On the frontline for children; building the social workforce to deliver deinstitutionalisation in Rwanda

Psychologist, Richard Munyaneza and Social Worker, Monique Mukamana are among 68 child care professionals who have received training from Hope and Home for Children in Rwanda

Outside of work, colleagues Richard Munyaneza and Monique Mukamana lead very different lives.

Richard is 30 and single. In the evenings and at weekends he likes to practice the guitar, play basketball and hang out with his friends. Monique is a married mother of two who is expecting her third baby in a few weeks’ time. She jokingly describes her hobbies as cooking and looking after children.

In their professional lives though, Richard and Monique share the same goal: to help children leave orphanages and begin new lives in loving families.

Monique is a social worker and Richard is a psychologist and they are both employed by the Rwandan National Commission for Children (NCC), implementing the Government’s programme to end the institutional care of children.

Rwanda is one of very few countries in Africa to have a dedicated national social workforce focused on child protection and family strengthening. Professionals like Monique and Richard play a key role in not only sustaining positive outcomes for children and their families but also in contributing to wider change.

They are among 68 newly recruited NCC professionals who have received training from Hope and Homes for Children as part of a 3-year project, funded by UK Aid, to strengthen their knowledge and skills to support children and families. At the same time, our team has conducted regular field based supervision for professionals employed in each of the six target districts.

As well as working with children and young people who are preparing to leave orphanages to join families or live independently in the community, Richard and Monique help to support vulnerable parents and children to prevent family breakdown and end the cycle of institutional care.

Monique admits that, at first, she found the process of Deinstitutionalisation challenging. “Our training was good and very interesting,” she explains, “but there’s a big difference between theory and practice! Once you are on the ground, you realise that this is not an office job; we work in all kinds of different places – hospitals, family homes and institutions.”

“Every day is completely different. We try to plan carefully, with great attention to detail, but we can guarantee there will be several unexpected issues to deal with each week. For example, we might get a call saying that someone has found an abandoned baby and then we have to go quickly to arrange milk, clothes and emergency foster care to make sure that the child does not go to an institution.”

The hardest part of her job, Monique says, is building trust with families but nonetheless, she finds her work rewarding. “You feel like you are someone who can change lives for the better,” she explains. “And children teach you. Every child has a unique character and potential.”

Richard always wanted to be a psychologist. “What I desire most is to help people develop and make the most of their lives,” he says. “DI has shown me how I can make a real difference in our society.”

Richard believes that people in Rwanda are positive about the idea of replacing orphanages with family-based care. “We are lucky that our Government has embraced this process,” he says. “In our culture, everyone is a father and everyone is a mother to every child and when we talk about Deinstitutionalisation this is something we can tap into when we look for people to be foster parents.”

The family of each child supported to leave institutional care by Hope and Homes for Children under the UK Aid funded project (whether biological, extended or foster families) has an assigned case manager, either a member of our Rwandan team or an NCC professional who is responsible for following up with that family to see that placements are going well.

In the initial period after placement these visits can take place as frequently as twice a week, gradually reducing over the coming months, depending on the strength of families. NCC social workers and psychologists work alongside Hope and Homes for Children Rwanda’s team on project activities in order to build their capacity to monitor and support children and families in the longer term.

One of the most challenging aspects of closing orphanages in Rwanda is finding the right alternative care for children with special needs. This is an area where Hope and Homes for Children has provided extra training for child protection professionals.

Both Monique and Richard acknowledge the difficulties families face in caring for children with disabilities, especially in rural areas where Rwanda’s hilly terrain makes it hard to access specialist medical care. But they have also seen for themselves the benefits that family life offers to all children, whatever their needs.

“I remember one little boy with disabilities who was abandoned to an orphanage as a baby,” Richard recalls. “We found a specialist foster family to care for him and he has responded really well to the move. Now he smiles and he communicates. This is what we see when children join families – they grow physically and emotionally.”

“Our work is very challenging,” adds Monique, “but it is also very interesting. My son tells me off because he says I am always on the phone. I explain that is because I am helping people.”