Read about one man’s journey on behalf of orphans and vulnerable children, including stories you won’t forget. Will you join in the change that’s coming?
I heard a story from a man I was training in Myanmar. A number of years before, when his parents were visiting a rural village, his mother happened to use a pit toilet shared by the community. Inside she heard a tiny muffled noise that reminded her of a baby’s cry. The only place it could have come from was down the hole, so she put her arm inside and brought out a newly born baby. The baby must have been in there for some minutes; no one really knew how long. The unknown mother had tried to kill the child, presumably due to shame. Everyone agreed the baby should go to an orphanage.
We’ll come back to this story, but first let me tell you how I came to be delivering training in Myanmar in the first place.
First, an observation: Orphanages are still the default solution for orphans and abandoned children in poor communities throughout the developing world.
Having worked as a social worker in the United Kingdom for many years, in Child Protection and Adoption/Fostering, I had often wondered if the services we developed for children and families would be valid and effective in developing countries. That question was uppermost in my mind in the mid 90’s when my wife and I volunteered for 12 months with a children’s mission in Brazil where the only provision for children separated from family was residential care.
In Brazil I discovered that prevention work in the communities, rehabilitation of parents, kinship care (placing children with relatives), and foster care were rarely practiced or even considered. I asked professionals why ordinary Brazilian families couldn’t look after orphaned and abandoned children. Oh, Brazilian families are too poor, I was told, too emotional, and they have such large families they wouldn’t have room for more.
But it soon became evident to me the problem was not primarily poverty or large families. It came down to a widespread lack of perception about the needs of children beyond immediate relief of their physical necessities (i.e., food and shelter in a children’s home). Most social work was material and practical; rarely did it include dealing with the emotional trauma of being separated from family. Moreover, few professionals showed any inclination to preserve ties between children and their biological families, and few were inclined to do prevention work to keep families from breaking apart in the first place.
Thankfully, twenty years later childcare policies in Brazil have changed. They have a long way to go, but practices today are much more prevention oriented and family-based.
I began a journey starting in Brazil that continues to this day. My wife and I returned home, and in 2002 we founded Substitute Families for Abandoned Children (SFAC). Our mission was to promote and extend family-based care for abandoned children in developing countries. Since then I have travelled throughout the world training government workers, organizational leaders, and care providers in the principles of alternative and family-based care.
Most parents living in the UK today assume their own children would never end up in an orphanage, not even in the event of their tragic deaths. But many of these same parents assume orphanages are appropriate options for children in poor countries. How can that be?
The truth is that we are still coming to terms with family-based care ourselves, and orphanages are still a part of our recent history and hidden mindsets.
On any given day in UK around 67,000 children are living apart from their families for numerous reasons, mostly due to abuse and neglect. Seventy-six percent are placed with relatives or foster families (almost 100 percent for children less than ten years old). That’s the situation today, but just 30 years ago the majority of such children would have been placed into residential care no matter the age. In one generation we have undertaken a seismic shift in UK public policy as we have moved from residential to family-based care.
The decisive moment was the passage of the Children Act of 1989, and subsequent legislation that prioritises family-based care with residential care only as a last resort. This huge shift in UK public policy and resources was based on overwhelming research and evidence showing that the best place for a child to develop an identity and learn social roles is within a family. Research also detailed numerous developmental problems, social challenges, and personal burdens for children and young people associated with growing up in residential care.
This is not the time to review the research, including all the studies conducted since 1989 in both developed and developing contexts. Suffice it to say that almost every developed country, the United Nations, and the largest childcare organizations and their experts have called for family-based care with residential care as a last resort.
But alternative care policies and practices in the developing world have lagged behind for many reasons: disorganization, none or insufficient child care legislation, corruption, lack of training, and funding issues. Even as governments are getting on board for change, a host of smaller childcare institutions and faith-based missions have been slow to change.
A Stop in Central Asia
In 1999 I did some consultancy work in Central Asia. On visiting a large orphanage with many children, I asked the director if I could speak with the children using my Russian translator. I met nine children in groups of three and asked them the same questions: How long have you been here? Do you know why you’re here? Do you see your family? If not, why not? Are you happy in placement and what things do you do?
