When institutions get it right

Written by on June 19, 2014 in Articles, Featured Posts with 0 Comments

This inspiring story of working with childcare institutions in Uganda to resettle children and prevent family separation will encourage you and surprise you. We really can see changes that improve the lives of children and families even in the most vulnerable situations.


teddy-and-sonTeddy and David are the newest residents in Emergency Housing at Abide Family Center. They were referred by a local orphanage whose director has decided to partner with us. Our shared goal is to keep children out of the orphanage and with their own families as often as possible.

I help run Abide Family Center, a NGO working on family preservation located in Bugembe in Jinja, Uganda. Someone told me recently that Jinja has the highest number of orphanages per capita in the world, which didn’t surprise me. My own impression is that I hear about a new orphanage being started almost every week.

Jinja is a nice place to live. We’re two hours from Kampala, Uganda’s capital. We live between lush, rolling green hills and the source of the Nile River on the shores of Lake Victoria (and it’s seriously beautiful). You can go to the pool, sip a latte in a café, and “rescue” poor children from poor families by placing them in a state-of-the-art orphanage in the afternoon—all in a day’s “work!”

I have, in the past, treated orphanages as the enemy. Our most common hashtag on social media is #FamiliesNOTorphanages, because we believe all children deserve a family and that no orphanage should ever be considered as the first option or as a substitute for a family.

While I still believe we need to fight for every child to have the love, support, care and protection only a family can provide, I have become a lot slower to alienate potential partners and a lot more willing to listen to where folks running orphanages are coming from. I have had my own views challenged and I have come to realize that there are many people who run childcare institutions who are doing it right.
When we developed our program, we decided to focus on more than just family preservation services. We wanted to be part of building a larger system with child protection and best practices are at the forefront. We did not want to empower just any needy family we came across, but we strategically targeted families with children who were at-risk of being placed in orphanages. We wanted to help vulnerable yet loving parents support their families and stay together.

Unlikely Partners?

We realized that to effectively keep children out of orphanages, the best people to partner with are the very ones I would have written off a few years ago: folks running childcare institutions.
We see a change among many childcare institutions here. Increasingly orphanage directors and staff are recognizing that residential care should not be the default option for vulnerable children and that children should only be placed in their care as a last resort.

We are seeing more childcare institutions developing preventative services and/or referring children to other appropriate organizations. Some orphanages are starting resettlement programs and treating residential care as a temporary, transitional space until better, more permanent solutions are found.

Celebrating Six

I want to highlight six specific child care institutions and celebrate the desire I see in each of them to serve the best interests of children. They give me hope that more orphanages will get on board for the change that is coming. They encourage me to believe we will continue to see gains in child welfare and child protection even in regions and situations where orphanages are being most misused and overused. In no way do these examples include all the childcare institutions doing it right; they are simply a few examples to shine a light on the progress being made.

1) Child’s i Foundation

One of our closest partners and allies in the fight for best practice for orphans and vulnerable children is a childcare institution. Child’s i Foundation has a Babies’ Home in Kampala called Malaika. They also have a social work training program (where we send our own social workers), and they run an ongoing campaign called Ugandans Adopt. The Ugandans Adopt campaign is promoting domestic adoption for Ugandan children who cannot stay with their biological families.

Malaika Babies’ Home is unique due to the average length of time babies remain in their care. When a child is abandoned and referred to them by local authorities, social workers from Malaika are in the field within 48 hours searching for relatives and investigating the child’s case. More than half of the children referred to Malaika are resettled within their own extended families. Only when children cannot be resettled, then the Child’s i staff work relentlessly to get each child adopted by a loving Ugandan family. Child’s i Foundation really embodies what Uganda’s Alternative Care Framework is all about, working to address each vulnerable child’s unique needs for care and services. On a side note, advocates for international adoption seldom mention the good news that Ugandans are successfully adopting Ugandan babies into loving homes!

2) Amani Baby Cottage

My Co-Director and I started off as volunteers at Amani Baby Cottage, which is also located in Jinja. The Director of Amani put much experience and care into developing a model organization. Amani has consistently fought for each child’s best interests, whether reunification or adoption. This is a childcare institution working hard so that children may be raised in families. They treat their Babies’ Home as a transitional facility while they search for a better, permanent option for every child. Amani allowed us to learn from them in the areas of resettlement and family preservation, and they partner with us by sending prevention and resettlement cases.

