It was the middle of a hectic week when I had the chance to chat with Leak in the office at CIF. He had just returned from the province, meeting with government officials, village chiefs, police officers, teachers and church leaders, passionately spreading awareness about the benefits of caring for vulnerable children in families. As we chatted, his foster care team poked their heads in to check client cases with him, and the families he works with called. It was clear that Leak juggles a lot of responsibilities.
“It’s exhausting work,” he admitted with a smile. “But it’s really fulfilling, too.”
Leak is the project manager of Foster Care at Children in Families. He’s been at CIF since 2014 and has a long history of supporting children, their families, and their communities. As someone with experience in social work prior to his time at CIF, he understands the importance of addressing challenges holistically, and as a team.
The Foster Care project at Children in Families covers a lot of ground and helps vulnerable children from a wide range of backgrounds. From the time a child enters into Emergency Care, our workers seek to stabilize their health and nutrition, look for relatives to help care for them, or possibly search out foster families to place the child with. Leak often has to explain to leaders in various sectors the need for foster care services. “We care for children in their non-biological families,” he explained. “Many of these children are kids who were abandoned, or whose parents passed away; kids who cannot live in their original families. We established the project to give these children a family to care for them.”
Leak: “I know what it’s like”
The children Leak works with share stories and hardships he can empathise with. “For me, I’ve experienced things like these children,” Leak recalled. “ When I was about 10 years old, I lost my father. I know what it’s like to live in a family without a father – I only had my mother. I know what it’s like to be missing love and warmth.” That’s what lead him not only to this work, but guided his values and goals as a father, himself. “When I grew up and was ready to start my own family, I knew I wanted a family that knew the love and warmth of both their mother and father.”
“For lots of kids coming into Emergency Care, they’ve lost their parents. They’ve come from really difficult situations. I feel like I want to look for a family that can provide safety for them, that can give them plenty of love.”
How does it work?
The foster care process may sound straightforward: when a child cannot live with his/her parents, try placing them with their relatives. If that’s not possible, try placing them with a foster family. Simple? Not quite, as Leak reminded me.
“When kids start at CIF, many of them come through Emergency Care. So they may have health concerns, or lack proper nutrition – they’re skinny or underweight.” FC and EC teams work together to get the child back to a stable weight.
But the health of the child is often a concern, as well. “We get them checked for general health screenings, HIV testing, etc. because we don’t know their background. If we screen them and something comes up, we can get them treatment at a partner hospital.”
“After 3 months (in Emergency Care), often they are back to good health and stable, but we can’t always find their relatives. In that case, we continue and look into foster families that would be willing to care for them. Our staff visit them once a month to see how they are doing. Is the child developing sufficiently? Is the family providing a loving environment for the child? How is the child feeling about living with this new family?”
Foster care is a team effort
By the time the family has been approved to take a child coming out of Emergency Care, their case has been supported by the foster care team, government officials, religious leaders and community leaders. And these families went through a long process to be accepted into CIF, which Leak oversees, as well. “All of these families had to apply to CIF to become foster families,” he says. “We look at all of the factors concerning their living situation, like stable housing and a stable income. We consider their ability to care for children with trauma histories, as well as the health and wellbeing of the families themselves.”
Leak emphasised that he wants families applying to CIF to be successful. They should have what they need to care for the child. “We have to be very thoughtful and careful when we place children into families,” Leak cautioned. His goal is for children and foster families to be successful together. “We’re careful because if we choose a family that’s not good, and we place the child there, then have to take them out of it and place them somewhere else, that’s really difficult for everyone, and it also really negatively impacts the child. It affects their feelings and mental wellness.”
“Pride in our work”
Despite all of the work and stress of managing so many complex situations, Leak draws a lot of inspiration and hope from his work. “When I talk about it, I really have a lot of pride in our work,” he beamed with a smile. “I get to see kids in Foster Care that are growing up healthy and happy. They are being loved and get to go to school. It makes me so happy to meet with these children.”
Sometimes, he says, the progress a child makes is so significant, it’s hard to even believe. He mentioned a training he went to with foster families, who brought some of their kids with them. “The kids were so grown and healthy, I didn’t even recognise them. I almost couldn’t believe it! They overcame so much – before they were sick, and now they’re growing so fast. It’s hard to believe.”
Leak finished our time reflecting on what he enjoys most about his work: supporting children to know the love of a family. “I love work that lets me help children who have lost parents, and help them receive new family just like their peers. They know peace and security, love and relationships just like other kids their age. When I think about not doing this – what if there wasn’t someone working to help these children? What would these kids feel like? This gets me really excited.”