Why children should be living with families

Children have an innate need to be close to their parents or a consistent caregiver.

Opinion by Maniza Zaman
Child with family
UNICEF Kenya

10 November 2019

This article first appeared in The Sunday Nation on November 10, 2019.

Children have an innate need to be close to their parents or a consistent caregiver. This connection is usually achieved when a child is loved, cared for and protected by one or more adult in a family unit. It is the most basic ingredient for raising a happy, healthy and confident child.

Recent media reports about the abuse of children in institutions are extremely worrying. First, violence against children anywhere is unacceptable. Violence leaves children with physical and psychological scars that can affect their relationships and family in later life. Second, children should not be separated from their families except as a last resort.

Ideally, children should be living with families, not in children’s homes, orphanages or rescue shelters. Unfortunately, they often end up in institutional care due to the death of a parent, poverty, abandonment, disability or violence. The 2017 UNICEF Situation Analysis report estimated that there were about 40,000 children living in 811 registered institutions in Kenya. There will be more children in unregistered institutions – but data on this is scarce.

Children need personal, responsive and consistent interactions to shape their brain development and behaviour. This is hard to achieve in institutions because there are often many children per care giver.  In 2000, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project examined the effects of early institutionalization on children’s development. The study looked at children abandoned at or around the time of birth, living in six institutions in Romania. Researchers found that these children had significant cognitive delays, increased risk of psychological disorders and stunted growth, compared to children living with families.

UNICEF is therefore calling for children in institutions to be reintegrated with families, wherever possible. This should ideally be with surviving parents or extended family, or with foster or adoptive families where there are no relatives who can do this. Global studies (for example, Keeping Children out of Harmful Institutions, Save the Children, 2009) indicate that up to 80 per cent of children in institutions have one surviving parent. Family support, be it via social cash transfers for most vulnerable families, access to services, day care or other measures, is critical to ensure that vulnerable children can be supported outside institutions.

In specific situations where children cannot be reintegrated with families, because this is not in their best interests and alternative family-based care is not feasible, institutions should as much as possible replicate the family environment, with small groups of children living together with a consistent carer.

Kenya is making positive steps to prioritize family-based care. At the national level, the Government’s decision to enforce the prohibition of registering new charitable children’s institutions is an important step in the right direction.  UNICEF is supporting a pilot project in Kisumu County, which is already successfully returning some of the 1,627 children living in 33 institutions to family-based care, according to data from the Department of Children’s Services.  Importantly, we want to work with institutions to make this shift.

In Malawi, UNICEF and the Government recently supported Village of Hope Children’s Home to return 73 of their 81 children to family homes, mainly with relatives. These children are thriving in their new family environment, becoming part of their communities and learning valuable life skills. Village of Hope continues to support the children with food, health care and school fees. With the money saved through reintegration, it is building a school for children from the poorest families. Other institutions have transformed into half-way houses for abused girls and women, among other roles. In Rwanda, the Government with support from UNICEF has reintegrated 3,000 children with families and communities since 2012, using a similar approach.

In order to find alternatives to institutions, in the best interests of the child, action needs to be taken on several fronts. This includes a change in public perceptions and behaviour; preventive measures such as support for families with children at risk of institutionalization; case management services for children already in institutions to trace relatives and help prepare them for reintegration; and a functional nationwide system of foster care, guardianship and adoption for children who cannot be with their families.

Thirty years ago, world leaders made a historic commitment to the world’s children by adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – an international agreement on childhood. Since then, we have seen great advances in child rights in Kenya. But we have to continue to advocate and act for the many children who still don’t enjoy a full childhood. Through projects such as the one in Kisumu, we can demonstrate that there are other approaches to caring for vulnerable children and providing realistic alternatives to institutional care. My hope is that we make a sincere effort to see that every child in Kenya has the chance to grow up in a stable, safe and nurturing family environment.

Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative in Kenya.