Two years ago, if you had asked me what was the main cause of children ending up in alternative care, I would probably have answered “what's alternative care?” When you'd explained to me that it is care provided for children outside their biological family, I would almost certainly have replied that children enter alternative care when they become orphans.
What I didn't know until I took a job with SOS Children's Villages is that as many as 88% of children living in institutions or with carers outside the family have at least one living parent. But if the overwhelming majority have a family, how is it possible that so many children should be separated from their parents?
Unsurprisingly, the answer lies in poverty, but this has many expressions. Many impoverished parents cannot afford to pay for the upkeep of their children, while others place their children in alternative care because they are forced to migrate for work. Perhaps the most pernicious factor, however, is domestic violence; physical, sexual and psychological. Worse still, domestic violence perpetuates a vicious circle: both contributing to poverty and causing many children to be removed from parental care.A 2006 UN study suggests that physically violent parents are more likely to be poor, making the financial and care burden of a having a child harder to bear. Furthermore, parents prone to violence are less able to cope with stress, affecting their capacity to deal with and recover from the financial and other hardships they face. This in turn leaves them more vulnerable to substance abuse, an avenue commonly pursued by those living in poverty. This spiral into poverty has a hugely damaging effect on parents' ability to care for their children. When children become the victims of domestic violence themselves, the authorities often respond by removing them from the family home and placing them in institutional care.
Violence is not only a tragedy for those who suffer it in childhood, but can lead to generations of children entering alternative care. A violent start in life destroys childhoods for millions of young people; robbing them of their precious and formative early years, thereby affecting their life chances as well as their own parenting skills.
To assume that the dangers are confined to individuals however is highly dangerous when the wider societal ramifications are so well-documented. At worst, violence in childhood can have a detrimental impact on the fabric of society; placing undue strain on social services and welfare mechanisms. Research suggests that those who suffer violence in childhood are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviour in later life, against themselves as well as others, and are at risk of entering dangerous and exploitative professions which prey upon the vulnerable, such as prostitution or organised crime.
With the state left to find or provide care for successive generations of children from violent households, intervene through social services, and manage the criminal culture which is fed from this pool, neglecting to deal with the root cause is irresponsible at best.
Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) do this anyway, SOS Children’s Villages included. Fundamentally, however, it is governments who must act to address this problem, along with all the other factors which lead to family breakdown and the loss of parental care. Currently, 90% of support services for children without or at risk of losing parental care are delivered by NGOs. With the cost to society so great, the state must intervene to ensure the expansion of services and to secure sustained and adequate funding into the future. It is estimated that 70% of children in alternative care could return to their families of origin if the right support systems were in place to help parents develop the resources, resilience and wherewithal to provide proper care. Crucially, governments must act to shore up these systems so that children in alternative care can be reunited with their parents in a secure, nurturing environment.
This may be easier said than done, but it is not without precedent. In Uganda in 2013, the government acted on a set of guidelines drawn up by a group of childcare organisations which aimed to ensure better outcomes for children growing up outside parental care. Preparatory research suggested that as many as 85% of children in Uganda's institutions had a known parent or relative, but less than than a quarter of institutions actively searched for family members. Critically, the recommendations point to the need for a shift from institutional care towards a focus on strengthening and preserving families, and reintegrating children with parents once conditions are favourable.
Across every region of Uganda, the government ran workshops in collaboration with the NGOs responsible for the research, educating childcare providers from institutions on the benefits of reuniting children with strengthened families and providing family-based care for those who cannot be reintegrated. The workshops were not without their pitfalls, but most participants found the experience hugely educational. The director of one institution was “blown away” to learn that he could reach many more children and save considerable sums of money simply by supporting families instead of providing residential care. What this case shows is the need for governments to listen to and consult with childcare experts and then pilot recommendations, rather than endorsing or even upholding the sticking-plaster approach of institutional care.
Most of us have ill-formed or partial preconceptions as to why children end up in alternative care. In the overwhelming majority of instances, it is not simply a matter of a child becoming orphaned. Children lose parental care for all sorts of very specific reasons, but most have a surviving parent. Wherever possible, the conditions must be created in which children are able to return to their family. Only the support systems possible through the state can have the power and reach to ensure that no child slips through the net, but the state must learn to listen to those in the know and, above all, to listen to children themselves.
The welfare of children in alternative care is essential to ensuring a better life for all in the years to come. In our “Beyond 2015” series, we follow the evolution of the post-2015 human development agenda with a focus on the rights of the world's most vulnerable children. Read more here...
* Blog by Jamie Goodland, an employee of SOS Children UK. The piece expresses the personal view of the writer and does not represent the official position of SOS Children. Data sourced from A Solid Investment: Integrating Children without Parental Care into the Post-2015 Development Framework, a 2014 report by SOS Children. You can read the report here.