Tag: Foster Care

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?

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