“What can we do now from the kitchen table for our children, families and young people?”
Radu Tohatan leads Hope and Homes for Children Romania’s expert team of social workers and psychologists, working across the country to end the use of orphanages by reuniting children with their birth families, building new families through fostering and adoption and providing the extra support needed to keep vulnerable families together. Radu was on the ground in Iasi county in the far northwest of the country when the Coronavirus crisis hit. Here, he describes what happened next and how the lockdown dramatically changed his working life and the lives of the families, children and young people he is striving to protect.
Iasi county has one of the highest numbers of children still confined to orphanages in Romania and I had made many plans for the week of my visit there. I was going to reach some of the children from institutions who are in the process of returning to their natural or extended families, young care leavers who are starting out on their independent lives, and vulnerable families who need extra support to care for their children and stop them being sent to the institutions. I was also going to visit three of the orphanages that we are working to close, to establish the next steps and arrange case management meetings for some of the children and young people still living there. And I was also hoping to find time in the schedule to meet with the local authority child protection managers.
As soon as I arrived at the Child Protection Directorate, I was shown the Government guidelines on social distancing. Something strange was happening before my eyes, people were behaving differently, the mood was changing from jokes and amazement to worry and panic. It was then I decided that I had to take a step back, to understand what was happening and how to change our plan of attack. I got in the car and drove the eight hours back to my home where I have stayed until now.
“I responded daily to reactions that ranged from indifference, impatience, and nervousness, to helplessness and despair.”
I dedicated the first days of the crisis to the documentation regarding the virus, the forms of contamination and the degrees of spread, protection measures, immediate effects, but also the medium and long-term impact on people’s lives. This was very important and useful, both for me and for those with whom I would continue to work during this period: vulnerable families and children, young people who live in the protection system, child protection specialists, colleagues, friends, and family. I tried to help others to understand or strengthen their understanding of the situation we were going through and especially the right approach to take. I responded daily to reactions that ranged from indifference, impatience, and nervousness, to helplessness and despair.
In normal times I am a social worker, concerned with the practical side of my profession: direct meeting with children, families and their support networks; taking information from the field; recording live testimonies; capturing snapshots of people’s daily lives. We provide face-to-face information; counselling; compassion and concrete support measures. Words but also deeds.
What could we do now from the kitchen table for our children, families, young people and distant colleagues, who were in a difficult situation anyway, to which another threat has now been added? We had a whole new challenge ahead of us: we could no longer reach them physically and neither, with few exceptions, could our local authority partners.
Every day since has become a challenge to find original ways and actions to stay active, true to our vision, connected to the needs of children, young people, and families in our programmes and able to be their mentors and their support providers, emotional, financial and material.
Never before have phones, tablets, computers, social media systems, the networks of services and specialists around each case, solidarity and professional dedication been more useful in social practice. All these wove the platform from which we were able to continue our mission.
Keeping families together.
For the children and families in our prevention and reintegration programmes, we initiated a process of telephone reassessment of each family. The social workers in the communities where we work, helped us to establish which were the most urgent cases and how we could continue to offer support as planned, despite the current conditions of social isolation. We identified three clear types of intervention that are necessary and possible now.
Firstly, we can provide information, counselling, guidance and mentoring for families, using social media platforms and email. Keeping children at home, in large families, where living space and facilities are limited, greatly increases the demand on and stress levels of parents and other caregivers. This can lead to episodes of domestic violence between partners or emotional and physical abuse and neglect of children. Communicating with such families is a priority and needs to be a constant concern. Mothers, especially, appreciate the fact that they are listened to, that we empathise with them and that they receive advice on managing difficult family situations.
Secondly, we can ensure emergency support to help families cope with loss of income and shortage of essential supplies during lockdown. In general, the emergencies we recorded were related to the provision of food, hygiene and protection resources, medicines and the payment of rents and maintenance. Using the network of community social workers again, courier and banking services, I am constantly managing to provide additional resources by delivering social vouchers and cash deposits to pay rents or maintenance fees.
Laura’s story shows why this support is so urgently needed. Laura is 20 years old. She grew up in the orphanage system and she is newly married, with a three month-old child. She lives in her husband’s home. He used to work in construction for minimum wage but is now out of work and only receives 75% of his former income in unemployment support. Laura is still waiting to be allocated a small care-leavers allowance. The family’s immediate needs are mostly related to caring for their baby so nappies, powdered milk, medicine, clothes and a stroller, as well as help to cover the cost of water, electricity, food and hygiene essentials.
They live in an isolated, rural area, not covered by the courier services. We keep in touch with them through the local authority community social workers and since April, we have been transferring an allowance directly to Laura’s account to help them cope and keep their baby with them until their financial situation recovers.
Thirdly, we must continue as far as possible, to implement measures agreed before the crisis began, to support children who have been reunited with their families from orphanages and to keep vulnerable families together. These steps include ensuring children stay in education, via online and TV learning if necessary, improving children’s living conditions by helping families to renovate and refurbish their homes and connecting households to essential utilities including gas, electricity and water.
