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Orphanages are changing for good

Written by on April 21, 2015 in Featured Posts, The Blog with 0 Comments

The change has started. We are seeing orphanages worldwide and in Cambodia transitioning into community and family support centers. They have not lost their vision to care for the most vulnerable children, but they are seeking better ways to accomplish it.

Tom Matuschka, Director of Asian Hope, took over one of Cambodia’s earliest and well-known orphanages in 2008. He began to see a pattern of problems as children matured, so he set out to learn more.

Children learning in a community-based education center started by Asian Hope

“What I found shook my beliefs to their core. The problems our kids were enduring were not uncommon, even in local, non-religious Cambodian orphanages. They were and are the normal result of raising children in residential care rather than in a functioning family. In all honesty, we came to the conclusion that God designed people to grow up and develop in a family—not an orphanage or a children’s home or even a group home. We as relational beings have a need for belonging and security that these non-family-based institutional solutions can’t satisfy.”

Family-based care means working together so that vulnerable children and orphans are raised within loving families in their own communities. It recognizes the need to move beyond “orphan care” under the control of outsiders, to empowering families and communities to care for their own vulnerable children.

Honestly, it’s complicated and difficult. But it’s not as complicated and costly as removing children from their families and communities, then returning them to society years later.

Truth is, family-based care is working in Cambodia – even among the very poor. But it’s also true we have a long way to go here.

We must acknowledge a painful truth. Poverty is the root cause behind most children being put in orphanages in Cambodia and worldwide. Nearly half of the children placed in Cambodian orphanages are sent by their own parents. On major holidays, the orphanages empty out as most children and staff go home to their parents and relatives.

20150216-60-479Orphanages offer food, education, and other physical benefits that poor families need for their children. But putting a child in an orphanage is an inefficient and costly way meet these needs.

Roughly speaking, the cost of raising a child in an orphanage is five to ten times the cost of supporting the same child within a family, and that’s not counting the psychological and social costs.

Spien (which means, “The Bridge”) is a community-based organization working throughout Cambodia that supports nearly two thousand orphans living with relatives or in long-term foster care. In general, all it takes for Spien to keep a child living in a healthy family situation is a regular visit from a volunteer, a fresh set of clothing and school supplies each year, and about ten dollars worth of rice each month for the child and care provider.

They have already lost their parents. In an orphanage, they will lose their uncles, aunts, grandmother and more. Even though they are poor and don’t have very much, they don’t want to be separated from their own family.

– Phan Chork, a Spien volunteer in Takeo Province

“We must stop reacting to poverty by separating children from their families and communities,” says Mick Pease, who has trained orphanage directors and foster care providers around the world. “If they were your children,” he often asks, “would you be happy to see them living in an institution or a group home rather than in a family?”

20150228-139-481But poverty is not the only issue. Many children face abuse and neglect at home, and some are exploited and even sold by their own parents. Step-parents in this culture are more likely to abuse children from previous relationships. Added to all of this, Cambodia has a legacy of violence, family-separations, and post-traumatic stress dating to the Khmer Rouge years.

Family-based care does not mean turning a blind eye to these problems. Nor should anyone naively think that orphanages are free from them either.

When a child cannot live with his or her own parents, experts and Cambodian government policies agree that the following options should be attempted in this order: 1) kinship care (placement with close relatives), 2) foster care leading to domestic adoption, and 3) residential care until a better alternative can be found.

Orphanages should be the last resort and a temporary one, because living with a family is better for a child’s development.

“A family is what every child wants, even after abuse and neglect,” says Mick Pease. “They want to belong to someone, not to an organization. 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.”

Unfortunately, there are still too few organizations and resources dedicated to family-based care in Cambodia.

By contrast, recent mapping has indicated that more than 600 registered and unregistered orphanages have proliferated throughout the country. What was meant to be a “last resort” has often been the default solution instead.

We can do better than that.

20150314-52-482Family-based care starts with prevention: taking steps to keep the most vulnerable children with their own parents and relatives so they will not be sent away to orphanages in the first place.

Organizations like Indochina Starfish Foundation, Cambodian Children’s Trust, and Transform Cambodia are running community-based programs that meet crucial needs: supplemental education, food support, and family interventions. They may not use the words “family-based care,” but they are keeping families together and preventing children from being sent to orphanages.

Orphanages can start by doing their utmost to prevent children from being separated from their parents due to problems that can be solved with other interventions. Why not make this a top priority and spend accordingly?

For the cost of raising two or three children in residential care, a trained social worker can be hired full time to work with local community leaders to preserve and strengthen families. For the cost of raising ten children, a team of workers can be employed to impact hundreds of children and their family members.

Are we thinking too small?

20150203-125-478There is no line in the sand that stops orphanages from developing high quality family support services, including kinship and foster care programs. The orphanages of today could become the family support centers of tomorrow. We are already seeing orphanages around the world taking these steps.

Not every orphanage will have the capacity or vision to make such big changes, but every orphanage should practice prevention, and every orphanage can seek partnerships with family-based care organizations that provide kinship care, foster care, and domestic adoption services.

