Orphanages not best refuge for children

A news story in The Standard, February 6 titled: “US missionary jailed for 15 years over sex abuse at Kenya orphanage” is a tragic reminder that the institutionalisation of children has negatively impacted millions of children around the world, and abuse is not uncommon.

According to the June 2020 data by the National Council for Children Services (NCCS), the Department of Children Services (DCS), and partner organisations, at least 29,006 children are living in childcare institutions countrywide. Global estimates suggest that between 5-8 million children live in orphanages around the world, yet many studies show that between 80-90 percent of them have a living parent.

Several studies show that children in orphanages are at greater risk of abuse than those in the general population. The abuse can be violence against the children or neglect, like children living in dorm-like settings without enough caregivers to give them one-on-one attention.

Further, evidence-based research shows that children do better with their families, living within their communities where they can establish lifelong bonds and develop to their full potential. Negative effects associated with residential care are more severe the longer a child remains in large-scale institutional care.

Keeping children in orphanages is also more expensive than family-based care. Estimates show that governments and donors can serve between 6-10 children in a family setting for the same cost as supporting one child in an orphanage.

Even when children are not able to grow up in their biological family, there are many paths to provide the care they need, such as extended family care, foster care, guardianship, Kafalah, and adoption -- all significantly better options. While abuse can also occur at home, a family environment has proven to create the best social, emotional, cognitive, and developmental outcomes for children, with the right support and resources.

Many governments, including Kenya, are making important strides in reforming national child protection and care systems. In 2017, Kenya passed a moratorium on the registration of any new orphanages. With the support of multiple partners, the government has set new policy directions for reducing reliance on orphanages, reunifying children with their families, training more social workers, and expanding services to strengthen families and prevent more children from going into residential care or orphanages in the first place.

The NCCS and the DCS, under the Ministry of Labour and Social Services, are leading a movement towards reforming the care system in Kenya. ‘Changing the Way We Care’ is an initiative designed to promote nurturing of family care for children, and is supporting the GoK’s efforts. It is advocating for a shift from reliance on institutional care to available family-based care options.

Care reform is growing as a global movement geared towards phasing out institutional care for children worldwide, while promoting strengthening families towards reintegration with their children and/or expanding alternative family-based care options such as adoption, kinship care, and foster care through stronger social safety nets such as cash transfers and inclusive family strengthening programmes.

As with all nationally agreed-upon standards, principles, and policy directions, the real test lies in determining how they can be made a reality throughout the country. Currently, Kenya is in the final stage of developing a National Care Reform strategy that will provide an evidence-based approach to strengthening families and transitioning to family- and community-based care. 

Positive indication

At the same time, Covid-19 has brought new challenges. On March 17, 2020, the government ordered a systematic release of children from institutions to reduce the risk of exposure to Covid-19. Such efforts recognise the benefits of the family- and community-based care for children, and are a positive indication of the viability of these options. Fortunately, increased efforts by key actors are being put in place to ensure these children are retained in safe families while preventing unnecessary separation.

In Kenya and elsewhere, the impacts of the pandemic on families are creating additional pressure to provide family-based alternatives to orphanages. Governments, donors, and civil society must act quickly to ensure that our failure to protect the most vulnerable children never happens again. 

Mr Mutinda works for Catholic Relief Services as the Project Director for the Changing the Way We Care initiative