Research shows that 80% of children are growing up in orphanages around the world have parents who could raise their children, if given proper supports. These parents have been led to believe that their children will have better social and educational outcomes if they are raised in an institution. Research has repeatedly shown that this is not the case. One of the questions we are frequently hear from visitors to CIF is “Well, it’s all good to say that we need to reintegrate kids from orphanages back to their families, but how can that actually be done?”
Reintegration is not as simple as simply ringing the parents and asking them if they would like their children to return home. The situation which led parents to send their children to an orphanage is often still present. And the time a child has spent separated from family members can lead to relational distance and unfamiliarity. These issues both need to be dealt with before a child can be reintegrated with their family.
We recently sat down with Noeut, CIF’s Outreach project manager to discuss the process that the CIF reintegration team uses to reintegrate children. Last year, Noeut and his team worked with an orphanage’s board of directors and donors to transition 29 children back to community-based care. During our discussion Noeut highlighted 3 considerations that need to be central to any work we do reuniting children with their families
1. Child Safety
Before any work can be done to reintegrate children, they need to be in a safe physical environment. Children who are constantly facing trauma and in a state of flight vs fight do not have the emotional resources they need to participate in the reintegration process. For the orphanage that CIF recently supported, this meant working with the board to remove staff members who were physically abusing the children, seperating children into age-appropriate group-homes, and relocating the centers when safety continued to be an issue. This slowed the initial reintegration plan down, but it was crucial in making sure that the children were physically safe. It meant that they could work with counsellors and social workers to feel emotionally safe, and were able to build trust with the team who would help reunite them with their families.
Similarly, if at any stage of the process a child’s safety is likely to be compromised, the team doing the reintegration must take a step back, re-evaluate the situation, and find another solution. This means that while the reintegration process looks linear on paper, it may not go as smoothly as we would hope!
2. Open Communication
Before reintegrating children into their families, we need to make sure both the children and their families want reintegration to go ahead. Everyone has to understand what reintegration is, and what it means. Noeut explains:
“We have a lot of processes, but if we just talk about the processes, it’s not enough. Before any of this happens, we have to talk to the children and their families. We have to go back and forth a lot. If we just start in on the process, they might not feel ready or may reject what we say. We communicate with the parents and the children, back and forth. Maybe the kids [say they] don’t want to go back home, but they really do, but there were some issues at home, maybe with addiction or abuse. We have to communicate a lot and get everyone thinking the same way about the process.”
Reintegrating teenagers who have grown up from a young age in institutions can be very difficult. For adolescents over the age of 15, it can be hard to rebuild trust with their family. Noeut explained that for them “Reintegration doesn’t mean you have to go back to your family. But it means offering alternatives to living in an institution: maybe living independently, or with a foster family, if need be.” Reintegration can be into the community, rather than into a particular home.
This open communication needs to occur throughout the entire process. Both child and family members need to be able to honestly say, “No, this isn’t working for me,” “I don’t feel safe,” “This is too fast,” or in some cases, “I don’t want the child to live with us.” Reintegrating a child without having everyone on board with this course of action can harm a child in the long run. Good, open communication is crucial.
3. Good relationships with Authorities
Each step of the process requires good communication and trust between our team with local authorities – be it the police, the government officials in charge of social affairs and child custodies, the village chiefs, community leaders, and teachers. We work with local authorities to help understand the safety of a family or community. We work together to help plan interventions for families, and to ensure that all legal processes are followed. Noeut says these partnerships are crucial to the reintegration process. “Sometimes we cannot follow the steps perfectly, but we have to look at the situation and… work practically with what we have. We have good relationships with the local authorities and we are very glad for that. They provide us a lot of support.”
Each step of the way, we work with leaders to ensure that we are able to get the best outcomes for the child, their family and their community; we maintain good communication with the child and the family; and we place the child’s safety at the centre of all decision making. These three factors are central to work we do to place children in loving families, so they can grow up to be thriving members of their communities, where they belong.
So what does the actual process of reintegration look like? Find out in our next blog post