When your family lives on, or just above, the poverty line, almost anything unexpected can spark a family crisis that places them in imminent risk of separation. This was true for Sitha, who lived with her husband and three children in a rural community in Cambodia.
They were able to provide for their children and make ends meet until Sitha's husband was diagnosed with HIV+. They sold everything they owned and went into debt in an attempt to get medical treatment to save Sitha's husband's life, but unfortunately he passed away. When Sitha lost her husband, she also lost the primary income earner in her family. She was left with no source of income, three small children and a debt she couldn't repay. Faced with abject poverty and no immediate way to provide for her children, she sent them to an orphanage. She handed over her baby to the orphanage and stood at the gates crying. They gave her some money and a bag of rice and took her children inside. They came back out a few minutes later and told her to keep the children for one more night so that they could hire another staff member to care for the children. They instructed Sitha to bring the children back the following day. The pain of separating from her children was too much for Sitha to bear. She took her children home and never returned to the orphanage.
Sitha's story is a common scenario in the developing world. It highlights the disparity between the needs of families and the services commonly offered to them. Sitha did not want to part from her children but felt that she had no other choice. The irony of this is that it would have cost the orphanage much less to support their family to stay together than to provide staff and housing for the children in the orphanage. Yet despite this, just like in Sitha's case, services are rarely offered to families to help them stay together.
The first line response to a family which, like Sitha's, is identified to be in imminent risk of breakdown should be family preservation services that aim to assist them to overcome the crisis and stay together.
Family preservation services are short-term, intensive support services for families in crisis who are at risk of imminent breakdown. The aim of family preservation is to de-escalate the crisis, find solutions to underlying problems and connect the family with on-going family strengthening services to prevent family breakdown.
Family strengthening seeks to support families to ensure that they are able to meet the needs of their children within their community. These programs may assist families with access to schooling, medical care and provide services for children with special needs. Family strengthening may also seek to ensure that where necessary families have adequate income, food security and access to childcare. Family strengthening seeks to prevent crises from developing that could result in family breakdown and the placement of children into residential care.
In Sitha's case, when she decided not to return to the orphanage with her children, she had no solution to the poverty she was facing. An ACCIR partner organisation called Children in Families soon heard about her situation and was able to assist her with family preservation and on-going family strengthening services. A social worker was assigned to her family and together they identified what Sitha needed to be able to provide for her children and keep her family together. ACCIR provided funds for a well to be dug in Sitha's home, which meant she could raise animals and plant vegetables. CIF then assisted her to start a small pig farm to generate an income, helped her children get access to the local school, and helped Sitha access antiretroviral medication so she could stay healthy. This was all it took to keep Sitha and her children together. It cost significantly less than providing care in an orphanage and meant that her children were able to avoid the trauma of separation and the detrimental effects of institutionalisation.
In many contexts the family preservation services necessary to prevent the needless institutionalisation of children are scarce or under resourced. This is often in contrast to huge amounts of funding and energy being poured into residential care.
One of the principles of deinstitutionalisation is to shift the flow of resource towards the development of community-based family preservation and strengthening services. ACCIR is committed to this shift through our Kinnected program and through our RAISE child-centred community development projects.
Two Hands, an ACCIR partner, is a great example of an organisation committed to redirecting their resources towards family preservation and strengthening. Two Hands had been running residential care centres across India for over 20 years when the organisation decided to deinstitutionalise their child welfare services. Children are currently being reunified with their families and Two Hands are able to use the funds previously used to house them to now assist their families and establish community centres in impoverished villages. These centres are providing early childhood education, adult education and are assisting men and women to generate sufficient income to provide for their own families. As families are strengthened to care for their own children, the need for residential care is significantly reduced, which in turn breaks the cycle of institutionalisation.