The Butterfly Effect
Stefan Darabus is regional operations director for Hope and Homes for Children in Central and Southern Europe.
In March 1999, Hope and Homes for Children closed its first orphanage, a baby facility in Romania; in June 2017 we closed our one hundredth institution, an orphanage in Rwanda. Of course this event marks an important milestone on our journey towards a world in which children no longer suffer institutional care, but the number itself is largely symbolic. In reality, each of those one hundred closures acts as a powerful catalyst for child protection reform on a much wider scale. (In July 2018, we closed our 108th orphanage (Moldova)).
I like to think about orphanage closures in terms of the butterfly effect; the idea that small changes can lead to much larger ones, that a butterfly fluttering its wings on one continent might eventually result in a hurricane on another. What Hope and Homes for Children works to achieve is not just the closure of single institutions. Our goal is to be the catalyst for a fundamental shift away from systems that rely on abusive institutions to systems which respect children as individuals and offer those children the love and protection of a family.
The closure of institutions is the essential first step in the reform process because as long as you have institutions, you will have an alternative care system that ignores children’s rights. The closure of an institution creates an incentive for reform and begins the process of replacing a reactive system with a proactive system. In a proactive system, the moment of crisis, when a child is at risk of being separated from their family, becomes the moment of opportunity when children and families are supported to stay together.
This approach helps all those who work in the child protection system to think about what is best for each individual child and to intervene in a timely way before the evil has been done. Because once a child is torn apart from their family and placed in an institution, the evil is already done. The statistics show that once a child enters an orphanage, he or she stays there for an average of eight years. If you can avoid that situation, your intervention might only last for one or two years but it will give that child a much better chance of becoming an independent adult, a fully functioning member of society, in the future.
That is why prevention programmes are such a vital part of our model for closing institutions. By supporting families who are struggling with the effects of poverty, disability or discrimination we spare generation after generation of children from being subjected to institutionalisation and a life of suffering, poverty and social exclusion.
The training and technical assistance that we provide during a closure programme also creates a powerful ripple effect. We retrain staff from the institution to work within the reformed child-protection system. We train foster parents to care for children who cannot return to their birth families. We help to train and support social workers, psychologists and case managers in order to build the capacity of social services in the area to support families and protect children without resorting to orphanages.
The other major change that our closure programmes bring about is to stop child protection systems from focusing solely on children in isolation. We show why it is important to consider the child and the parents. Children and their families are two pieces of the same jigsaw and by thinking about the child in the context of their family, children can be protected without the use of institutions.
Our work in Romania shows that by closing orphanages in this way, we can create a domino effect. There were over 100,000 children in orphanages when our work began. There are now less than 7,500. It takes time but the tipping point in Romania came once we had provided the proof. By successfully closing institutions and showing that there was a better way to protect children, a way that created far better outcomes for everyone, we were able to build confidence and be the catalyst for much wider reform.
In Romania, we are now just a few years away from seeing the very last orphanage close. It’s not a question of if, but when. The fact that it’s possible in Romania is going to make other countries want to do the same because it’s inspiring to see that this kind of turnaround is possible. The challenge for Hope and Homes for Children now is to keep up the momentum, but I do believe that, by the end of my lifetime, we will be living in a world where institutions for children will exist only in the history books.
Author: Stefan Darabus