Tag: Family-Based Care

Advice for a young leader who wanted to start an orphanage

Written by on June 22, 2014 in Voices from the Field with 53 Comments

One day an experienced Christian worker picked up the phone to call a young woman who was planning to open an orphanage in Haiti. This is what she said.

A group learns from Hatians in Haiti

A group in Haiti learns from Hatians

Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of leading multiple teams overseas with World Orphans. Part of my job that I love is getting to educate and teach team members what the Bible says about orphan care, about our role and responsibility in tackling orphan-causing issues, and about the various models of orphan care that other organizations employ.

I have noticed in the past decade or so that God is doing an amazing work in the hearts of His people in regards to orphan care. The Church is finally starting to rise up and carry out the mandate in Scripture to rescue and care for the fatherless, widows, and the poor around the world. Social media, the Internet, photography and video, and the ease of travel in this day and age have only increased our awareness of the orphan crisis and extreme levels of poverty in the majority world.

I am excited that we are finally starting to respond; however, I feel a huge burden to speak into a particular issue that I have come across time and again while working with individuals along the way.

I won’t beat around the bush: I fear that we’re doing it all wrong.

My concern is that our hearts are leading the way and we are not doing what is in the best interest of the children that we are trying to help. Let me explain….

A phone call I had to make

I had a phone conversation with a lovely young lady who recently served on a one-week mission trip to Haiti. She is passionate, educated, well-traveled and absolutely loves the Lord. She has a huge desire to take care of orphans around the world and is actually starting a non-profit ministry to allow her the platform to do so. I was ecstatic for her and proud of her willingness to make a difference! However, I saw something on Facebook one day that made my heart sink. One of her ministry goals was to start an orphanage in the following year. I screamed at my computer, as if voicing my concerns would make a difference, “NO! Please don’t do that!!” I felt such an incredible burden after reviewing her website and reading through their goals and plans. I had to do something. So I picked up the phone.

We had a great conversation and she took everything I had to say with such grace. I feel as though my relationship with her allowed me the opportunity to speak into this and hopefully shed light on why I am so adamant about NOT starting/funding/partnering with orphanages.

Below are some conclusions from our conversation, summarizing what I communicated to her that day.

There has to be a better way

First, God did not intend for ANY person to be institutionalized. He created us to be in families. If that is the case, then why are we so passionate about orphanages? Why do we glamorize “orphanages” and “orphan homes” and applaud those who go over to invest and work in them? Yes, it’s great that people have a heart for the orphan….but again, my fear is that we’re doing it all wrong. There HAS to be a better way to care for orphans than by putting them in an institution.

“God sets the lonely in families;
he leads forth the prisoners with singing…”

Psalm 68:6

If we build an orphanage, it WILL be filled with children…but that’s not necessarily a good thing. In the movie, A Field of Dreams, there’s a voice that says, “If you build it, they will come.” That rings so true with orphanages, as well. You see, what many of us don’t realize is that many children who are living in orphanages aren’t even orphans! I was astonished to see the statistics on this. In Liberia, for example, 98% of the children living in orphanages have at least one surviving parent. In Sri Lanka the number is 92%; in Zimbabwe it’s 40%.

A mother with her children in Haiti

A mother with her children in Haiti

I saw this first-hand when I was serving in Haiti. We were working one day at a small orphanage and there was a knock at the front gate. One of the workers answered the door and found a mother with her two children. The mother pleaded with the orphanage for them to take her children because she didn’t have the means to care for them anymore. What we discovered is that this is a COMMON thing that orphanage directors face around the globe. Orphan Care Network says it like this: “These statistics reflect a very common dynamic: In communities under severe economic stress, increasing the number of places in residential care results in children being pushed out of poor households to fill those places.”

It’s a sad reality, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of parents living in poverty or who are faced with other dire circumstances. Think about it, if you had children and had no way of providing adequate food, medicine, or education for them, would you not consider taking them to a nearby orphanage to see if they could take them in so that your children wouldn’t starve? I know I would.

Those parents aren’t bad parents – they are just hopeless and in survival mode. So we have to ask ourselves the question: if most of the children that are institutionalized actually have family, but have been brought to that facility because their parents or other family members didn’t have the adequate means to care for them in the first place, wouldn’t it make more sense for us to assist those FAMILIES so that they can stay together? That, to me, seems to be the best solution and one worth figuring out.