When orphanages and family-based care organizations work together, everyone wins.

Are you ready to take the next steps and support the family-based care revolution?

Donors – If you are a donor, please do not suddenly stop supporting an orphanage. But do use your influence to ask questions and press for needed changes. Learn from the resources on the back page, and consider committing new funding to projects that support community and family-based care.

Volunteers – Be wise. Experts have said for years short-term visits to orphanages are not good for the children. They need to form long-term attachments with consistent adults, but they are faced with high staff turnover and a constant flow of visitors in and out of their lives. This can damage a child’s development. If you volunteer, commit long term. If you organize group trips to orphanages, consider stopping them. See the resources on the back page for more about ethical volunteering and group trips.

Christians – Many people caring for orphans are Christians, including many pioneering leaders in family-based care, so it seems right to address Christians directly. The Bible says every person is made in the image of God and worthy of love and justice, and caring for widows and orphans and other marginalized people is central to biblical faith. This is good news! Keep in mind that in the Bible orphans were cared for in families: by relatives or foster/adoptive parents. Widows were supported so they could raise their own children. Surely Christians can agree that strengthening, restoring, and providing families for children in their own communities is a biblical calling.

Orphanage Leaders – This book is also for you, and we hope you receive it as a positive and encouraging challenge. Orphanages all over the world are re-evaluating and changing. There is no reason to draw a line between residential care and preserving and restoring children in families. Erase the line. If you want to learn more and explore making changes, look on the back page for organizations with people who can help and even walk through a transition with you. Exciting opportunities are ahead!

Readers – Thanks for joining us, now go out and share the story with others. Help drive this growing and needed conversation in positive directions. There is much more to say, and much to learn and do! See the back page for ideas, connections, and resources for the next steps from here.



This essay was originally published in the Home, a Cambodian story. It’s a beautiful hardback book available at Monument Books in Cambodia, and it’s also available on Amazon for Kindle devices and tablets and iPads running the Kindle app. Read reviews and learn more about the book here!

Book description: ‘Home’ is a graphic novella telling the inspiring story of two children sent to an orphanage who find a way home again with help along the way. Artistic and captivating, let this story take you on an an eye-opening journey. ‘Home’ features hand-inked cartoons by Cambodian artist Sao Sreymao.

An orphanage that changed its vision

Written by on October 3, 2014 in Featured Posts, Voices from the Field with 3 Comments

Can an orphanage transform into something better? The story of Asian Hope will inform and inspire you. Discover what it took for the director of a children’s home to ask hard questions and risk changing direction. 

asianhope2I am an international adoptive parent. I understand deeply the passion, drive, reward, and challenges of bringing a child out of an institution and into a loving life family.

I am also the leader of the humanitarian aid organization, Asian Hope, which was founded to open orphanages in order to give abandoned children a chance at stability, education and a new life.

I came into my position with the impression that orphanages (or children’s homes if we prefer a more gentle expression for the same thing) are a superior tool for rescuing, protecting, and launching vulnerable children into the future. I rationalized that in a best case scenario the orphanage would be a conduit to permanent placement with international families through adoption. Yet, the last six years have challenged and inspired my way of thinking like never before.

Asian Hope began with the premise that we could provide the best possible environment for orphaned and abandoned children to grow up. We even fantasized that our model might be the ideal one: a young, Christian missionary family taking in a group of vulnerable children to raise as their own within the Cambodian culture and remaining committed to them for the long term. We could give them the best of everything including nutritious meals, quality clothing, appropriate housing, medical care, nightly devotions, Christian schooling, parental modeling, and the opportunity to go to college. We did this for 30 Cambodian children and youth ranging in age from 3 to 15 years old. As I type this it all still sounds wonderful and gratifying.

I first came to visit Asian Hope in June 2003 as part of a short-term Christian mission trip. I vividly remember 3-year old Kinsrey hanging onto my neck as I carried her around her orphanage. I wanted to bring her back to the US and give her the home she so desperately needed.

During the 3 week trip my wife and I played with the kids, went on outreach activities to other communities and orphanages, and volunteered at the international schools owned by Asian Hope. The organization and the American family living with the children were well regarded in the community. I was even challenged by the founder to leave my life and job in America to come with my family and open a second “children’s home”!

There was a romantic, missionary appeal to the idea that touched me and my wife. But instead we pursued international adoption and brought our daughter home from China in 2005. At that point, we realized being house parents to 20 or 30 vulnerable kids was not in our abilities, but we confidently believed that we would serve overseas in the future. That day came in 2008 when I accepted the CEO position at Asian Hope and our family of five moved to Phnom Penh.

Impressions can be deceiving.

Asian Hope almost didn’t make it to that day. In 2005 the founding family who had lived with the 30 children was no longer with the organization.

Over time it was apparent that the ability of the children to create strong and lasting relational bonds had been severely handicapped. They were no longer fully literate in their own language, but they were not native English speakers either. Many of the children believed that their culture was inferior to Western culture, and some were terrified to interact in public with their own countrymen.

