Training changing lives of children in Uganda

Written by on June 19, 2014 in Featured Posts, Voices from the Field with 18 Comments

A sometimes mind-blowing firsthand account of an ambitious attempt to improve the care of orphaned and vulnerable children in Uganda.

It started in a cramped government office in Kampala

There are at least 50,000 children in residential care in the Uganda, a huge number by any standard. Uganda has been called the NGO capital of the world, and while some of these organizations are doing tremendous work, in 2011 it was just a handful of us gathered in a cramped government office in Kampala to talk about alternative care for children outside of parental care. Alternative care refers to practices designed to keep children, as much as possible, in families and communities rather than putting them in residential care. That first day we had no handle on who was doing what, why, and where.

Three years later and we have made significant progress, and I give the government immense credit for being passionate and pushing for change! The result was “The Alternative Care Framework,” guidelines for working with children outside of parental care with a strong emphasis on family preservation and reintegration of children back into families. These guidelines have potential to improve the lives of children and families throughout Uganda. The challenge is to get organizations to know and follow the guidelines, and to make them aware when the changes are working.

Mark Riley meeting with an adoption review panel in Kampala, Uganda

Meeting with an adoption review panel in Kampala, Uganda

Why change?

While developing the Alternative Care Framework, we looked at child care facilities in Uganda. We knew the number had increased exponentially in the previous ten years, but beyond that too little was known. How many existed? What services did they offer? How well (or poorly) were they run? Why were so many children going into residential care? What we learned was more startling that we anticipated (summary of the results). Child care institutions have become the default solution for children outside of parental care with worrying trends as to why children end up in care in the first place. Here are some troubling facts we learned about those institutions:

  • Over 80% of child care institutions do not have a child protection policy
  • Over 85% of children in such institutions have known parents and family members
  • Less than 25% of institutions make any attempts to trace the families of the children in their care and/or engage with family members
  • Over 50% of institutions have unacceptable care standards with poor infrastructure, sanitation, diet, accommodation, health provisions, and supervision
  • Less than 30 child care institutions are currently legally licensed and recognised by the government

What we saw was in sharp contrast with internationally accepted best practices which prioritize community and family-based alternative care and specifically state that residential care should be a temporary and last resort.

Educating care providers

posterStarting in August, 2013, the government (working with SUNRISE OVC, a USAID program run by AIDS Alliance), conducted workshops in each region of Uganda to connect with practitioners and explain the Alternative Care Framework. We developed the training materials with support from UNICEF. The main topics were family preservation, child resettlement and reintegration, and family-based alternative care. The workshops were a huge opportunity to engage with stakeholders at all levels, including working directly with care-providers.

More than two hundred care providers and about fifty district workers attended. All told it was a fantastic mutual learning experience.

Boarding schools and pitfalls

Besides training participants, we also asked questions. One session explored why children end up in institutional care in the first place. In every region of the country, participants said one of the biggest reasons children are placed in orphanages is for access to the free services, and they acknowledged that nearly all the children in their facilities have known families.

We debated whether many “orphanages” could be more accurately identified as free boarding schools. (In the words of one director: “I couldn’t get funding for my boarding school unless I packaged it as an orphanage.”) Ironically, some good private schools which have been forced to close because of the “free” education funded by western donors, so the amazing Ugandan entrepreneurial spirit is being squashed by NGO’s thinking they are helping.

Even worse, we realized that less vulnerable parents are often able to admit their children into the higher quality institutions with the best services, whereas the most vulnerable parents, who perhaps truly need support, are more likely put their children in the nearest and lowest quality institutions. One such mother was so desperate, having found out she was HIV positive and losing her job in the same week, that she took her child to the most easily accessible residential care facility—after being referred there by a nurse who was on the orphanage’s payroll. The standards there were appalling, and since it had an international adoption program, her child was put up for international adoption. So in the midst of tremendous trauma she nearly lost her son who she loved. THANKFULLY, someone was tipped off (by the potential adoptive family actually), saw some glaring inconsistencies, and raised the alarm. The mother was eventually reunited with her son after a lengthy process of wresting the boy from the clutches of the orphanage and adoption agency.