Second, growing up in an orphanage has an adverse effect on personality, emotional, and social development. Many studies have shown that every child who spends significant time in an orphanage will display “symptoms of inadequate personality development such as aggression, attention-demanding behavior, sleep disturbance, over-affection, and repelling affection” (The Urban Halo, Craig Greenfield).

I’ve seen this first-hand in orphanages during my travels as well. Individuals on short-term mission teams think it’s something special when a child at an orphanage is overly affectionate with them during a visit. We think, “Oh, look how sweet he is! He has been holding onto me all day and won’t let go of my hand.” (I’ve mistakenly assumed this as well prior to my study on this particular topic.) What we don’t understand, though, is that the child acts that way with every single visitor who comes to the orphanage because “over-affection” is actually a psychosocial issue. This phenomenon results from a child not having a secure, stable, and nurturing parental relationship. Such children are deprived of a deep and foundational emotional need. Therefore, they are overly affectionate with any adult figures who will give them the time of day.

Other studies show that IQ is severely affected, especially when children are institutionalized at a young age. Even when high quality orphanages are adequately staffed and children are receiving attention and love, researchers have discovered a statistically significant difference in emotional stability between the institutionalized children and similar children in foster care. Researchers also found children living in orphanages had a greater tendency toward depression.

I feel as though well-intended individuals, churches, and organizations around the world think that if they construct an orphanage with brightly-colored walls, adequate staff, funding for two or three meals a day, and an educational program to keep the children in school, then they are doing a great thing. In light of all the research and studies that have been done, is it really? Is it really a great thing considering that those children WILL struggle and face developmental delays because of being institutionalized?


I believe that the hearts of people who are starting orphanages are BEAUTIFUL, please don’t get me wrong. I just believe those hearts are misguided, and we need to do more to inform them. That passion and love for orphaned children just needs to be redirected, so that the best interests of the children are considered first and foremost.

We can do more

Finally, orphanages are expensive and lack sustainability when compared to community-based orphan care models. It costs about $2,000/year per child in an orphanage, on average, whereas supporting a child to live with a family in the community costs about $30/month (about $360/year). This includes the cost of subsidizing the child’s basic needs and hiring and training staff to follow-up regularly. Furthermore, considering that most orphans are “economic orphans,” meaning they are only residing in the orphanage because of economic stressors, it makes total sense for a ministry/organization to support the child to stay in his or her own family and community.

Keeping children in the community and empowering families strengthens both nation and society, and it leads to economic development, not deeper brokenness and dependency. We could see a HUGE difference in the lives of vulnerable children if more organizations and ministries would focus on working with local communities to empower and train families rather than building more orphanages. If families are empowered and trained to sustain themselves, then the parents won’t be knocking on the doors of orphanages to provide food and education for their children.

I ended my conversation ended with this young lady by reinforcing the fact that orphanages are not BAD…and I want to reiterate that again for you as a reader. Many of you, I’m sure, have some sort of connection with an orphanage. Perhaps you even know and love the children or the staff who work there. I do, too, and I will continue to support them as best as I can with the resources and knowledge that I have. I have no intention of abandoning those places!

If I were asked by the orphanage director to give my opinion about the best way to care for the children currently in his/her orphanage, I would reiterate that the solution is not to turn our backs on existing orphanages or orphan homes. Then I would say we must make a radical shift in our thinking about how to operate such facilities.

Ask yourselves these questions

We can start by facing some potentially transforming questions.

  • What can we do to “de-institutionalize” the children and help them reintegrate into society?
  • Can we trace the families of any children and possibly reunify with their parents or relatives?
  • Why wouldn’t we redirect funds that we are using at the orphanage to help train and equip families to care for their own children at home?
  • If families are nowhere to be found OR they are not capable of properly caring for children (i.e., due to abuse, or a parent’s severe physical or mental disability, etc.), can we equip and train families in the community to be to be long-term substitute or adoptive parents?
  • We believe that God has provided the mandate for the Church to care for orphans, right?
  • So why not start with families in the local church right there in the community where the child was born?
  • And, finally, can we re-train the orphanage workers as social workers to visit the children in their new homes and ensure that proper care is being provided?