Ilie and Alexandra have five children. They live in a house consisting of one room of approximately 18 square metres. Their home is connected only to the electricity network. At the beginning of this year we decided to help them renovate, improve and extend their house. The new walls were built, roofing materials were purchased and Ilie had worked with a colleague to make the supports on which the roof would be installed, before the current crisis began. We paid for the family to rent an apartment for three to four months until at least two of the rooms in the house would be ready and the family could return. The pandemic means we cannot now move forward as planned but we are still making progress at a pace that allows us to hope that by the end of the summer, the family will be able to move back into their home even if the building work is not completely finished.
To put these measures into practice, I have consultation sessions over mobile phone apps, directly with the beneficiaries or with local partners. We establish the necessary resources; we order them and we pay online. We monitor the handover of resources and their use through photos and videos sent from the spot. Thus, we can continue in Iași, with the construction or rehabilitation of homes for four families, the renovation of some indoor spaces, providing essential domestic equipment and supporting nine families to connect their homes to gas, electricity, water and heating.
Protecting children who remain in institutions or have moved to alternative care.
I continued to keep in touch with the managers of the child protection services, with the specialists who work with children. Contacting them, discussing the problems they face, listening to them, offering suggestions, measures, offering them certain forms of support, accompanying them remotely, has become routine during this period of time.
I make clear that staff must organise their children’s time in a pleasant, motivating, creative, diverse way. In addition to the demand for protective and hygienic materials, the supplementation of leisure materials for children was the requirement that they constantly addressed to us.
Colleagues who are in touch with local sponsors have managed to obtain and give the children from the institutions where we work, various necessary and useful resources during this period of time. Protective masks for staff working with children, hygiene items for children and young adults in family-type homes and institutions, sports and recreation items for children in three institutions from Iasi, fruits and vegetables, dairy products were also provided. For the children from one institution in Iași, we were able to obtain 12 computers, useful both for keeping in contact with teachers at school and for practicing their IT skills.
For children and young adults living in family-type homes and institutions, but also for their carers, the conditions of isolation and recently those of quarantine have also had some positive effects. The lockdown has led them to a sustained effort of mutual respect, tolerance, creativity, friendship and fellowship. The stress and resistance given by the risk of infection due, in particular, to the lack of protective equipment for staff in institutions, were compensated by the creation of a more family environment in these services, educators being forced to spend more time with children and run their activities in a more relaxed and diversified way than they usually do.
Supporting young care leavers to cope.
Almost all young adults who lived in the protection system as children, now live in rented apartments. Many of them were laid off or furloughed when the crisis hit and those who were looking for a job, could no longer get one. This has made it hard, even impossible for them, to keep their homes or even afford food, hygiene essentials or medicines. At the same time, other young people who were not part of our programme, began to contact us to help for support to get them through this crisis without dramatic effects upon their life in the following months.
Andrei and Bogdana are a young couple, who both grew up in the orphanage system but who were both in a relatively balanced situation before the virus hit. They had been living in a rented apartment for a year, each had a job and they were managing to cope from one month to the next. Andrei has a problem with his eyes which forced him to leave his job in February and register as a person with special needs. He is only part of the way through an expensive treatment programme for his condition but this has now been obstructed by the lockdown. At the same time, his income has fallen by 75%.
Bogdana was working at a car wash and she was laid off at the beginning of April, losing 50% of her income. Under these conditions, the young couple were no longer able to pay their rent or maintenance arrears and so their landlord asked them to evacuate the house. Without other possibilities, the two requested reinstitutionalisation in the adult services of the County Council. Instead, Hope and Homes for Children will support them this year by paying their rent and some of the maintenance costs of their flat. We are helping them to apply for social housing and to arrange outpatient care for Andrei and we will help Bogdana find a new job as soon as possible. I have also given them information and guidance on how to cope under lockdown and the efficient management of the limited budget they now have, as well as offering psychological support.
“The young people we work with… feel lonely, isolated, and powerless. Hope and Homes for Children gives them confidence that they also matter”
I keep in touch with most young people by phone, on WhatsApp and by email, intensifying, during this period, the communication sessions, listening to them, informing and guiding them according to their state of mind and needs. For the financial support they need, I choose either to transfer the necessary funds to their accounts for predetermined expenses such as rent, maintenance, medical services and essential household items like fridges and stoves or by delivering vouchers via a courier network, to supplement their basic needs including food, medicine and hygiene items.
Our interventions are backed up by our colleagues in the local or county authorities who also monitor vulnerable young people by phone or hold safe, short meetings with them in their offices. The conclusions are fed back to us so that we can jointly agree any decisions about them. The young people we work with find it very useful and necessary that we both communicate with them directly and respond promptly to their various needs. Often, they feel lonely, isolated, and powerless. Constant communication with Hope and Homes for Children gives them confidence that they also matter and hope that this period won’t be as bleak as predicted.
After more than two months of isolation and 90% work from home, I am impressed by how much social assistance can be provided from the kitchen table. We will continue, it seems, for many weeks in this way. I want none of the institutions we are currently working in to become a source of infection. The measures taken by my colleagues from the local authorities encourage me to be optimistic. For the other needs, I hope we continue to find new or already practiced opportunities for intervention. In the medium and long term, however, I admit that the kitchen can be both a place for food and for social work.