All replied with similar answers. Yes, they were happy and had lots of friends and did lots of activities. They didn’t really know why they were there, and some saw family occasionally, others never. Some couldn’t remember their family or even where they came from.
I then asked each of them, if they could wave a magic wand and ask for just one thing, what it would be. All of them muttered and thought awhile but eventually said exactly the same thing. I didn’t know what they had said as it was in Russian, and yet somehow I did know. It was like I had understood their hearts even though I didn’t speak their language. “I want my mum,” “I want my family,” and “I want to be like the other children.”
By this time my translator was in a flood of tears and hardly able to speak. She eventually told me, “I had no idea these children felt this way. They looked so happy.” “I did,” I said, “because I see it in all the time in the UK and in other countries. If they were your children would you be happy to see them living in an institution or a group home rather than in a family?” “No”, she replied. “That’s why I wanted to see if over 5,000 miles away, in a different culture, children would still feel the same way.”
How did I know what the children had said? Because it’s a human need; a family is what every child wants even after abuse and neglect. They want to belong to someone, not to an organisation. They want to feel normal, not stigmatized. They want to have siblings and relatives and a community. They want things at home to be safe and right. Poverty is not what matters to a child most; it is being part of a family.
No Magic Wand
Ample research has been done in the UK over many years showing that the longer a child has been separated from his or her roots the harder it is to rehabilitate the child back into his or her family. It’s a significant and growing challenge after just six months, due to changes in family structures and dynamics which the child was not part of. For example, the child’s parents may separate or remarry, the child’s behaviour may change after being in an institution with different rules and standards, or the child’s single parent might start a new job and see the child as a restriction. The longer you wait for rehabilitation, the more difficult (though not impossible) it is to achieve a successful outcome.
We can’t simply “wave a magic wand” and return children from residential care facilities back to their parents or relatives. Alternative care practices are about keeping children out of residential institutions in the first place and, when children are placed in residential care, rehabilitating them back into healthy families as quickly as possible.
Preventing families from being torn apart is easier than rehabilitating them. But rehabilitating families in a safe and timely manner is easier and better for children than raising them permanently in residential care.
For many children living in residential care today, it’s too late to send them back to their families or place them with relatives or foster families. But it’s not too late for governments, organizations, and care providers to start alternative care practices that will transform the lives of countless children who would otherwise be placed in residential care.
We have to start thinking differently. We must stop reacting to poverty by separating children from their families and communities.
When I started this journey in the mid 90’s, I was pretty ignorant about what would or could work. But today, almost 20 years later, we are seeing significant changes. Governments of developing countries are making major policy changes. Just last year the Government of Uganda launched its Alternative Care Framework, a set of strong policies designed to keep children out of orphanages and in healthy families. We are seeing “green shoots” of small to medium-size kinship and foster care projects happening in South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Uganda, China, Central Asia, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Brazil and other countries. Most of these projects are pioneering prevention and family rehabilitation services as well. And many other countries are expressing interest.
In most of these countries, they are still in need of training as they develop services from the ground up.
Today I can say with confidence that the principles of alternative and family-based care not only apply in developing countries, but they are successfully and positively changing the lives of children and families around the world.
Yes, there is a long journey ahead, but the global movement to develop Alternative Family Care services is underway!
Now what about that baby in Myanmar?
She was placed in an orphanage.
Yet some weeks later, feeling troubled by this, the woman who had found the baby and her husband returned and went to find her. They asked if they could look after the baby girl just as if she was their own child. They had no support or guidance. They took her home, and only then did they discover she was permanently blind due to her eyes having been attacked by insects in the cesspit. Nevertheless, they loved her and sent her to school. Today she works as a qualified and registered masseur in Yangon and lives with her foster brother (the man who I was training) and his family.
Until her foster brother heard me speak about family-based care and foster care, he never realized that he had a “foster sister” or indeed that his parents were foster parents. He went on to say that he loves her just like his own sister!
Can alternative care practices work in various cultures and contexts? They already are! Alternative care practices build on something every culture has in common: a high value for children and families. Residential care is the foreign import.
I have a growing conviction on this journey, and I continue to learn from people and their stories from various countries and cultures. I train government workers, organizational leaders, and care providers to strengthen and restore families. Will you join us?