Dependency syndrome in children's homes ruining proper growth, care leavers reveal

Stephen Ucembe, a Kenyan who grew up in an orphanage. As a result of his childhood experiences, he has ardently advocated for safe, caring and loving families for children without adequate parental care. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

A covert but intense debate is raging in boardrooms, churches and corridors of children protection organisations.

It revolves around a quiet push by the government of Kenya to phase out all children’s homes in the next eight years.

The plan, dubbed the National Care Reform Strategy, includes sending about 45,000 children currently under institutionalised care back home where they were born.

With the clock ticking towards the 2032 deadline, the debate on whether to shut down more than 700 institutions that thousands of Kenyan children have called home for years has been intense and emotional.

Stephen Ucembe is a graduate of one of Kenya’s Charitable Children Institutions (CCI’s).

He says he has no slightest doubt in his mind that the children’s homes should be shut down.

He traces back his miseries to his experience at a children’s home and insists that they are not good for children.

When Ucembe was five years old, he was taken from his home in Kisii to Nairobi. His mother had just died and the father had deserted the family.

There was no one to take care of the little Ucembe, or so they said. He found himself and two of his siblings in a children’s home in Nairobi, some 300 kilometres from his birthplace.

Ruined childhood

What the community thought was a helpful move to take them to a safe haven where they could pursue education and get basic needs turned out to be an experience that Ucembe says ruined his childhood, and to a large extent his adulthood.

His first undoing was a change of his identity. His family name Onsembe was misspelt in the facility’s records and he eventually assumed the name Ucembe.

From a structured boring routine to unpleasant interactions with other children, the 15-year stay at the institution changed his life completely.

Ucembe recalls how they were confined within the premises together with other children, and there stemmed the far-reaching damage that he suffered years after leaving the children home.

A place that would supposedly give him a footing in life turned out to be the source of his social misery, raging from broken family relationships, a disoriented lifestyle and a troubled personality.

“You are isolated from the rest of the community and your family members. I came to the children’s home with my two siblings – one older brother and one younger sister – but my brother ran away and went back home. I was left with my sister,” says Ucembe.

He adds: “I wish the people who took me there offered to help us while we were still at home. Life was different in the children’s home and it was also quite an experience after leaving.”

No love

Although they never lacked material things like food, clothes, shelter and education, Ucembe and other children lost the sense of love and attachment, what psychology experts say help in healthy development of a child.

Looking back, 39-year-old Ucembe says his childhood was wasted.

“You can imagine you’re in a dormitory where you’re like 40 of you and it’s only one or two caregivers and you spend that whole period of 15 years. The culture is quite different, unlike in a family environment where you individually interact with your parents,” says Ucembe.

“It used to feel like a prison because we were not allowed to go out. The school and church were within the institution. We were doing the same thing from morning to evening for the whole period I was there. But there were days we were being taken out for trips,” he adds.

He only got to visit his family in Kisii after 10 years, when he was about 15-year-old.

“It was quite a hard time for me because my family looked more like strangers. You can imagine that whole period of separation. We stayed there for a while and went back to the institution,” adds Ucembe.

The death and burial of his father, without a single word from anyone to inform him of the unfortunate event, added to his problems.

“I was heartbroken because we didn’t attend his burial. I also got to know that he was being barred from visiting us. He feared that if he removed us from the home, we would lose education sponsorship,” he regretted.

The childhood experience at the home haunts him even in adulthood, years after exiting homecare.

After nearly two decades of a dependent life, Ucembe was suddenly thrown into the deep waters of a society and a community that expected him to do things on his own and behave like an adult.

He struggled to fit in and was terrified by the prospect of having to live by himself for the first time.

“Everything is done and provided for you at children’s home but once you are out, you are expected to do things like other people such as budgeting, cooking or using public transport,” he says.

“It feels like another abandonment when you exit. Some care leavers need another form of care because some end up in truancy, prostitution, crime, drug abuse and they might be blamed. But tracing back, they ended up like that because of how they were brought up,” says Ucembe.

But it was not all doom, he secured a university scholarship, an opportunity that is mostly reserved for the bright children in the institutions.

He is among thousands of people who detest the idea of bringing children up in orphanages, and are now advocating the government’s National Care Reform Strategy that seeks to phase out children homes.

The 10-year plan that runs from 2022-2032 is aimed at removing all orphaned and vulnerable children from the institutions, and transitioning them to family and community-based care.

Numerous studies have evidenced that institutions are damaging to the children and cannot replace family environment.

The structure of the institutions breaks their sense of attachment.

The experience is even worse for children below three years.

According to Dr Hamida Ahmed, a psychologist, the negligence and maternal deprivation in orphanages has a far-reaching impact on babies below three years due to the challenge of understaffing in the children’s homes.