God created families and he intends for us to grow up in them. So let’s invest in solutions that allow for orphans and vulnerable children to be raised in loving families. That is the only way to tackle the worldwide orphan crisis.

My appeal to you is simply this: let your head guide your heart. Praise God for the hearts of those who want to serve and sacrifice to make a difference in the life of a child. But my prayer is that you seek wisdom, study the topic thoroughly, network with as many individuals as you can including real experts in the field, and make sure that you are doing what is MOST beneficial for the children (and their families).

May we all be challenged not to just do what appears to be right, or (heaven forbid) what makes us feel good about ourselves.

Let’s put the orphan and the vulnerable child (including the widows often struggling to raise them) above ourselves and our plans and ask: If they were my own children, what would be my best hope for them? I doubt many of us can even imagine our own children being placed in institutions or “children’s homes” knowing the likely emotional, social, physical and mental outcomes. Why not work for the very best, and God’s intentions, for their children as well?

May we all “learn to do good, seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the cause of orphans, and fight for the rights of widows” with wisdom and discernment (Isaiah 1:17).

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.


Why Not A Family?

Written by on June 8, 2014 in Featured Videos, The Blog with 0 Comments

You may be surprised at all you didn’t know about orphans and orphanages after watching this eye-opening video made in Cambodia. Many people after watching this video agree it’s time to change our methods of caring for vulnerable children in the poorest places around the world.

Can’t we support her to raise the child herself?

Written by on August 20, 2013 in The Blog with 2 Comments


Does it surprise you that eighty-percent of children living in orphanages worldwide have at least a living father or a mother? Research shows the majority of children in orphanages are there because of poverty.

It’s relatively easy to open an orphanage and fill it with kids. If you promise clothing, food, and an education, they will come, orphans or not.

It’s harder to restore families. You have to put in time to build relationships with the parents and community leaders. You need a team that includes qualified locals who can help families solve problems themselves, rather than relying on your resources to pay for quick solutions.

It’s much easier to start an orphanage. So why bother to support mothers and restore families instead?

Orphanage or family-based care?

Written by on May 21, 2013 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Is this an orphanage or not?  The website for Asia’s Hope opens with: “Orphaned children need real families, not institutions.” It follows that with a call for family-based care for orphans. Family-based care is what experts all over the world are calling for rather than putting children in orphanages. But does Asia’s Hope really provide family-based care?

Each Asia’s Hope children’s home is based on a family, rather than an institutional model. Asia’s Hope hires a full-time mom and dad for each home.

Wait a minute, “Hires a mom and dad” to live in a “home” (whose home?) within a “community” of other “homes.”  My guess is that these “homes” or “communities” are registered with the government of Cambodia under a more familiar term: orphanage.

Still, there are countless more children who need the kind of help we provide.

This is a model for long term residential care for children. It’s good marketing though not an honest choice of words. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction compared to other residential models, but it’s not family-based care.




The boy by the side of the road

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

He saw a boy lying in the middle of the road. What he did next will surprise you and might even change the way you act next time you see a child in need.

Racing round the corner on my way to the meeting a little faster than usual, I thought of all the things I had to do that day. I was showing a visitor around town and I also had my own errands that needed completing. Not far to go, I thought to myself. We’re only a couple of minutes late and we’re nearly there. I’m sure they’ll wait. As we slowed to negotiate a pothole, I looked up ahead and saw that there in the middle of the road lay a little boy, about eleven years old. A car had slowed to edge past him and the boy seemed oblivious – either asleep or unconscious. It was your typical Good Samaritan situation, but I was certainly not in the mood for interruptions. After all, living in Cambodia I came across this type of situation reasonably often. He was probably just a glue-sniffer – wasted and sleeping it off. I sighed, pulled over and stopped. We shook the boy and quickly realised that he was intellectually disabled and didn’t seem able to speak. My friend, knowing we were late, suggested we give him some money and be on our way. But I knew that cash would not really help this boy. No one seemed to know who he was or where he had come from.