That was in 2012 and her life has been transformed. Now she is happy, healthy and financially independent due to the interventions, education, and support she received.

Fulfilling needs or filling beds

The participants also confessed that children often end up in institutions simply “because they exist.” Interestingly, communities that do not have orphanages, including some of the poorest in Uganda with high rates of HIV infection and poverty, tend to have lower rates of child abandonment compared to similar communities that do have orphanages. Not surprisingly, participants pointed out many of the obvious reasons why children are separated from their families: emergencies, the death of a parent, extreme poverty, and child protection issues. We explored these and began to think about alternatives. For example, we looked at ways to address poverty rather than allowing poverty to split families apart. We also challenged participants about the justice of removing a child from his or her home due to abuse but doing nothing about bringing the abuser to justice.

A government worker noted we often have things backwards. Children are removed from society while the perpetrators of crimes against them go free. She argued that government and institutions should work together to ensure children can stay safely in their own communities and to remove those committing crimes against them. An incredible admission by some institutions was that they are under constant pressure from donors to “fill the available beds.” Empty beds equal no child sponsorships. For such institutions, the vision of the donor is a driving factor even above the best interests of the children and their families.

Positive and negative responses

Some institutions did not take the workshops seriously. One well known home for babies in Kampala sent their gardener claiming to be a social worker. In my view, those who took the workshops least seriously were the organisations with active international adoption programs. This confirms what many of us suspect: organisations focused on international adoption do not seriously pursue resettlement and other domestic solutions despite evidence that these solutions are effective and in line with government policy.

The SAFE Campaign calls for the preservation of Ugandan families and communities

SAFE Campaign materials calling for the preservation of Ugandan families and communities

But there were encouraging responses as well. One organisation in Jinja that has undertaken many international adoptions decided to abandon their international adoption program. They felt their integrity had become increasingly compromised by agency after agency continually offering ‘rewards’ and ‘partnerships’ in return for providing them with children. (Receiving money or donations as a part of any adoption process is illegal in Uganda, so you will be hard pressed to get any organization to admit doing it.) They have now thrown their full weight and vision behind the alternative care framework.

Another organisation in Hoima fully embraced the new framework. When we sat down and explored the financial implications of keeping 60 children for 18 years versus resettling them in family-based care, the director was literally “blown away.” He realized that he could support nearly 1,000 children in family-based care for the same cost as raising just 60 children in his residential facility. Another organisation decided to reduce the number of children in residential care and invest in more community-based support for families: vocational skills training, livelihood support, family counselling, and referral services. These activities strengthen families and help keep them together.

One of the greatest achievements of the workshops was the commitment to work better together that many organisations gave to the government staff. There was a needed realignment of organisations back to the local government officials as opposed to being dictated by their donors. A Probation and Social Welfare Officer from the north of Uganda eloquently expressed her feelings about the workshops this way.

We have sadly allowed Child Care Institutions too much power and they have become the default solution for children. But we know children thrive better in families, and most of the children in institutions have families. We need to get children back into families, and institutions need to change their models to support families not their own institutions. These workshops have helped communicate this message and explicitly outlined government policy and best practices. Now there are no excuses.

Ugandan childcare workers

Ugandan childcare workers

Time to respond

From a ragged beginning transformation is slowly coming to Uganda, and those of us who begun this journey and others who joined along the way are committed to making the alternative care “movement” work. Today we have an increasing number of organisations delivering high quality resettlement, family-based alternative care, and other services that support families and keep them together.

Despite limited resources, Ugandans and the government of Uganda are proving they can lead for change, and key partners such as UNICEF and USAID are providing assistance to inform and educate the care providers and organizations that need to get on board. A number of other programmes are starting in 2014 to support the alternative care framework. Terre des Hommes Netherlands are about to launch a significant programme that could impact 1000’s of children’s lives and create a blueprint for the rest of Uganda and beyond.

