Closing orphanages in a way that’s safe and sustainable for children is a complex and challenging process, but it’s the bedrock of what we do.
Our model for shutting down these damaging institutions not only transforms the lives of individual children; it also drives wider reform for the way families and children are supported and cared for. Each successful closure programme provides hard evidence that change is possible, and offers a valuable blueprint for closing the next orphanage.
But when it comes to the actual steps involved in closing an orphanage, where do we even begin?
Step 1: Which orphanage and where?
Our skilled programmes team think about a number of interlocking factors as they decide which orphanages to target for closure. Because we work around the world, the specific context in each country is always an important consideration, although there are three types of orphanages we will always prioritise.
The first are orphanages that significantly endanger the safety, health and wellbeing of children, including large institutions with high numbers of children where abuse and neglect are evident.
The second are orphanages for children with disabilities, because the most vulnerable children are too often left behind.
The third are orphanages for babies, where the lack of one-to-one care typical in these places proves to be especially damaging to the very youngest children.
Step 2: Building partnerships and overcoming resistance
Even as our team prepare to make the first approach to the target orphanage itself, it’s crucial that we engage key stakeholders and potential partners in the closure programme. This will include local government and child protection authorities, as well as state corporations like the National Council for Persons with Disability in Rwanda, and specialist NGOs in the area.
When the time is right, a direct approach will be made to the orphanage management. This may be the local authority, a church, a charity or an individual who has set up a private institution.
Of course, at this stage, it’s normal to encounter some strong opposition. Many managers and staff sincerely believe that children are best cared for in the institution and won’t be safe or happy in family settings. At the same time, private orphanage owners fear for their livelihoods and staff fear for their jobs. It may take our team many meetings and many hours of conversation to address and overcome these concerns.
The support of stakeholders and other partners will be critical here. Once the management is on board, we hope to agree a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) so that the practical work of closing the orphanage can begin.
Step 3: Foundations for success
Once the MoU is in place, we start training and awareness-raising with the institution staff, parents who may still be in contact with their children, and the wider community to engage everyone in the closure project. We explain the harm caused by institutions, why family care is so vital for every child and how we can help to achieve this.
Where possible, both management and staff are offered the chance to work in the new community and family-based services that will be set up to replace the orphanage.
Step 4: Prevention is the cure
As many as eight in every ten children who live in orphanages have at least one parent or other close relative who could care for them if they had the right support. For this reason, every closure programme includes extensive work in the community around the target orphanage to strengthen families and stem the flow of children into the institution.
This might mean helping a family to improve their living conditions by mending a roof, connecting a home to water or electricity supplies, or installing a bathroom.
It may involve supporting a single mother, with no education, to apply for identity documents so her children can access healthcare, schooling and social support.
We work with every family to understand their specific challenges and build on their unique strengths. Then we work out a tailored plan to help each family stay together and keep their children safe from the orphanage.
Step 5: A plan for every child
As soon as they are able, our skilled social workers will assess every child in the orphanage; spending time with them and their carers and analysing records to learn as much as possible about their backgrounds and current needs. A care plan is then agreed for each child, finding the right family or community-based alternative to the orphanage.
A key part of every closure programme is the skilled and time-consuming task of tracing children’s families, to make contact and see if it might be possible for a child to be reunited with their original family.
We also find alternatives for the small number of children who cannot return to their original families. This means training and recruiting foster parents, including specialist foster carers for children with disabilities, looking for possible adoptive families in the same country and building Small Family Homes for up to a maximum of twelve children, though usually it is only 6-8. This ensures that every child finds the one-to-one care and attention they need and deserve.
Step 6: Securing the safety net
Throughout the closure process, we work with the local authority and the community to enhance and establish a safety net of systems and services that will keep families together and children safe from orphanages for good.
In Rwanda, for example, this includes establishing new Community Development Networks, committees made up of local volunteers that are proven to improve gatekeeping and child protection at a grassroots level. In India, we’ve set up peer support groups for young girls. Here they can share their challenges and find the extra help they need to stay safe in their communities, reducing the risk of being separated from their families and confined to orphanages.
Step 7: Beyond the orphanage
Once the last child leaves the orphanage to begin a new life with someone to love them at last, we need to make sure that families continue to have the support they need to stay together and thrive in the long-term.
Whenever possible we work with local authorities to convert empty orphanage sites into family support centres. These provide a whole range of services that will help families to care for their children at home and build more secure futures together. This might include Early Child Development services, physiotherapy, day care facilities to allow parents to work, and adult literacy classes.
Step 8: The domino effect of change
Because we work to replace orphanages with care systems that make family the foundation of child protection, each successful closure programme has an impact that’s far greater than the sum of its parts—ensuring that future generations of children always have families to love them and acting as a powerful catalyst for further reform.
Our model in action: No Child Left Behind
Here, Innocent Habimfura, our Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, looks back on two orphanage closures which took place as part of the pioneering No Child Left Behind project.