We trust Amani to refer a child there if needed. We had to do this for a preservation case we were working on. Our staff worked hard to keep the baby and mother together, but it became clear that no amount of good social work or services could keep this child in her own family. Although we like to focus on successes, it’s important to talk about those times when we work hard to preserve a family and it still doesn’t work. This can happen anywhere in the world, so we can’t leave such setbacks out of the conversation. We believe in following a best practices framework, which means valuing and having a place for all alternative care solutions as long as they are being used appropriately.

3) Ekisa Ministries

Ekisa is an excellent home for children with disabilities located here in Jinja. Although Ekisa has a residential care facility, they pour much of their time and energy into community and family support. Ekisa works to keep children with disabilities in their own families whenever possible, supporting and equipping families so they can raise their own children. I always tell them that they have one of the hardest jobs I know, working to promote family preservation for children facing serious stigmas and barriers that threaten to tear their families apart. Ekisa is actively working to tear down the barriers and reeducate people in order to remove the stigmas. Ekisa could very easily keep all of their children in residential care, rationalizing it with the legitimate challenges the children face at home and the greater access to medical services the children would have in their care. Instead, they have chosen to walk side-by-side with the families, lifting them up as capable of caring for their children.

4) Arise & Shine

Arise and Shine is a babies’ home in Jinja that refers both prevention and resettlement cases to us. Arise and Shine offers family preservation services, however, some cases are more complicated and they have asked us to help with those. They are also treating their facility as a last resort for children who truly cannot remain in their families.

One case stands out to me. A young mother came to their gate wanting to place her two daughters in their care. This young mom had just gotten a job as a house girl for a wealthier family. They told her she could have the job, but she could not bring her daughters with her. Having had no source of income for quite some time, she was desperate. She went to Arise and Shine looking for a solution so she could work. Countless children are in orphanages for similar reasons. But the director referred her to us. She and her girls moved into our Emergency Housing for two months while she enrolled in our business and parenting classes and got back on her feet.

5) Baby Watoto

Watoto is one of the largest childcare institutions in Uganda. We happened to be attending a workshop in Kampala that some Watoto social workers were attending. After hearing about our programs, one of the social workers pulled me aside and asked if she could make a referral to us. There was a teenage mother of triplets whose three girls had been placed in Watato’s home for babies in Kampala. This mother frequently visited her girls, and the social worker could see that she loved them but was unable to provide for them. We had one of our social workers do an assessment and coordinate with the Watoto social worker to create a transition plan. The young mother was given the chance to raise her own girls because the social worker chose to focus on her strengths and her potential rather than her poverty.

It would have been easy, in another orphanage, with a different social worker, for the girls to remain in institutional care or even be adopted internationally. This was a young single mother living in poverty. Many would have automatically set the odds against her. Instead, Watoto chose to view her as capable and as the best and first option for the long-term care of her girls. Since making this initial referral, Watoto has continued to send us both prevention and resettlement cases.

6) Sonrise Babies’ Home

Sonrise is our newest orphanage partner. Sonrise called us about a young single mother who was struggling to keep herself and her son safe. She approached the Babies’ Home to see if they would take her two month old baby boy. When the director asked her how she would be able to sleep at night without her son, she began to cry. (So many children are dropped off at orphanages by mothers in tears.) The orphanage Director realized this mom very much loved her son. She was just in a very desperate situation. When I went with two of my social workers to perform an assessment for this mother, I also with the director, and we solidified a partnership. She told us that she believes there needs to be “Many more Abides in Uganda, not more orphanages.”

I wish more people listened to us in the field before opening childcare institutions. Even the people running orphanages are starting to admit we don’t need more of them, and that we must increase efforts to support vulnerable families before they give up their children to orphanages or adoption.

All six of these childcare institutions “get it” or are on their way there. They are working to do what is best for orphaned or otherwise vulnerable children in Uganda. They remind me of the importance of working together so we can build up systems that protect children. Alienating orphanages and painting them all with a broad brush is not helpful. Truly, for each of the good ones, there are many more that are poorly run and misguided. For my sanity and the sake of optimism, I am going to choose to celebrate those who “get it” and hope others will catch on as donors become aware and standards are raised.



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Kelsey Nielsen

About the Author

About the Author: Kelsey is Co-Founder and Head Social Worker at Abide Family Center in Jinja, Uganda (http://www.abidefamilycenter.org/). She coordinates partnerships with officials and organizations and oversees the social work staff as they guide each family toward independence. .