In fact, just recently one of the kids who had transitioned into self-sufficiency expressed to me that they have all become “third culture kids.” They no longer fit with their home culture and they don’t fit with the American culture they have been exposed to. They are kept just outside of belonging due to the “odd” ways they walk, talk, dress, and think. They miss cultural clues necessary for communication. They lack a relationship network among their people and are fairly confined to the expatriate community. They don’t have a family network to guide them and provide context and contacts. They feel alone.

When I arrived and began to see what was happening, I went on a search for answers. I needed a game plan to repair, improve, and ultimately justify my orphanage paradigm. What I found shook my beliefs to their core. What the Asian Hope kids were enduring was not uncommon, even among the children of local, non-religious Cambodian orphanages. This was and is the normal result of raising children in residential care rather than in a functioning family.


It took nearly three years of honest investigation and reflection to reach this conclusion. We considered opening another children’s home exactly the same as before but with only 5 to 10 children. We considered finding a poorly run traditional orphanage and taking it over (because we were certain we could do better). We even considered starting a consulting service to go into private and government orphanages to help them “do it right” or “do it better.”

We learned that these ideas were (and are) not the wishes of the Cambodian government, which is encouraging family-based care. And in all honesty, we came to the conclusion that God designed people to grow up and develop in a family—not an orphanage or a children’s home or even a group home. We as relational beings have a need for belonging and security that these non-family-based institutional solutions can’t satisfy.

Of course, there are true orphans out there who have no living parents, and there are truly abandoned, vulnerable kids as well. There are children sold from their families into child labor or even worse, prostitution. What do we do about that? What is Asian Hope’s role if not to intervene on their behalf?

Our DNA and our original intent has always been to protect, educate, and empower vulnerable children through the love of Jesus.

We decided that (1) we cannot run from who we are and our calling to vulnerable children, (2) we must recognize who and what God created Asian Hope to be as a tremendously resourced education provider, and (3) we cannot be afraid to tackle the hardest, most complex issues in God’s way even if it seems impossible. We concluded that God’s vision for Asian Hope was working to keep children in families and restoring struggling families to health – even if that is much more difficult to do.

Consequently, we committed to finishing our work with the original 30 children and then shutting down our orphanage programs by the end of 2013. We committed to developing the capacity and resources of our international schools to reach as many Cambodian children as possible with the highest quality of education. And we committed to creating a new ministry model: we use Catch-up Schools to positively impact vulnerable children in their daily lives, and we empower their families to stay together and thrive.

asianhope-empowerIt isn’t simple or easy working in poor communities with real families. It is complex, draining, stressful, and messy work. But we believe it is what best supports the human development needs of children. Sopha is a boy whose family has experienced tragedy and hardship. All of his aunts and uncles and his grandfather were lost during the Khmer Rouge. He lives with his mother, grandmother, and younger brother and sister. Sopha is a beacon of hope for his family. Without the services provided by Asian Hope in his community he would be a prime candidate for placement in an orphanage – or child labor.


We know what we are good at and what we need others to do.

We collaborate with organizations that support kinship care (placing children with extended family), offer emergency respite services, and arrange foster care. We sometimes turn to other organizations to intervene in cases of human-trafficking or domestic violence. We also need those that can help a family start anew financially, or that can address a health crisis threatening to push a family into tragic decisions.


But unlike before, when we moved children away from their closest living family members and communities, we have moved ourselves instead! We are present daily in our target communities. Our staff members interact with local leaders and see the needs first-hand – an effective safeguard against romantic do-good fantasies. We are better positioned to respond quickly and appropriately. As with Sopha, when a need arises we mobilize resources on behalf of children and their families.

We started with a vision of a home. Today we have an inspiring story to tell of children, families, and communities growing healthier and stronger together.

How families are taking care of even the most vulnerable children

Written by on June 19, 2014 in Featured Posts, Voices from the Field with 1 Comment

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?


Mick Pease training childcare workers

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.

Some background

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.

African childcare workers discussing foster care in training group

African childcare workers discuss foster 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.

Training childcare workers in Africa

Africans are moving toward family-based care

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?

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!

When institutions get it right

Written by on June 19, 2014 in Featured Posts, Voices from the Field 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.


Checklist for evaluating orphanages

Written by on May 28, 2013 in Featured Posts, The Blog with 0 Comments

Here’s a scenario you may find yourself in.

You are aware of the problems with putting children in orphanages, and you know things have to change. But you are already supporting an orphanage. You don’t want to drop the orphanage, because that would be irresponsible, but you want the best for the children who live there. What can you do?

Good question! We aren’t suggesting that people suddenly stop supporting orphanages and shelters. We are hoping for a day when the vast majority of orphanages are no longer needed, and that day will come through work and determination. In the meantime, as a donor you have some leverage to push for change. At the very least, you can check whether the orphanage is meeting internationally recognized standards and press for improvements and accountability. You may even have enough leverage to insist on transforming the orphanage into a family support center, but that’s material for another post.

Most orphanages fall far short of international standards. They may have good food, smiling children, and even computers, but all that is just a small part of the story. Click here for an Orphanage Check List provided by ACC International Relief that you can use to evaluate any orphanage to ensure it is functioning properly.