For any child longing to be reunited with his or her family, the emotional and psychological hurdles can be enormous. This is particularly true for children being reintegrated with their families and communities after living on the streets—due to a range of issues, including family breakdown, death of a parent, and poverty.
Street children, in some ways, live their lives in the shadows. They are often forced into unpaid labor positions or a lifestyle of begging. Yet despite the aspects of life that are largely unseen, the stigma attached to a child who has lived on the streets can be hard to extinguish. One of Faith to Action’s key strategies for responding to vulnerable children is reducing stigma and discrimination (see Journeys of Faith, page 6). Reintegrating street children with families thus requires a deep sensitivity to a child’s individual needs, coupled with best practices for how the process can be done with as little stigmatization as possible.
This is the mission of Retrak, a faith-based charity headquartered in the United Kingdom. Retrak originally began working with street children in Uganda, and has since extended its programs to Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and DR Congo. Recognizing that children grow best in families, Retrak not only works alongside street children to provide viable alternatives to the streets, but also actively enables reunification of these children with their families, when mutually desired and deemed safe and appropriate.
Retrak recently developed a set of Family Reintegration Standard Operating Principles (SOPs) that provide clear yet flexible guidelines for implementing their model. These SOPs were highlighted in Faith to Action’s Children, Orphanages, and Families Research Guide (page 8), and are in line with the UN Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children. Basic principles include:
- Making family reintegration first priority,
- Tailoring each reintegration to the individual child and family,
- Building positive attachments between the child and family or caregivers, and
- Involving the wider community.
The journey of 17-year-old Getenet* allows us to explore Retrak’s model of family reunification in Ethiopia. Getenet was a tired and depressed teenager when he first met one of Retrak’s street workers. Five years of constant moving and laboring and living on the streets had taken their toll. Getenet left home when he was only 11 years old. His father had left the family, and Getenet assumed his mother could not support him as well as his younger siblings on her own. For five years, he moved from town to town, eventually making his way to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. During that time, he attempted to save up enough money to return home, but he was left discouraged and destitute. Even if he did save enough money to return home, he feared he would no longer be welcome in his family and village. The stigma attached to him as a son who had abandoned his own mother was too great; the discrimination he was sure to face would be unbearable.
Reintegration always begins with initial care for a child and meeting all his or her basic needs. When Retrak’s staff invited Getenet to one of their drop-in centers in Addis Ababa, he was also given the opportunity to resume school lessons. Although Getenet pursued his studies with enthusiasm, he decided that, at the age of 17, vocational training would be of greater use than school. Resigned to never seeing his family again, he could at least make a more stable living for himself. Inspired by a Retrak workshop on starting a “street business,” Getenet developed a business plan, set up a mobile shop with an assortment of goods to wheel around the marketplace, and finally began saving some income.
Months passed. Getenet was grateful for a regular source of income, but longed for his family. Life skills had boosted not only Getenet’s income, but also the self-esteem to consider returning home. Counseling offers a child the opportunity to discern whether or not family reunification is truly desired. Getenet’s social workers had many long conversations with him about how he might adjust to living in his home village and adjusting his business accordingly. Despite his fears of rejection and stigmatization, Getenet decided he was ready to move back to his family.
Simply returning home, however, required further preparation and discernment. A pre-visit allows trained social workers to determine the family’s and community’s willingness to welcome a child home, and discern their ability to care for him well. Retrak’s local staff tracked down Getenet’s mother, who was astounded to learn that her son was still alive, and she was eager to see him again. The social workers met with the local village council and with neighbors to get a feel for how Getenet might be received by the community and whether he would be able to sustain his living by setting up his mobile shop.
At last, Getenet and his family were ready. Placement day arrived. Accompanied by Retrak social workers, Getenet returned to his home village and was warmly welcomed by his mother and siblings. A successful placement can occur only if or when both the child and family are willing and ready. Furthermore, placement should be done in a way that draws as little attention and stigma to the child as possible. In Getenet’s case, he was not given any cash handouts or flashy charity items. He returned home with his humble mobile shop, a blanket, and a second change of clothes from the local Addis market. And yet, he returned with the skills and confidence to provide for himself and his family.
Of course, Retrak’s involvement did not end there. Successful family reintegration requires ongoing follow-up to ensure that emotional, physical, and social health is maintained. Getenet earned enough money to buy an inexpensive mobile phone. This meant that Retrak’s social workers were able to periodically check in with him. He settled back into village life, helped support his family, and made friends. It has been two years now since Getenet and his family were reunited, and he continues to be deeply grateful for a life lived with his mother and younger siblings again.
Through thoughtful initial care, counseling, placement, and follow-up, a child may once again thrive in his or her own family and community. Getenet’s story is proof—as are the stories of the more than 600 children reunified with their families through Retrak last year alone.
*Child’s name has been changed.