There are at least 24 million children around the world living without parental care. As far as we know. More shocking is that we don’t know for sure how many children there are without parental care because in many countries there isn’t a reliable way of counting. The numbers are certainly much larger than the 24 million it is possible to count, and in some countries the percentage of children living away from their families is as high as 30 %. EveryChild’s experience in countries spanning Africa, South and Central America, Eastern Europe, Southern Asia and Central Asia has given us a picture of who is most at risk of losing parental care and what happens to children – particularly in countries with poor resource and infrastructure –when they are compelled to live away from their parents. Our report “EveryChild Deserves a Family” features these children and our concerns about what will happen to them if we don’t start paying them better attention.
While it is a complex picture, children at highest risk of losing parental care fall into similar and often inter-related groups wherever they are in the world: children from poorer families; children exposed to and victims of violence, abuse and neglect at home often associated with drug and alcohol use; children with disabilities and poor health; children who don’t go to school; children of migrant parents. Watching the BBC’s Protecting Our Children over the past three weeks, I have seen many of these situations and factors appearing again and again. In the UK they may be the reason children are removed from unsafe families, in many countries around the world where there are inadequate child protection mechanisms it is these factors that cause these children to run away or be sent away. In many countries, the only care provision for children outside of family care is residential care and the decision to remove children from families or for parents to place their children into institutional care is taken without putting the best interests of the child first. Despite a substantial body of research highlighting the harm caused by residential care, there is growing evidence that residential care is increasing in many parts of the world and that this expansion is unchecked.
For many children and their families across the world the choices are pretty stark. Home life can be violent and unpredictable. There’s never enough food for everyone and school isn’t an option if you are needed to bring in a bit of extra income. Institutional homes at least provide food and shelter and possibly the chance to gain some education, however poor the conditions, however inadequate the care and however damaging the long-term consequences. If it’s a choice between starvation and survival a bus-ticket to the capital and the chance to earn a few pennies or even a fortune might seem like a better option. Not surprisingly, many parents choose to send their children away. And many children run away from the poverty, violence and neglect and disappear into the vortex of street survival where they are not counted and simply do not count.
Somewhere in this picture, there are social workers. Countries that are signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – and that’s everyone except the USA – have the primary duty to promote children’s rights and best interests and in many countries this duty falls to statutory social work. A set of guidelines on alternative care provision for children produced two years ago to accompany the CRC states that where a public or private agency is approached by a parent or guardian wishing to relinquish care of a child the state should ensure that the family receives counselling and social support to encourage and enable them to continue to care for the child. In many countries this is provided to or purchased for the family by statutory social work agencies. The guidelines go on to describe the role the state should play in decisions to rehabilitate children, to support children living in child-headed households and specify the need for ‘social work with the family’ and an assessment of the best interests of the child before separation.
In a report just published by EveryChild which examines the state of social work around the world we document four broad approaches to social work: case work – what we would understand as social work, working directly with families to provide support; case management – the role of the social worker here is to buy the services for the family from a range of providers, separate from delivering the services themselves; community engagement – working within the community and less formal; social protection – cash transfers to reduce poverty where the role of the social worker is to provide information about the availability of such provision, to administer it and in some schemes to provide support to accompany it which promotes well-being. What’s clear from our report is that while there are common themes and functions, in many countries there remains a low level of provision and even where social work is developing, human resources remains a key problem.
While the state provision of social work is often inadequate, there are some remarkable schemes run by independent organizations which manage to reach the most challenging families and deliver real results. I know my colleagues in Mexico will recognize the mums, dads, grans and children who featured in Protecting Our Children. They work with children who live and work on the street and with their families. Children who are caught up in cycles of violence where the traumatic experience of violence leads to poor life-long outcomes and makes violence more likely in the future. Drawing on neuro-scientific research and a therapeutic approach they have developed an intensive support programme for families which has lead to successful transformation within families. What is probably most remarkable about the work of organizations like Juconi and others in their Safe Families Safe Children network is that they are providing this intervention with very little resource and at very low cost. While the individual social workers who they employ will have a pretty full case-load, they make sure that their interventions last as long as the family need them and they focus on quality support rather than reaching the largest numbers.
And that is the biggest challenge for non-governmental agencies and the state in attempting to provide services to support families and to protect children. As long as child survival and infant mortality remain the only international goal recognized by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) children’s well-being and their rights to be free from exploitation, violence and abuse, to grow up in “a family environment in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” (CRC), to develop and learn and to participate in decisions that affect their lives will continue to be ignored. While the numbers of children and families requiring social work support are unknown, the need is clearly there and the resource to deliver it is totally inadequate.
Social work has a critical role to play in helping children achieve these rights. In countries where the profession is far less developed than here the debates about social work are just as lively. They include whether services should specialize or be generic, how to set them up so that social workers aren’t hampered by bureaucracy and can spend as much time as possible on case work. They are trying to balance out the risks and benefits of de-centralising services and the need to operate on a large scale. However, the dominance of rich-world or western models of social work are often seen to be inappropriate to the economic, social and political context of more resource constrained countries. Whilst there is much to be gained by cross-fertilisation of ideas and learning from different approaches, the wholesale adoption of systems from different cultures has many drawbacks.
In my experience of talking with children and families in some of the world’s poorest communities, those who have been offered social work support where there was no support before see social workers as a resource to be drawn upon, as a positive addition to a community’s coping mechanism and a life-line for the most vulnerable families. They remain largely invisible, but at least are not vilified and condemned by the rest of society. The growth and development of social work in resource-poor countries will continue to depend on the political will of authorities, they have the chance to learn from both the positive and negative lessons learnt in countries like the UK and to teach us a different way of making sure children get the chance to grow up in a safe, caring family.
Anna Feuchtwang (@AnnaFeuchtwang) is the Chief Executive of Every Child. Every Child is an international development charity working to stop children growing up vulnerable and alone.
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