From orphanages to family set-up, foster care parents recall journey

Children inside Rosana Children Home situated at Igonji Village, Githunguri Kiambu County on Thursday, February 08, 2024 [Samson Wire. Standard]

Three years since *Celina decided to apply be a foster parent of *Stella, she recounted the journey she took to integrate her into her family in 2021.

It was a challenging period of adjustment as the then six-year-old struggled to fit into a family set-up after spending several years in a children’s home.

The journey of the 37-year-old foster parent and the child – both whose real names have been withheld to protect their identities – started at Hosanna Children’s Home where the former works as a social worker.

“We became friends and she would run to me in the morning when I reported to work,” Celina recalled.

After she underwent a training on foster care and the importance of a child growing up in a family environment, she decided to foster the girl.

“I decided to take her out of the children’s home because she needed motherly love that she couldn’t get from her biological mother,” said Celina.

Care training

“I first discussed it with my husband and luckily he gave in to the proposal. He was also taken through training on foster care so he could understand the importance of family bonding.”

It was another discussion with her children all altogether.

“I made them understand why I wanted to bring in a foster child to experience the same parental love as them. They were excited about having another child that is not our own,” she said.

As part of a thorough application process, she underwent trainings, interviews, background checks and even home assessments to ascertain their suitability before the Directorate of Children’s Services could hand over the child to her for fostering.

Some of the areas that the authorities had to be satisfied on was ascertaining that the home was safe for the child’s proper sleeping arrangements and sufficient space to accommodate them all.

To understand Celina’s inspiration to become a foster parent, one only needs to see her passion and dedication towards helping children – from her job as a social worker at a children’s home to encouraging other people to open their homes and their hearts to vulnerable children who need a safe space to call home.

Celina did not only have to care for a child who needed more time to warm up to her and her family, but one who also had a traumatic past that needed to be handled delicately.

Raising your own children has its own set of challenges, but having to care for those who are not biologically your own and who may have problematic personal past can make matters more complex.

Celina was not exempt but with motherly love and consistent attention, the child settled in well after some time.

“I have to spend more time with her as an assurance that I will always be there with her and for her but I must balance the attention with my biological children,” she said.

“I have to keep reminding them that I love them equally and no one is favoured over the other so that she doesn’t feel unloved and my own children don’t feel neglected. We buy clothes for all of them and get all to celebrate their birthday parties.”

It is a life-changing experience for the child.

“There is no programme to follow, she can watch television any time of the day and if she wants to sleep a little bit more in the morning, nobody will question or quarrel her,” she said.

The child had quite a lot to catch up with, compounded with challenge of adjustment.

Celina has also gradually introduced additional simple duties to stimulate life skills such as sense of independence, decision making and taking responsibility.

“At some point, she will live alone and she has to know the kind of duties she will be required to perform. She also needs to learn to make decision on her own,” Celina added.

For instance, she argued that if the mother is late or sick, they know they have to help with some work or the father can also take over some house chores.  Back home, in the institution, children are used to things being done for them and they know if one caregiver don’t report to work, there will be a reliever.

Their relationship blossomed and, according to her, that has helped the girl improve in her social interactions and behaviour.

Probably the low ratio of staff to children at the institution leading to the little time for one-on-one interaction with the caregivers at the institution and the young children, the girl only came to disclose about her past while under foster care.

“She confided of a time she had been hospitalised after her mother pushed her and broke her arm. Sometimes she would stroll to bars with her,” said Celina .

By taking in and caring for a child with a troubled past coupled with trauma-informed training, Celina has had to learn to see certain aspects of childcare differently, especially when it comes to understanding a child’s behaviour.

She explained that she has to first understand a child’s point of view and to be conscious of what the child has been through before imposing expectations on her.

Needless to say, a strong support network is crucial to navigating such challenging moments. And fortunately for the foster couple, they do not have to walk the foster-parenting journey completely on their own.

There is a team composed of managers of the children home, children officers, social workers, counsellors who they can often seek advice and guidance from, and whom would also frequently check on them.

In the foster care arrangement, Celina and her husband are only required to cater for the girl’s food, accommodation and clothing but education and medical is catered for by her former children’s home.

She described foster parenting as a life-changing experience, urging more parents to consider opening their homes and their hearts to destitute children.

Celina and other foster parents have also weighed in on demystifying misconceptions in the communities about foster care or any other alternative care for vulnerable children.

However, there have been complaints among foster parents that the children are not able to perform many duties but Celina noted that it is because they are used to being assigned particular duties in the homes.

Fostering teenagers has also been identified as a key challenge in providing alternative care for children because most of them have developed particular characters.

Foster care is temporary and it lapses, and the child has to be reunited with her biological family, the foster family will undergo counselling sessions, manage their emotional attachment and also to maintain a relationship.

 Fostering is a temporary care and custody arrangement which is renewed after one year should there be no relative available to take over the child’s responsibility.

“When that time comes to reunite the girl with her biological family, we all have to undergo counselling to enable us release her,” said Celina .

Foster care is one of the several forms of Alternative Family Care in Kenya. Others include adoption, which has a sense of permanence, Kafalaa which is practised by the Muslim community, and guardianship.

*Jane, another foster parent of two boys also recounted a challenging but worthy experience with the children.

“They have improved in the school performance and social interactions. We can talk about anything at home,” said Jane.

Offer care

Jane challenged parents who can accommodate and feed an extra child to consider fostering a child in the spirit of removing the orphans and vulnerable children from Charitable Children Institutions (CCIs) and reintegrating them with their families and communities.

According to her, there is a lot of work that needs to be done in regards to sensitising communities to warm up to the plan to accommodate children who are not their own.

“I am ready to stay with these children until their parents are ready to receive them back, even if it means applying for guardianship,” said the foster parent.

In her care, Jane cater for the boys’ minor medical care, accommodation, food, clothing but their school fees is catered for other organisations who are partnering to make family real for all for children.

She is one of the parents who have been trained, assessed and certified as foster parents in Githunguri, Kiambu County.