I am under no illusions. We have a long way to go, and the government needs to get tougher with organizations that are not meeting standards or following the child care policy. But as we say in Uganda: “Hope never runs dry!” And now the river is rising. Donors and child care organizations – this is your time to stand up and be counted or be left behind!

Tags: , ,

Mark Riley

About the Author

About the Author: Mark works as an Alternative Care Consultant and Child Rights Advocate based in Uganda and works throughout East Africa. He worked for the Ugandan Government as a Consultant and Adviser for two and a half years and now works and advises on programmes that support the Ugandan Government and other regional Alternative Care programmes. .
  • Niels Peter Rygaard

    Hi Mark & associates
    Why cross the creek for water? Use the free research based online based training programs for foster carers and institutions at . Tested in 12 countries for four years, based on a volunteer network of top researchers and users. It’s in 14 language versions now, and rapidly expanding across developing countries. In fact, we are looking for translators to offer them in Swahili also. Programs were designed not to burden underprivileged care systems with demands for extra manpower or increased budgets.
    Best wishes for your work from Niels Peter Rygaard, child psychologist, Denmark

    • Emmanuel

      Great Insights on child development, it is my humble thoughts that as you intervention in the child’s workers Materials please include the Biblical interpretation. Currently i serve 150 students in secondary schools and i am using 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by i including Biblical interpretation which i find very interesting and helpful to the children that i serve. This is due to the fact that children character will be nurtured in a Godly way.

      • jan stewart


      • William

        How about Muslims and children from other beliefs ? Let us not indoctrinate children with religious knowledge when they are not able to make a choice. I do not recommend this

        • Well, it has worked where i work at, all religions recognizes Jesus Christ. We dont preach religion but we use Jesus christ as the best example as we nurture children holistically.

  • Andy Williams

    Niels – your site looks fantastic and I will share widely. In Uganda Swahili is rarely used and is associated with previous regimes – Luganda would probably be more useful.

  • Andy Williams

    The following book is being used in over 20 countries now and I’m keen to get it out there to equip and encourage workers. If you want multiple copies I can get about 75% off. Do let me know. Best – Andrew Williams

  • Andy Gray

    Andy Williams – Just wondering if the book takes a family-centered approach? Here in Cambodia, Friends International has been working with street kids in numerous ways, but central to their work is a commitment to reunite kids with their families whenever possible. They do that with social workers dedicated to the task. They have resisted creating shelters because of the tendency for shelters to become the default solution.

  • Andy Gray

    Niels Peter Rygaard – I’ve looked at the website and it’s fascinating. I also have a similar question for you. Does the training attempt to move orphanages in the direction of prevention and reunification practices, or does it only train caregivers to improve orphanages? Thanks.

  • Rima Murray

    have a look at what Half the Sky organization is doing in China – they transformed so far the lives of 110 000 orphans with their work.

  • sonny

    as if a blanket statement were possible for every situation. there are good and bad orphanages….as there are good and bad homes. to suggest all children are better off in homes where abusive by their nature spiritual beliefs, or tribal/cultural habits are practiced that damage the mind and spirit vs. a loving environment of caregivers who devote their lives to BEING the childrens parents is absurd. yes, i love how all these social scientists make these blanket statements and how everyone jumps on the bandwagon without having seen any proofs…just talk of statistics which we will never see. the orphanage i work to support exists in a place where adoption will never happen. these children are considered outcaste….but with love and education they will enjoy the new democracy of their country. they KNOW GOD is their father. they KNOW the caregivers who’ve opened their home are mom and dad. They KNO the 21 other children are their siblings. that’s a lot more than most people will ever have. Support these such orgs. and never stop. just cuz a child has a family doesnt mean that family is legitimate. lets go case by case first. theres some backwards ass people out there throwing kids away. BE REAL. case by case. thank you.
    ALSO…..i wonder if any of these alternative care consultants who work to knock thousands of other orgs. in blanket statements…are just trying to come out with new ideas as to JUSTIFY THEIR OWN EXISTANCE. it works both ways….either way some experts are prolly paid way too much for these blanket statements….id rather grow up in a loving, christian, well-maintained and supportive orphanage and let THAT BE MY FAMILY…than with the people who threw me away…REGARDLESS. different strokes for different folks. lets go case by case shall we and not try to justify our jobs as so called western experts on a matter as if all families who throw their kids away are legitimate. some are doing it precisely however because of luv. Reality Check PLZ.

