badly burdened by some kind of problem, one would typically say that the children shouldn’t live there, and that makes good sense. But we could get better at looking at what it would take to create a scenario where the child could stay. What resources can we provide to the family so the child can stay and live safely at home?” 


Contact: Bonnie Jensen.


This article is part of a theme issue of Polarfronten about Arctic Hub. The issue has been made as a collaboration between Arctic Hub and Polarfronten.

The purpose of the PhD dissertation is to investigate how Greenlandic children experience being and being placed in a residential institution.
The PhD dissertation is primarily based on conversations with 38 children, which are distributed among 17 of Greenland's residential institutions.
There are 22 residential institutions throughout Greenland with room for 329 children. This corresponds to there being room to place 2.39 per cent of Greenlandic children in a residential institution.
In total, approximately 4.5 per cent of all Greenlandic children are placed outside the home, either in a residential institution or in a foster family.
Bibliography PhD thesis: “Childhood or orphanage? A qualitative study of 38 children’s experiences of staying and being placed in a residential institution in Greenland” by Bonnie Jensen, February 2021.
Picture1.jpg Illustration from the PhD dissertation: “I was very surprised by the place when I arrived. There were many people in the orphanage, but it was very small, the staff was old, and the headmaster was busy. My contact person and I sat and waited for someone to welcome us. The staff set the table as usual, and I sat there for a while… ”(Hulda, 17 years old).  (Illustration ”Alone” by Naja Abelsen).
Picture2.jpg Illustration from the PhD dissertation by Helle, who thinks back on her grandparents and what they have meant to her. (Illustration ”Helle” by Naja Abelsen)