I propped him up on the front of my bike and we took off for the meeting. On reaching our destination he seemed to come alive. Someone at the meeting gave him some fruit, which he accepted with a grunt and then proceeded to munch voraciously, most of the juice ending up on the upholstery. I apologised with embarrassment and tried in vain to keep him under control. After the meeting we returned to the spot where we had found the boy and asked again if anyone knew who he was. An old man with a cigarette balanced on his bottom lip informed me with a pout that the boy was just a crazy street kid — mentally deficient and not worth the trouble I was going to. My heart sank as I realised this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away. I spent the afternoon making calls to every orphanage I could think of. None would take a mentally disabled child. It remained unspoken, but I knew they reserved their places for children who were easy to look after. In fact, in Cambodia, most orphanages are full of children who are not even orphans, merely poor. Cambodians shrewdly treat these well-meaning (often church-run) orphanages as a boarding school, where they can drop their kids off for a good education then reap the rewards when they leave as fully educated adults. I cursed the system as I slammed down the phone after yet another rejection. I knew that particular mission orphanage was only a third full, and yet they were unwilling to take him! Why didn’t they focus on the kids who really needed a place rather than the cute ones who looked good in the fundraising photos, or the lucrative babies who were easy to adopt out to rich Westerners? Finally, I found a drop-in centre for street kids that had a residential facility. The only problem was the kids were free to come and go if they wished. I knew he would run away if given half a chance as he had already tried to run away from me a couple of times. But what choice did I have? With my heart full of misgivings, I took him over to the centre and the staff there welcomed him kindly. “Give me a call if there are any problems,” I said as I left, feeling sure it wouldn’t be long before I heard from them. Sure enough, the next day they called, saying that at first light that morning he had taken off all his clothes and run away. They apologised profusely and I told them not to worry, spending the next couple of hours driving the streets looking for him in vain. Two weeks later a Cambodian friend called, “Craig, do you remember that boy you were with a couple of weeks ago?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well I think he’s in front of my house — and Craig…he’s not wearing any clothes!” This time I took him home and my wife gamely agreed to put him up till we could find a more permanent place for him to live. Over the next few days, we found out that he had been living on the streets for years, surviving without language by pointing at food and throwing a head-banging tantrum if the shopkeepers didn’t give it to him. We witnessed this ritual a couple of times when he accompanied us to the market and marvelled at how he survived using this cunning method despite his difficulty with speech. Soon we were able to arrange for him to go and live with a kind-hearted Cambodian foster family. He needed twenty-four-hour care and supervision. He couldn’t go to the toilet by himself or even dress or wash himself. Within weeks, he had learnt a handful of words, was looking much healthier and had begun to settle down.

My reward came every time I went to visit. He would see me coming from the street and come rushing out, shouting excitedly one of the few words he had learnt: “Papa, Papa” I look back now to the day I found him lying in the middle of the road and think about what I would have missed out on had I kept to my busy agenda and ‘important’ timetable. I would have missed out on helping this little boy who had no-one to call “Papa”.

Update: Craig adds that he contacted at least 20 residential facilities at the time without success. Today Vundy is still living with the family that took him in. He is 21 years old, a grown man, and very much part of the family.

Photo by Nearday

The weary widow: when orphanages recruit kids

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

What happens when orphanages have beds to fill and and warped priorities?   

wearyI can still see the tears streaming down her face, the hopelessness in her eyes, and the burning sting of defeat that grew with each tear falling onto the toddler she clutched close.

The weary widow stood on the steps of our child development center, aptly named Brave Seedlings of the Andaman Sea by survivors of the 2004 tsunami that devastated the coastal regions of southern Thailand.

“It takes courage to make the right decision to give your child away,” the Christian missionary orphanage director said, confident and calm,assuring the weeping widow her precious son would never know hunger again.

Carrying a clipboard with paperwork and photos of a beautiful cement home, the director came prepared for this young mother to sign her child over. Every three months she could visit her son, and he would have the opportunity to complete high school and possibly attend university.

I arrived while the ink was still wet on the orphanage registration form. As I realized what was happening, my righteous anger turned ugly.

“How dare you show up here asking to meet with vulnerable parents?” I yelled at the orphanage director. “Do you really believe this is the best alternative for this mother? No mother should have to make the decision to give her child away because of poverty. What she needs is hope and help.”

The director knew we deliver free daycare, lunch, healthy snacks and trained teachers using a good curriculum to help children develop in all areas of life. Our center provides a place of peace for struggling single moms, grannies and aunties all raising children on their own, so they can work without worry, knowing their child can learn and play in our compassionate care.

