Vulnerable children better off in family homes than orphanages

A happy family on the beach during the summer holidays. [Getty Images]

On June 16, we marked the Day of the African Child. All children deserve to grow up in family homes rather than in residential care centres – sometimes referred to as 'orphanages'.

The commemoration of this day presented us with an opportunity to take stock of progress made towards the adoption of policies and practices to strengthen Kenya’s child protection and care system and improve the wellbeing of children as we reflect on what more needs to be done to effectively eliminate harmful practices affecting children, including institutionalisation. 

We are honouring the African child by working towards eliminating harmful practices affecting children.

To make this a reality, the National Council of Children's Services and partners launched the National Care Reform Strategy on 8 June. This strategy is a huge step forward for orphans and vulnerable children across Kenya, decreasing reliance on residential-based care and focusing more on a family and community-based approach.

The new strategy will promote quality family care and strengthen families to raise safe and nurtured children rather than sending them to institutions.  

The Care Reform Strategy is part of Kenya’s commitment on certain global standards for the care of children such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children to name but a few.

The strategy also aligns with the Constitution, which recognises the family as a fundamental unit of society and bestows the responsibility of childcare on the child’s biological family.

According to UNICEF, children living in institutions are regularly isolated from their families and local communities, are deprived of parental care and endure physical, psychological, emotional and social harm, with consequences that last a lifetime.

They also are more likely to experience violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

Institutionalised children are at a greater risk of missing development milestones and are more likely to be exposed to drug abuse, suicide and alienation from kin later in life.

Changing the Way We Care, an initiative supported by USAID, the GHR Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Catholic Relief Services and Maestral International, applauds the Government of Kenya for launching the Care Reform Strategy. At Changing the Way We Care we, will continue to work with the government as they implement the strategy and its implementation plan.

The plan will provide a framework and guide the transition away from residential care, while strengthening the work of the Department of Children Services. We celebrate the commitments made so far, and the progressive transition from institutional care to safe and nurturing families. 

Evidence shows that children thrive when surrounded by consistent, nurturing, loving and protective care from parents and other caregivers. This provides the foundation necessary to develop essential, life-long intellectual, social, and physical wellbeing.

Families, when supported, provide critically important connections for cultural learning, social integration, and economic opportunities as well as support through difficult times. The Care Reform Strategy is designed to support this family and community-based model.

Research shows that most of the children living in institutions in Kenya have a living parent, and most who don’t, have extended family, who could provide care if they had the resources and supports to do so. Children are placed in institutions primarily because of poverty and lack of access to basic services such as food, proper housing, medical care, education, and specialised care for children with disabilities.  

The change process to ensure family care for all children involves prevention of separation through family strengthening. Then there is family-based alternative care, which involves strengthening and expanding family-based care options such as kinship, foster care, adoption and Kafaalah (an alternative family care option practiced by Muslims) for children who are unable to live with their biological parents.

It is time for renewed commitment and action by the government, civil society, researchers, private sector and donors to protect children and provide them with opportunities for growth and development through family and community-based care. Society must protect children from all forms of harm and to accord them the assistance that they need for safe and nurturing care. 

Mr Mainga is the Director of Changing the Way We Care at Catholic Relief Services