By Gloria Nakajubi
Rose Nalule has a pleasant character. She is outgoing and exudes the confidence of a satisfied corporate lady with a promising career. I met Nalule, 26, at a workshop in town. We soon struck a conversation and got along very well. In the course of our conversation, I asked about her family background. Immediately, I noticed something was amiss.
She felt uncomfortable. Eventually she opened up. She spent her entire life in a children’s home — first as a child and later as one of the administrators – came the bombshell.
As she narrated her story, I felt the emptiness that filled her heart and the thirst to find out who she really was. “I have had the best people around me and for that I can never complain,” Nalule said. “But until I find out who my real parents are or at least some relatives, I don’t think I will ever be at peace,” she says tears welling up in her bright eyes.
Nalule is a typical example of the dilemma and psychological torture children raised in children’s homes face when they grow up. Lydia Ssemwogerere, a family support worker, says the best place any child should be raised is with the parents or at least among blood relatives. “Because even with the best care and attention, they will always desire to find out who they are,” Ssemwogerere said.
“As these children grow up, they tend to feel insecure and are not sure who genuinely loves and cares about them. They don’t have any sense of belonging,” she says.
A 2009 report, Keeping Children out of Harmful institutions – highlights a number of dangers associated with children’s stay in residential institutions. It says while small group homes can sometimes play an important role in meeting the needs of certain groups of children, they at times permanently damage the children. The damage to the children is evident in under or negative physical behavioural and cognitive development.
Besides direct abuse and exploitation, since the institutions are usually closed and isolated and the children are ignorant of their rights, institutional care is arguably creating ‘lost generations’ of young people who are unable to participate fully in society. “After years of following a structured routine in which they exercise little or no choice they may not know how to navigate an independent life,” says the report. “They may not know how to cook, how to handle money, or how to use their initiative.
They are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as they are less aware of their rights and accustomed to following instructions without question,” observes the report. The report was a result of a survey carried out in 2000 on 3,164 children in residential institutions in Romania that found that nearly half confirmed beating as routine punishment, and more than a third knew of children who had been forced to have sex.
Challenges of child protection institutions
According to a 2013 report from a national mapping process undertaken by the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development with support from United Nations Children’s Fund, a number of gaps were highlighted relating to the effectiveness of child protection structures which include limited resources, lack of clear and explicit child protection mandates and a lack of unified mechanism for ensuring that the various child protection institutions are accountable.
A happy Percy at her aunt’s home
Interventions in place
The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development is coming up with an aggressive campaign to ensure that children are resettled back into their communities because traditionally a child is the responsibility of the community. James Ssembatya Kabogozza, the assistant commissioner youth and children, says the ministry is trying to strengthen the inspection systems to ensure that institutions adhere to the set guidelines.
He notes that according to the alternative care framework which all child institutions must adhere to, it clearly stipulates that these are supposed to work as emergency or temporary shelters for children, and not permanent homes. “We believe in the fact that children can best grow up amongst their families and we are working to see that this is fulfilled for every child, “he explains.
Some countries like Sierra Leone have reunited many children with their families and are addressing the use of care institutions. Croatia has achieved important structural and legal changes to ensure that family and community-based care is given greater priority. South Africa has built social protection and other mechanisms to strengthen families and prevent unnecessary separation.
For three–year–old Paula (not real name), would not have survived if it was not for the resilience of her grandmother, Grace Namakula. She would never have known who her parents are or which family she belongs to, something we all treasure in life. As her days for giving birth drew closer, Paula’s mother went to Mulago Hospital from her home in Matugga without informing her husband, not even her parents who stay in the same locality.
Two days in the hospital, she called her husband and told him that she had given birth to an ‘abnormal child’ who had later passed on and she did not know where they had taken the body. So the husband met her in hospital and took her back home.
Tracking the parents
When the nurses noted an unattended to baby, inquiries were made and a search done around the hospital to trace the mother to no avail. This is when they contacted Malaika Babies Home. Victoria Tendo, a social worker in charge of resettlement at Malaika Babies Home says when they receive such cases especially those from hospitals, they use the data that parents give them before they are admitted.
They go on to pass announcements on different media platforms so that people who know the parents could come up and help. This is what happened in Paula’s case. Her uncle heard the announcement on radio and informed her grandmother, who then traced Paula and visited Malaika Babies Home in Mengo.
Percy (not real name), aged five years is another sad tale of abandoned parenthood and for her, hell broke loose when her parents separated and her father insisted on keeping her. When her father got into trouble with the law, she had no one to take care of her at their home in Nsangi on Masaka Road.
Her wails attracted the neighbours who took her to Malaika Babies Home. Her aunt, Noeline Namatovu, who now takes care of her, learnt of her niece’s plight from a community.
Tendo notes that every time they get in touch with the relatives of the children, they do not just give them the child, but also study their conditions to see that they can actually take good care of the child.
They also assess the condition of the primary care giver in terms of health and economic ability. Most families are supported to start up income generating projects such as poultry, piggery and other small businesses of their choice. After all the paper work is sorted, the caregivers are subjected to a two-month training on how to handle the child and familiarise themselves with the baby.
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Home is the best gift every child deserves