The orphanage that turned inside out

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Footsteps 101 - caring for orphans

Includes case studies, children’s activities and a moving interview about growing up in a children’s home.

The orphanage that turned inside out

by Rebecca Nhep 

The message is spreading that long-term residential care is not in the best interests of orphans and vulnerable children. As a result, many orphanages around the world are transforming into centres providing family and community strengthening services. This process is often called ‘transitioning’. Rebecca Nhep, Director of ACC International Relief, outlines how this change can take place. 

Children in an early years programme in Myanmar. Orphanages can transition to provide community services such as this. Photo: Alice Keen/Tearfund
Children in an early years programme in Myanmar. Orphanages can transition to provide community services such as this. Photo: Alice Keen/Tearfund

Changing the way we care 

If you have been supporting or running an orphanage or children’s home, the thought of transitioning to a family and community-based programme can be very daunting. It raises lots of questions such as, ‘What’s involved in a transition?’, ‘How can I make sure the children are safe and well cared for in a family?’, ‘What about their education or their faith?’, ‘What will my donors think?’, ‘What happens to our building if children no longer live here?’ and ‘What will be left of my ministry when we are no longer an orphanage?’ 

Sometimes these questions and concerns feel like obstacles that stop us from changing. However, with good planning, the right support and well developed processes, you can make sure the transition is effective and safe for children. What’s more, you will actually see your programme or ministry grow in its reach and success. 

ACC International Relief’s Kinnected programme supports local and international organisations to transition their residential care programmes. Over the last six years, we have worked with more than 60 residential care centres across 11 different countries. 

The story of Pastor Myint Nwe shows some of the key steps involved in transitioning. This is just one example of how the process can work. 

Realising the need to change 

Pastor Myint Nwe is the director of Caring and Loving Children (CLC), a community-based organisation in Myanmar. He used to be responsible for five residential care centres across the country. Many of the children in the centres had living relatives, but had been referred because of extreme poverty, the death of one or both parents, or another crisis situation. 

Over time, Pastor Myint saw that residential care is not ideal for children. He realised that, whenever possible, children belong in families. However, he lacked the right knowledge and expertise to lead the centres through the transition process and reintegrate children into the community. Kinnected agreed to support and guide CLC in its transition to family-based care. 

POINT TO NOTE: Being convinced of the need to change is essential. 

Preparing key participants 

First, Kinnected helped CLC to think about preparing key participants before making any significant changes. This included donors, board members, employees, community leaders and local government officials. 

POINT TO NOTE: It is important to educate everyone involved about the need to transition to family-based care, and how this can be done. Emphasising the benefits for children can help convince people

Building capacity 

The next step Kinnected took was to build and strengthen Pastor Myint’s capacity as leader of CLC. Beginning in 2013, he went on a field visit to meet with another Kinnected partner doing family strengthening work in a similar context. This helped him see for himself the benefits of reuniting families, arranging foster placements or kinship care, and joining peer networks. 

POINT TO NOTE: It is important for orphanage leaders to picture what the transition might look like in their community. They are likely to need additional training in topics such as child protection, child development, case management, family-based care, and monitoring and evaluation. They should develop links with government departments and other organisations working in child welfare, so they can work well together. 

Planning for the transition 

Together, Kinnected and CLC developed a plan for the organisation’s transition. This included writing down its mission, vision, strengths, future goals and direction, outputs to measure, activities, resources, and areas where CLC needed education or experience. Kinnected trained CLC’s staff to make sure they would support the process and had the right knowledge and skills. 

POINT TO NOTE: Developing a detailed transition plan for the institution is vital. It is important to hire social workers and ensure they have the right skills. Professionals may need training in ways of working with vulnerable children and their caregivers. Topics may include assessment, evaluation, family tracing (ways to find children’s relatives) and mapping the services available. 

Steps in the transition 

Wherever possible, Pastor Myint traced the family members of the children in his care. He and his team then assessed their suitability and willingness to provide adequate care. 

Pastor Myint knew that poverty was the reason some of the children had been placed in residential care. He therefore helped family members to set up small businesses such as tailoring, grocery shops and livestock farming. The families could also be connected to support systems or other community services. 

Pastor Myint began with three orphanages where the donor church was eager to transition. There were a total of 53 children in these homes. So far, he has reintegrated two children back into their biological families and 22 into kinship placements. A further two older teenagers have moved into semi-independent living. 

POINT TO NOTE: It is important to keep children safe throughout the process. Families should be properly assessed before a child is placed with them. Reuniting children with their original family is the ideal, but if this is unsafe or inappropriate, other options should be explored. This can include kinship care, foster care and adoption. 

A care plan is developed with and for each child that highlights what needs to happen to prepare the child for placement. After this, a family support plan is created. This lists the changes and support needed to allow both the child and the family to make a successful transition. 

Pastor Myint and CLC’s social worker regularly monitor all of the children who have been placed with a family. The monitoring process becomes less frequent over time for placements that are working well, until the child’s case is closed. This process takes at least 12 months, sometimes longer. Monitoring is done in person, sometimes with phone calls between visits (particularly for children in remote areas). If visits reveal a need for additional support, social workers organise the help required. 

POINT TO NOTE: After children are reunited with their families, monitoring is vital to ensure the placement is stable and the child is safe. 

CLC has now completely closed its first orphanage. The orphanage has transitioned into a family health clinic and community learning centre. The centre offers vocational training, which helps community members to find employment or start their own small businesses. This can help prevent family breakdown in the first place. 

Pastor Myint has also set up an emergency foster care service to provide temporary care for abandoned or abused children. These children are referred by the local police or community leaders. Pastor Myint and his social worker then begin the process of family tracing and assessments. They aim to find a suitable, safe family placement for the child, either through family reunification, kinship care or foster care. 

POINT TO NOTE: When residential care centres transition, the buildings and resources can be used to provide services to strengthen families and the community. 

Partnerships 

Pastor Myint is now an advocate for family-based care, and shares his experiences with other orphanage directors. He is part of the alternative care working group in Myanmar. 

Rebecca Nhep is joint CEO and Head of International Programmes at ACCI Relief. 

Website: www.kinnected.org.au
Email: info@kinnected.org.au
Address: 5/2 Sarton Road, Clayton,
Victoria 3168, Australia
Phone: +61 3 8516 9600 

This article was partially adapted from CAFO’s document Replicable models for transition to family-based care. See www.cafo.org/resource/replicable-models-for-transition-to-family-based-care 


‘I’d like my orphanage to transition! What now?’

Most orphanages will need technical support from an organisation such as Kinnected to help them transition well. This support enables them to put the right frameworks in place for a safe transition. 

Kinnected welcomes enquiries from orphanages that are interested in transitioning (see contact details below). Kinnected will then assess what level of support it can provide. 

A helpful resource is Faith to Action’s Transitioning to family care for children manual. Visit www.faithtoaction.org/resources to download a free copy.