“If a child cries and the caregiver is too busy to attend to them, they tend to become numb to any eventuality because of the consistent unresponsiveness. They feel ignored and they develop insecure attachment styles making it hard for them to trust people,” said Dr Ahmed. 

Science shows that a baby’s brain develops faster in their first 1,000 days of life than at any other time. Therefore, early life experiences can have a lifetime effect.

A UK study report by the Birmingham University titled Mapping the number and characteristics of children under three in institutions across Europe at risk of harm found out that young children (0 to 3 years) placed in residential care institutions without parents are at risk of harm in terms of attachment disorder, developmental delay and weak neural system in the developing brain.

The study project, which was commissioned by the European Union Daphne Programme 2002/03 and the World Health Organisation, also revealed that the most sensitive period for brain development is the first three years of life.

“The institutional culture of residential care in placement centres is primarily concerned with the physical care of children and the establishment of routine, with less emphasis on interaction with children,” reads the report.

It further indicates that “institutional care cannot provide the supportive, intensive, one-to-one relationship with a primary caregiver, which is essential for optimal development.”

Delayed development

It is also a rule of thumb by United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) that, for every three months, a child under the age of three years in a children’s home loses one month of development.

That means, a child who is chronologically 12-month-old loses four months of development.

In reflection, Ucembe says most homecare leavers subconsciously get used to people walking in and out of their lives, judging by the irregular change of staff and the on-and-off volunteers in the institution.

“You tend to believe that people come and leave. That way, you end up developing serious trust issues in adult life,” says Ucembe.

The social-emotion harmful experience at the home saw Ucembe pursue his studies in Child Development and eventually delved into the advocacy world to promote alternative care for the vulnerable children instead of the orphanages.

He is the regional Advocacy Manager, Hope and Homes for Children.

“I now get to see what I missed as a child and how it affected me. I look at how people who have family are brought up and how I was brought up. It is different. You get to realise what children brought up in that environment miss out because we were accustomed that those children should survive and not thrive,” says Ucembe.

Starting a family has also proved to be another challenge for him.

“It takes time. You only learn to bring up your own family because you grew up in a family, but we are bringing up children in an environment that is not family but we expect them to bring up families when they are of age,” he says.

In an effort to help young people struggling to transition from home care, Kenya Society of Care Leavers was established and now has a membership of more than 1,000 across the country.

The group offers trauma sessions for the care leavers to facilitate independent living. They are among the stakeholders amplifying the call to change how to care for children out of evidence and not sympathy or charity.

Ucembe is not alone. Bonifas Maya, another care leaver who also spent almost his entire childhood in an orphanage, argues that he struggled in starting and maintaining meaningful relationships after he transitioned from the institution.

Maya, a graduate in Information Technology, went to a children’s home after the 2007/08 Post-Election Violence that snatched him his parents.

He joined the institution in Mang’u within Kiambu County when he was only seven years old and exited after 15 years.

“We are not saying the institutions are bad. Some have done a remarkable job but bringing up a child in an orphanage does not favour their proper upbringing compared to a family set-up,” he says. 

Maya recalls times when they were lined up to entertain visitors and donors in a sorry state to allegedly attract more funding.

“That is not right because you cannot do that to your own child. In any case, a child doesn’t just engage with strangers at home. Sadly, some of the donations and opportunities end up benefitting close relatives of the institution’s owners,” said Maya.

Similarly, Maya also struggled with attachment issues, love, support, identity formation among other psychosocial needs.

“I was eventually reunified with my family but I wish that was done when I was eight or 10 years old because I would have developed a strong bond with my family,” said Maya.

According to Maya, some care leavers are dispossessed of their inheritance because they have been away from their families.

Peter Kamau, another homecare leaver, says he had a bitter-sweet moment. He says he has children home to thank for whom he turned out to be, but he and his close relatives whom he was with in the orphanage were not spared from the far-reaching effect.

According to Kamau, one of the six relatives whom he was with in the orphanage ended up committing suicide not long after leaving the institution, two have been in and out of prostitution while one has been in and out of prison. He lost his mother when he was three months old and his dad died a year later.

Another Russian study shows that care leavers are more likely to experience mental health problems, struggle to form healthy relationships and to adapt to the demands of independent living.

“In families there is the love, attention, sense of belonging, identity and these are the fundamental things we encourage the children homes to allow the children to experience,” says Kamau. 

But the jury is out on how to avoid sending more children to the institutions as stakeholders move to change the mindsets of philanthropists to redirect their donations to supporting needy families in the communities instead of empowering children institutions.

“Instead of giving donations to an orphanage, look for a needy family in the neighbourhood or a desperate teenage mother who is about to abandon their child. That way, you will have prevented family separation and eventually a child being sent to a children’s home,” argues Ucembe.