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Hope rises for Sri Lanka's unaccompanied children

By Leanne Mitchell.

Sri Lanka’s child protection authorities faced an enormous challenge when in a matter of minutes more than 4000 children lost one or both parents in the December 2004 tsunami. Providing alternative care for separated and unaccompanied children, and making sure that they were safe from harm became an immediate need that stretched existing legal and organizational frameworks to their limits.

But despite many trials – and a few errors – the struggle is slowly turning into reform, almost all tsunami-affected children have been kept out of institutions, no cases of child trafficking were recorded and the long term outlook for Sri Lanka’s children who are in need of alternative care has improved significantly.

The issue of alternative care was on the agenda even before the tsunami. Child rights groups, including UNICEF had been advocating for the reform of existing systems towards formalized fostering programs for some time, and in particular a move away from the institutionalization of orphaned and unaccompanied children.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, separated children who were living with extended families or friends, were identified as one of the most vulnerable groups of tsunami survivors. The majority of their caregivers were accountable to no one and the circumstances of these children needed immediate assessment to assure they received adequate care and protection.

“Extended family networks have most often taken on the role of caring for orphaned and unaccompanied children in this country,” says UNICEF Protection Officer, Sajeeva Samaranayake.

“This hidden strength within society was largely responsible for ensuring the immediate and short term care of children who after the tsunami were left very vulnerable. In the long-term however these families needed legal recognition and support to carry on this function.”

In response to this need, the Fit Persons Orders – a means of legal fostering – was utilized to take care of children left parentless by the tsunami and to ensure that very vulnerable children, and the families caring for them, were being looked after.

Implemented through magistrates courts, a ‘fit person’, or foster parent is assigned to look after the child and receives Rs.500 a month to cover living expenses. A Child Rights Promotion Officer, or CRPO, is also allocated to each family to monitor the child’s overall well-being.

Fit Persons Orders were put into place soon after the disaster and about 570 children were processed, the program ran into legal and technical problems which saw it stall within six months.

The program came to a temporary halt after the introduction of the ‘Tsunami Act’ which provided a provincial system to process fostering. Difficulties arose however when the regional infrastructure needed to implement the process could not be mobilized.

On the adoption of the Tsunami Act, authorities took the view that the law for ‘fit persons’ could no longer be applied, and between June and December 2005 there was no functioning system for processing the legal relationship between these children and their informal foster parents and providing them with financial support.

While the process was based on an adequate legal framework, says Samaranayake, challenges existed within implementing agencies, which struggled to provide ground level services.

“While the legal structure was available for Fit Persons Orders, the areas for improvement became clear to us early on. For the program to succeed we needed to work on improving the assessment and networking skills of the people who are implementing it on the ground.

Given the magnitude of the problem, existing systems of management of service delivery within the department of Probation and Child Care Services were stretched beyond their capacity.

A system which had operated on a reactive basis to complaints of child abuse was now being challenged to shift into a proactive gear, requiring the delivery of effective social work services to foster families.

In response to the problem UNICEF is providing support to partner NGOs such as CCF and Sarvodaya to provide training and mentoring to probation and child care officers and government social work officers in addition to providing direct social work services.

A comprehensive review of the Department of Probation and Childcare in October 2005 saw a number of priorities set with regard to streamlining legislative frameworks, upgrading the quality of probation services, building staff capacity, identifying the roles and responsibilities of probation and child rights protection officers and strenthening alternative care arrangements for children.

The Fit persons program has been up and running again since January 2006, with a number of children around the country being assigned legal guardians.

“The value of the Fit Persons Scheme is that it makes informal fostering legal by providing a mechanism for assessment, report to court, financial support and follow-up. It protects children by making sure the State has a stake in the fostering process. It works positively for the child and their carers,” Samaranayake says.

“Fostering is something that needs to be developed further and the Tsunami provided an entry point for establishing it as a viable alternative method of care. Out of a tragedy it looks like we may just see some hope.”



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