    • Mark Riley

      No one is suggesting children are resettled to damaging situations. It’s all about case management and building the necessary community support structures and making best interest of the child decisions. I am not a ‘social scientist’ and have been on the ground for a long time. However I do believe in monitoring and evaluating our practises and we can provide evidence that most children in orphanages in Uganda have families and we should we working towards addressing the issues which led to separation in the first place… that is what needs to happen rather than creating alternative families in orphanages – this never gets to the root causes of separation. Again you make an assumption that children are ‘thrown away’ – I wonder if you read the article or followed the links.. there are pull and push factors that lead to separation – with abuse or neglect only a fraction of the reason. For some children residential care is the only option, we are not disputing that and are working to strengthen residential care facilities, but for the majority of children in Uganda that is not the case and we are working on strengthening families and communities – something which many orphanages are fighting against because it impacts their vision and purpose, and I find it staggering that you can defend them.

    • Gayla

      Sonny, I love your remarks!!

  • sonny

    a small orphange IS THE FAMILY. understand that. these children can be blessed and lucky regardless if no one comes to pick them up.

  • sonny

    i respect your reasoning as well….but dont ever let me catch u disrespecting orphanges again without recognizing this fundamental truth. families are about love and care. u dont actually have to be related in the most immidiate sense. Peace and continue ur good work and thoughts even better. thank u for ur work.

    • Mark Riley

      Sonny “Don’t ever let me catch u disrespecting orphanages again”…. You need to revisit the baseline study that clearly highlights that most orphanages in Uganda are disrespecting the Ugandan law, international child protection practices and are not serving the children and communities of Uganda. While some institutions are doing a good job let’s not pretend that ‘anyone’ looking after vulnerable children are automatically equipped and suitable to do so. Recheck the baseline study and other studies.

  • Sonny – The only blanket statement is that orphanages should be a last resort if a child can’t be with a loving family. Orphanages themselves should be the ones making sure that everything is done to keep a child in a family. If a child cannot be with his or her own biological family, or relatives, or with a loving foster family, then the child would be fortunate to find a truly loving family-like group home or orphanage.

    If the orphanage IS a family, then call it a foster family and not an orphanage. But keep in mind, a foster family (a real family) doesn’t normally include 21 children or paid staff or volunteers. If you want to use the word “family” then let’s be clear what a family is and isn’t.

    Also, yes, there are some places and situations where group homes or small orphanages are the only options. This article is written about Uganda, a country where there are far too many orphanages and too few people restoring families. And I know Uganda isn’t the only country like that.

    If you want to read reports about studies and see statistics, they are not hidden away. You can see examples in the “Learn” section of this website.

    One final word. Speaking as a Christian, I cannot condone putting children in orphanages because you don’t agree with the spiritual beliefs of their parents. According to the Bible, it is God who places each child in his or her family and culture. Let’s not play God and try to fix a culture by cutting out the families. LOVING and, when needed and if possible, working to restore families is a much better way. Removing children from families as a method of evangelism is wrong, and I say that as a Christian. I hope that’s not what you were implying.

    • Mark Riley

      Spot on Andy. Evangelism through institutionalization is an abomination and I also hope that is not what Sonny was implying! We have some institutions in Uganda purposely changing names and religions of children to suit their own evangelical agenda. As a Christian I find that an abhorrent abuse of children and human rights.