The Long and Winding Road: From orphanage back to family

The Long and Winding Road: From orphanage back to family

Last week, we looked at about three considerations central to the process of reintegrating children from an orphanage, back to their community. 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. The safety of the child, clear communication, and good relationships with others in the village, are at the centre of all decision making. This week we look at the actual process of reuniting a child to their family.

The first step of reintegrating a child is to find out who the family is. In our line of work, this is called ‘Family Tracing’

1) Family Tracing

A lot of children in orphanages maintain some contact with their birth families. In fact, in many orphanages, children return to their family home during important national holidays, like Khmer New Year. However, there are often children who have lost contact with their families. It may be that their families have moved, that their orphanage directors refused to allow family contact, or that they were trafficked away from their families in the first place. Children are not always registered to orphanages with their correct details. Birth details can change between forms. Correct paperwork is not always filled out. And sometimes completely illegal processes take place, such as the creation of fraudulent birth certificates. The CIF reintegration social work team quickly learnt that sometimes investigation skills are also needed to track down the families from the small pieces of information that they do have.

2) Assessing the family and child.

Having a child that wants to return home, and a family that is ready to accept them, is just the first part of the process of reintegration. Assessing the family’s situation is a crucial next step.   Noeut, our Outreach manager, explains:

“It’s not only about the family, it’s about the people around the family. It’s about assessing with the authorities, village chiefs, the communities. Parents might not tell the truth, but we can get more information with the community. We can assess the relatives for things like kinship care. For example, an aunty said I’m okay to take back my niece. But when we met with the community leaders, they said that the community was not safe for the children. So they encouraged us to look into other care options.”

Assessing the family is not just a once off, yes or no decision. Our social workers meet regularly with the family and community leaders to see if the barriers to reintegration can be lifted or if they are creating an unsafe place for a child. When the family is a good match, but the community isn’t, we consider options like relocation. This is what we ended up doing for the aunty above, when it became clear that the child wouldn’t be safe in that community. Sometimes the families will be a possible match, but the situation isn’t, which leads us to the next step.

mother seeking reintegration with her children
Stock photo by Caleb Smith

3) Family visits creating reconnection

The next stage is to see if a family is able to form a good familial bond with the child. The parents or new carers will meet with the child, starting as a supervised visit for a couple of hours and slowly building up to staying with the parents unsupervised. These visits serve two purposes. Firstly it allows us to see how the child and parents are relating. Noeut observes:

“If a child stays with the family for a couple days, when we pick them up, we do small assessments to see what the connection is like. Are they excited to get rid of the child at the end of two days, or are they asking for more time with the children?”

Secondly, it helps a child learn about life in a family. The orphanage we were working with was based in Phnom Penh, the capital urban centre, but most of the children were from the provinces. This meant that the children did not have any memories or experiences of growing up in a rural environment. As Noeut explains, many of the children have no experience with chores or the expectations of family life.

Children live in the center with high standards –  they maybe didn’t have to do anything or contribute anything to the center, but they have to contribute in a home. So we try to set up family visits to get used to the home environment.

4) Debriefing and counselling

After each family visit, the children meet with the social workers and, if they are open to it, a counsellor. The counsellor we use focuses on art therapy with children and so they are able to work through their feelings about the reintegration process and any concerns that come up. Most of the children met with the counsellor after every home visit. Our social workers were able to work with the counsellor to see which reconnections were going well and which needed more time. We also met with the families to see how they were finding the process and sometimes, our team were able to facilitate joint counselling sessions. Noeut recalls one such occasion:

“One of the girls said that ‘I don’t like my father. He smells bad, his hair isn’t cut,.’ We talked to the parents. At the time, we had to explain to the children  the contributions he is making to the home and community, and [we were] going back and forth [with the conversation]. In this case we brought them to a family counselor and help them work out their difficulties with therapy and see if they can find the truth and find solutions together. Now they have found some solutions together and are working together to make the placement work.”

5) Family care plans

Poverty, unstable employment and migration, lack of access to education, mental health and addiction issues are all factors that cause parents to send their kids to orphanages. For some families, these factors will not have changed while their child was away. After we have assessed whether the families are able to provide a safe and loving environment for the child, and whether there is a bond that means they can live together, our team looks at what factors need to change to help this reunification be as successful as possible.

“With some families, they may not have occupations, so we have to look at how we are going to support them. We might look at capital to start a business, or help finding housing. We work a lot with the local authorities to find solutions to these problems.”  .

This process meant that the social workers identified areas of family life that needed ongoing financial support. They worked with the orphanage donors to set up a three-year transitional care plan for the children, so that the families have time to set and work towards some goals.  Our social workers then work with the families to help them work towards the goals they have set.

6) Reunification

Once the child, the parents (or carers), the social work team and the local authorities are happy with the connection the child and parents have built, and are sure that the children will be safe in that environment, the child returns to live with the family. This is a great day of celebration for everyone involved.

7) Follow up

The social work team continues to meet regularly with the families to ensure that the child is safe in their environment. The staff continue to help the families work towards their goals and answer any parenting questions and issues they might arise. They meet with the child to see how they are finding being home. This follow up will continue until we are sure that there is a strong bond between child and family, and the family is financially stable and have completed the goals in their care plan.

2 boys studying khmer at a table together
Stock photo by Caleb Smith

So what about children who can’t go back to their families?

Of the 29 children who were reintegrated, 21 were able to go back to their birth families and 8 (all older teenagers) are in supported alternative accommodation. One of the children was reunited with her mother, until her mother died tragically and unexpectedly about 6 months later. That child had to start the process again, but is now living with extended family members. For children who cannot be placed with parents or extended family members, and who are too young for supported accommodation, we would use our normal processes for finding them a safe, loving foster care placement.

Reintegration is not so much a process, as a journey with each individual child and their family members or carers. At each stage, child’s voices need to be heard and listened to and families need to have the space to have their concerns validated too. When we create space for that, we create space for families to reconnect, to set goals and to work together to be a strong, healthy family and an important part of their community.

The Long and Winding Road: From orphanage back to family