A few hours later, after I had asked the orphanage director to leave our property, a head teacher in another one of our child development centers in a different district called me. She told me the orphanage director visited her center earlier that morning, asking to meet with families struggling to care for their children.

“Such audacity, such ignorance,” I thought. Did she really believe she could do a better job of raising the poor than their own parents?

The UN states that 4 out of 5 children in orphanages worldwide have family, but poverty stands in the way of these families staying together. I knew about orphanage recruitment, but having now witnessed it first hand, my soul stirred with commitment to make changes in our own organization.

This was the day we moved from providing daycare for children to providing family care and began our Step Ahead Keeping Families Together(KFT) program. The widow on our doorsteps that morning was the first to receive support from us so she could keep her child.

At the heart of KFT’s vision is a desire to see communities caring for their own vulnerable orphans, widows, and families at risk, led by the local church and empowered and transformed by God’s love to change their nation.

The program is a partnership of Christian churches, NGOs and government agencies whose mission is to mobilize and strengthen local communities through holistic development trainings, economic initiatives, educational opportunities, psychosocial support, health access and spiritual transformation.

Our greatest joy is when we see the countenance of weary widows change from sadness to joy, from fear to security and from despair to hope.

Why not a family?

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

What would be better than building orphanages in developing countries? You might be surprised at how many alternatives would be better, starting with grandma if we’d give her a chance.

Imagine a grandmother. She is raising three grandchildren and struggles to feed them. They need uniforms and books to attend school, so she scrapes together enough money to send one. Then her neighbor tells her about an orphanage where the children are never in want and says it will be in the children’s best interests to send them there.


What will she do? She feels unfit by comparison. She resists, but one day when there is not enough rice for dinner, she gives in and takes them. The children grow up in the children’s home well fed and attending school, but in time they become distant. They are uncomfortable in their grandmother’s home; they even feel awkward visiting their former friends and community. There is no mattress to sleep on, the food is different, and the neighbors treat them with a mixture of disdain and envy.

At the orphanage volunteers come and go in a steady stream, and there is hardly a dull moment. It’s like another world. And then one day it’s time to leave. The children, now young adults, no longer fit in with their extended family and former community. But in this society family and community relationships are all important. They feel cut off, afraid, and alone.

What is wrong here? The scene is repeated again and again: grandparents, aunts, uncles, single mothers, and even married couples are sending children to orphanages for a perceived better life.

Today eighty percent of children in Cambodian orphanages have at least one living parent, and the vast majority have relatives who could care for them. And these numbers are consistent with worldwide statistics. Ninety percent of Cambodians surveyed in 2005 felt a poor family should send a child to an orphanage if the family couldn’t afford to send the child to school. Families are turning over their responsibilities to organizations and and being torn apart.


But Cambodia is in crisis, so they say. Actually, Cambodia is slowly on the rise. Since 2005 the number of orphans in Cambodia has been shrinking. But the number of orphanages increased by 75 percent between 2005 and 2010. Each and every orphanage in Cambodia has staff and buildings supported by foreign donors. Many have sponsorship programs and donors can give online.. To exist they need to keep bringing in children.

There is a better way!

Save the Children, UNICEF, and a host of respected secular and Christian organizations worldwide are advocating a shift away from putting kids in institutions toward alternative care, also known as family-based care.

Family-based care means keeping children displaced from their own parents with relatives (kinship care) or in loving substitute families (foster care). It also indicates a need for programs that support and restore families, so families will not break apart due to the stresses of poverty or when a crisis strikes.

Today there are grandmothers in Cambodia raising their grandchildren. In some cases they are supported by organizations that provide them with rice, cover the minimum cost of school, and send social workers each month to check on them. These programs require organization and staff, but supporting a child to live with a family still costs a fraction of what it takes to raise the same child in an orphanage, and being raised in a healthy family is best for children.


A rural family working together during the rice harvest

Some people express concern about losing the educational services that orphanages provide for poor children. Why not fund day programs that work cooperatively with poor families within their local communities? In fact, the government of Cambodia is encouraging orphanages to transform themselves into community centers that strengthen families.

Here is a vision with a healthy future for Cambodian families and society, and it’s better for the caregivers and aid organizations, too.

Note: Visit our learning center for documentation to support the claims and statistics in the essay. For statistics related to Cambodia, click on the “regional” tab and see the reports listed there.

Photos by Andy Gray