Children no one wants as clock ticks to phase out orphanages

Children at Mama Ngina Children's home in Kisumu. Children rights experts say most children in such homes are not orphans. [File, Standard]

The cruelty of life on the streets almost stripped her of her innocence. But she still held on to her mother who had slipped deep into alcoholism.

Her step-father was also an alcoholic and for a long time, there was no one to take care of little Zane* or give her just a hug.

The eight-year-old girl, who ideally should have been home playing with her peers or attending school, was on and off the streets.

She was exposed to all manner of violence and other risks on the streets as the mother strolled at night drunk.

But it was not long before whispers of her parents’ negligence reached the authorities and Zane was rescued.

She was placed in emergency foster care as authorities looked for someone to take care of her.

After the authorities placed Zane in short-term foster care in July 2023, they started looking for her close relatives to host her.

However, hopes to find Zane a place she can call home are slowly diminishing because nobody wants her.

Everywhere she goes, she is seen as a burden.

At first, the team composed of children’s officers, social workers, counsellors and representatives from non-state actors reached out to her maternal aunt and one of her two sisters to look after the girl.

The aunt was willing to accommodate the niece but the husband was reluctant. He feared that their good gesture might earn them the wrath of Zane’s mother. He argued that the woman was rowdy and would use derogatory language if she discovered they had taken in her daughter.

Zane’s sisters also did not come through for her. One of them vehemently declined the request to take care of her younger sibling. She did not want to be involved at all.

Her reason was that she had three children of her own and hence would not be able to shoulder an extra burden. The other sister could neither be traced on phone or physically.

The team that forms Kiambu Sub-County Care Reform Committee hit the first dead-end.

“We couldn’t place the child in a place she is not wanted. We went on to trace other family members who would accept our plea to accommodate the child,” said Mary Muhia, Programme coordinator for Legacy for Children (L4C), a Kenya programme supporting the implementation of the National Care Reform Strategy for Children in Kenya.

Emergency foster care is supposed to last for three months but the team was running out of time to get Zane a suitable and long-term host.

The next most suitable person was her biological father. The team reached him on the phone but he, too, turned down the request to take care of his daughter.

He argued that Zane’s mother had previously taken him to court and filed for custody of the child together with her then-husband.

He claimed that they were given full rights to the child and committed to provide and take full responsibility of her needs, leaving him with only visitation rights. He asked for more time only to block the team from reaching him.

Left stranded

Zane’s dilemma captures the conflicts and struggles of vulnerable children in need of care and protection. With no relative to turn to or a shoulder to lean on, Zane was left stranded.

The National Care Reform Strategy proposes placing children who have been separated from their families or are at risk of family separation in alternative family care.

The aim is to ensure that children like Zane do not end up in children’s homes, in the spirit of phasing out institutional care.

Ideally, the most suitable and safe place for any child is in her biological parents’ home but that is not an option for little Zane. Until her mother reforms, the team tracing her extended family have to get a caregiver to accommodate her.

Section 31 of the Children Act, 2022 gives a parent the duty to protect the child from neglect, abuse, discrimination or other differential treatment.

It is also parental responsibility to provide guidance in religious, moral, social, cultural and other values that are not harmful to the child. But little Zane might not be safe in her mother’s house.

One of the Children's Home dormitory at Rosana situated shelter at Igonji Village, Githunguri Kiambu County on Thursday, February 08, 2024. [Samson Wire, Standard]

The tracing went on and armed with a draft map drawn by a person who knew Zane’s biological father, the team tracked down his home in Limuru. They were lucky to find her grandmother but the father had vanished.

Neither his mother nor his siblings had heard from him for a while.

Zane’s father was also battling alcoholism and rejection from his own family.

“His mother told us that he had detached himself from the family and neglected his two other children from the first wife,” said Muhia.

According to her, the mother reiterated that she did not care about his son’s whereabouts or his extra marital affairs and any children born out of it.

She declined recognition of the child or taking any responsibility on grounds that they only recognised the two children from the first family.

Instead, she advised the team to leave her family out of the matter and instead take legal action against Zane’s father for ‘neglecting’ his parental duties.

“The mother dismissed him as an irresponsible person trapped in alcoholism and that he could not take responsibility for his children,” she added.

The care reform committee hit another roadblock.

After unsuccessful attempts to get the girl a permanent home, it was agreed to move the girl to long-term foster care until a prospective relative volunteered to accommodate her.

“We also went back to the child’s mother to see if there were any changes in her behaviour. We did an assessment visit at the home recently and it appears she had turned a new leaf.”

