In Armenia there are around 4,500 children living in residential institutions, a situation caused by the weak social protection system, an insufficient number of community-based services and lack of gate-keeping mechanisms due to overall weakness and inefficiency of the system, leftover from the Soviet Union. In the last decade, the Government of Armenia (GoA) initiated the process of reorganization of residential institutions for children and began making significant investments in the development of social services and program alternatives to residential care. However, Armenia faces multiple difficulties in sustaining various initiatives and programs, and the NGO sector and UN agencies remain key players in child protection and family support services.
World Vision, an international faith-based NGO, supports the goal for every child to live in a healthy family supported by sustainable communities. In the 1990s, World Vision’s work around de-institutionalization, also called child protection reform, was instrumental to its work to improve children’s lives in Eastern Europe.
As Operations Manager overseeing child protection programming while working with World Vision Armenia, I was engaged in de-institutionalization work focused on the transformation of institutions for children with special needs, including children with disabilities and those in conflict with law. It was a challenging but rewarding journey. Throughout the process we had no doubts that the best place for a child is family. This was not only because of the serious scientific evidence of the damage of institutional care on a child’s development, but the observation that, even in the best conditions a facility could offer and in the face of having hard family situations back at home, still kids in institutions were constantly saying: “I want to go back home and be with mom and dad!” To me, this speaks loudly of the importance of family to a child.
One of the key things that this experience brought home to me is that transforming institutions takes considerable effort, commitment, and a strong collaboration between various stakeholders, such as children and their families, teachers, parents, the government, non-governmental sector, and others. Re-integration of children back into the family is a long process, which needs to be well and carefully planned and implemented. A first step is often re-establishing communication between the family and the child, since many families lose contact with children in institutions due to their inability to visit because of barriers of distance and competing pressures. Often reunification includes family therapy, counseling, monitoring, and critical/social problem-solving support. The social support in most cases relies on locally found solutions to be adequate and sustainable. Careful monitoring of the reintegration process and follow-up is absolutely necessary to ensure that the situation is safe and stable. The story of reunification is different for every child and family, but telling these stories helps illustrate the importance of the process.
I met little Ester in an orphanage for children with disabilities. She was 6 years old and didn’t have any disabilities. Later I learned that she was brought to the orphanage together with her brother in order not to be separated from him. Her brother was 9 years old and he had some light visual issues, which were corrected with eye glasses he was wearing. It was really strange to see these two bright kids in this institution for more severely disabled children where it was shockingly obvious that this was not the place for them to be. Unfortunately many children in institutions were misplaced in Armenia at that time, appearing in a special type of facilities primarily due to hard socio-economic situations and were called “social orphans”.
Ester and her brother Erik were warm and kind kids and they studied well at school, but the sadness that was constantly present in their eyes was heartbreaking. I learned that their parents lost their jobs long ago and had to sell the apartment to repay the debts. As a result the whole family appeared on the street – the mother had to beg money in the streets, the father worked very hard unskilled labor when work was available, but was paid very little. It was impossible for the family to survive. Their parents made a decision to send their children to the orphanage where they thought it would at least provide a roof above their heads, warm food and bed to sleep. It was a hard decision. When I later met the mother she couldn’t stop crying while telling the story of how her kids were placed in the orphanage.
World Vision’s team decided to follow-up on this specific case. The project’s social worker was leading the process. They located a home in a rural area that was left empty after the war in Azerbaijan and could be donated and utilized for another family to start anew. It was really a solution for the family, as currently Ester and Erik’s parents were leaving on the streets. This was a glimpse of hope for reunification of the family to live together. The family moved into the house.
World Vision helped provide the family with a cow in order to have milk and there was an opportunity for a small garden in front of the house. In some ways, this new life was quite challenging in the beginning. The parents were from an urban setting and had never dealt with agriculture or cattle breeding before. Rural life was unfamiliar and hard, but again the family was not left alone. World Vision partnered with the whole village to unite around them in support – support with advise and teaching how to take care of the garden and the cow, sharing supplies and seeds, warm clothes and books for the children- a true model of community-based care and support in their new community. The mother later confessed, “The warmth of these people and their encouragement that now when we are all together as a family, everything will be fine, really helped us to start the new life.”
As the family became more established in the community, the father got a job in the local power station, utilizing his background as an engineer. After a while we heard that the father was not satisfied with the quality of education in the rural school. He felt his kids could do more than the local school could provide, and he started to think about moving the family back to the capital to ensure a better education for his children. The mother was afraid of moving the family since they had just started to settle and strengthen. A local multidisciplinary team, together with local authorities, came together to discuss the situation and see what alternative solutions could be found. As a result, the community initiated a process through a methodology called Citizen Voice and Action addressing the quality of education services provided. And as a result of this process, a new teacher was allocated to the village school, extracurricular classes were established, and conditions were improved. This drastically improved the level of education quality in the school. Consequently, both the family stayed in their home and children in the whole village had access to improved education. A few years later, the family welcomed a third child.
The adverse impacts of institutionalization on children have long been proven by researchers around the world. This story also shows that institutional care was not making children happier or better off. On the contrary, it was making the family weaker and provoked to slowly fall apart. Children grow best in families. Community-based alternatives to institutional care empower and support families to care for, protect and ensure the well-being of their children. Moreover, it is a fundamental right of a child to grow and develop in a family environment, which needs to be respected and protected.
Kristine works with nearly 100 countries around the world to support strategic and technical learning around child protection programming. One of the main programming approaches she is leading is around ensuring piloting and on-going learning on Child Protection and Advocacy (CP&A) model, which is part of World Vision International (WVI) global technical child protection initiatives. She is one of the primary developers of the CP&A model and has an extensive experience in building the capacity of Regional and National office staff in child protection and local advocacy related approaches, methodologies and tools. Previously, Kristine has worked for 10 years in WV Armenia, leading the operations and ensuring learning and application of innovative approaches towards transformational development and child well-being and exchange of experience with other countries in the region and outside. Armenia is Kristine’s home country. She served as Government of Armenia relations person to collaborate and reach sustainability for WV Armenia’s programming, to advocate and lobby the Government for sustainable child well-being reforms, particularly targeting the most vulnerable. Before joining WV, Kristine has worked for Save the Children-US as Monitoring and Evaluation Officer. Her education background is in Social Science with key study areas including sociology, social policy and welfare reforms, integrated community development.