Growing up in an institution: Johnny’s story

Johnny is 13 years old. He loves to play sport and watch football on TV even though he has never been able to walk independently and uses a wheelchair to move about.

Today, Johnny lives in one of the largest children’s institutions in Romania. He used to live with his parents and his younger brother, Radu, but six years ago, their mother died. Neither the boys’ father nor the wider family felt able to care for Johnny or Radu and so they were placed in State care.

Radu now lives with a foster family but, because of his disability, the authorities were unable to find an alternative family for Johnny and he was sent to an institution. The brothers – who are only a year apart in age – stay in touch by phone and visit each other occasionally.

The institution, where Jonny now lives, houses up to 200 children at a time. The buildings are large, badly maintained and poorly suited to an energetic young wheelchair-user. The other children and young people who live in the institution range in age from five-year-olds to young adults in their late teens or early 20s. Johnny shares a room with six other children. He has a small locker to keep his clothes and basic toiletries but, apart from his bed, he has nothing and nowhere else to call his own.

Despite the challenges he faces, Johnny is making the best of life in the institution. He is sociable and popular. He loves to be outside and he’s interested in nature. He likes to watch documentaries and dreams about travelling to see new places and experience new things. He has regular physiotherapy sessions to help improve the movement in his legs and says he’s determined that he’s going to walk by himself one day.

Hope and Homes for Children is currently working with the local Child Protection Department to find alternative, family-based care for Johnny and all the other children who live in the institution. This is a key part of our model for deinstitutionalisation – a model that has been recognised as best practice by the World Health Organisation and Unicef.

Deinstitutionalisation transforms child protection based solely on institutions into modern child protection systems based on a range of care alternatives. These are specialist alternatives that respond to children’s individual needs. Through the process of deinstitutionalisation, children in care are enabled to live in a family- type environment, conducive to their development and their chances of leading successful adult lives, after leaving care. Programmes to prevent family breakdown and stop children being sent to institutions is an integral and essential part of deinstitutionalisation.

Johnny’s story also highlights why capacity building is such an important part of the work of Hope and Homes for Children. Developing a well-trained, well-supported, professional child protection workforce is critical to delivering the transition from orphanages to family and community-based care. Drawing on over 20 years of experience, our training programmes help build the capacity of government and civil society to put the interests of children first.

At the moment there are very few foster carers in the region where Johnny lives – a problem our programmes also seek to address by running awareness campaigns and recruiting and training potential foster parents. For now, the best solution for Johnny is to move to one of the Small Family Homes that Hope and Homes for Children is helping to establish in the area. This will give him a chance to grow up in a family-like environment, in an ordinary domestic house, adapted to his needs, with a small group of other children, with permanent carers to cherish him as an individual and support him to realise his true potential.

Once all the children have moved out of the institution and into safe, loving family-type homes, we will close the doors of the facility for good and replace it with a range of services, designed to support vulnerable children and their families to stay together and build better futures.ix