“The parents have shown a willingness to take the child back but at the moment we have not initiated any kind of reunion with the child. We wouldn’t want to get her hopes high and end up disappointing her,” said Muhia.

Parents relapsed

The L4C programme coordinator said there have been counselling sessions for the parents and that rehabilitation is underway as a way of reuniting the child with her parents.

But that was not the first time Zane was being taken to safety.

Previously, she had temporarily been taken to a children’s home owing to her parents’ battle with alcoholism and later reunified before the parents relapsed and she had to be placed under emergency foster care.

The plan to have all children safe in their homes, with their parents or relatives is captured in the Children’s Act, 2022 and guided Kenya’s National Care Reform Strategy.

Zane’s tribulations summarise the challenges of tracing families and putting children in family-based care.

It also lays bare the challenge of transitioning children from institutions and getting their families and communities.

The Guidelines for Alternative Care for Children in Kenya provide that kinship is the most preferred option for children whose parents are unavailable before exploring other alternative care options.

Currently, the Legacy for Children program is piloted in Murang’a, Kiambu and Meru counties.

In another separate case, the team’s efforts to trace the family if a three-year-old child’s relatives have not borne fruits.

The boy who is currently in foster care was rescued from the streets of Githunguri abandoned in a paper bag about three years ago.

“The boy stayed in a children’s home for two years and has been in foster care for one year. Tracing has not yielded any relative or home of origin but the foster parent has opted to apply for guardianship of the child,” said Muhia.

According to her, getting buy-ins from Charitable Children Institutions (CCI’s), communities and families to join hands in making family care a reality for the children in the institutions is the way to go.

“Although some are open to working together in the transition journey, others are skeptical because they don’t understand that they are not supposed to completely shut down but transition the children. They see us as agents aiding their closure whereas that is not the case,” said Muhia.

In other instances, she said some institutions start off as being cooperative and in the middle of the transition journey, they chicken out.

In terms of foster care, she said placing children living with disabilities and sibling groups has also been a challenge.

“We have a pool of parents trained and certified foster parents but not so many agree to take in these categories of children. Living with a child with disabilities is not only cost-intensive but also requires more time,” said Muhia.

She added, “For sibling groups exiting institutions, we are not supposed to separate them during transition to alternative care but it is hard to find a parent who is willing to host four or five children.”

Going forward, the care reform committees are now looking to do targeted recruitment where they can establish a pool of foster parents who can take children living with disabilities as well as the sibling groups.

“We are also in discussions with some of the institutions to see if they can transition to become respite centres to support the communities and families that will be fostering such children,” said the officer.

In respite care, the institutions would take care of the children temporarily so that the foster parents can take a break.

Inadequate funding for care reform interventions is also an overarching challenge.

However, according to Social Protection and Senior Citizens Affairs Principal Secretary Joseph Motari, the government will use every available means to ensure that Care Reform is fully implemented.

The PS adds that during the recently concluded upscaling of the Cash Transfer programme, priority was given to families with children who had exited CCIs as a way of cushioning them from the effects of poverty and thus, preventing children from going back to CCIs.

According to Motari, donors and CCI’s are encouraged to redirect funds to welfare programmes that seek to support children from within their families and communities.

“The amount of money spent on a child in a CCI per month is sufficient to meet the monthly needs of a family of four,” said PS Motari referring to a joint study conducted by the ministry and other organisations.

In instances where parents or relatives are hesitant to receive their children back home due to economic constraints, institutions and non-state actors are opting to offer financial support.

Such is the case of twins whose grandmother had refused to take them back after spending more than seven years in a children’s home, arguing that she could not fend for or accommodate the boys.

According to Isaac Ndung’u, the manager of the children’s home, they built a three-bedroom house for the grandmother and two other rooms for the boys before they were fully transitioned.

The twins, now aged 19, were rescued from the streets when they were ten years after their mother disappeared and the grandmother was too sickly to take care of them.

In another instance, a 20-year-old girl ran back to her former children’s home after her husband kicked her out and her relatives refused to take her in.

Although she left the institution two years ago, the institution said the girl was abused and she had no one to turn to.

She reported to Kiambu Police Station where the manager picked her.

“We called the family members to come and pick her but no one showed up. We had to go back with her. She is currently under medication,” said the children’s home’s manager.

National Council for Children’s Services (NCCS) Chief Executive Officer Abdinoor Mohamed noted that children whose families cannot be traced or hail from homes that are not conducive will be placed with alternative families.

“As the ministry works towards establishing Rescue Centres, CCIs currently registered with NCCS are also accommodating these children but with a view of reuniting them with their families once the issues necessitating separation have been fully addressed,” said Mohamed.