After years of caring for vulnerable children within a residential setting, Vision Africa, a faith-based organization in Kenya, expanded their vision by adjusting their strategies to support the healthy development of children in families.

Vision Africa was founded in 2001 by John and Vera Packard in response to the overwhelming needs of the children they encountered in the community as they administered a children’s home in Nairobi. Initially, they took on the management of two children’s homes from an organization that was unable to continue their administration.

John and Vera’s granddaughter, Deborah Kimathi, eventually took over leadership of the organization and, in 2009, began to expand upon their vision. Motivated by key research findings about the limitations of residential care and the positive benefits of family care, Deborah and her team took strides toward placing all children in their care into families. They developed a strategy for transitioning their means of caring for children from residential care to families, and then began a process of deinstitutionalization.

Deborah currently leads the organization’s family-based care work, carrying on her grandparents’ vision to see children equipped and empowered to have a future in which they reach their potential, live independently, have dignity, be productive, and live free from poverty.

Years later, Vision Africa continues to refine the process of transitioning, learning from each new integration of a child into a family, and finding new ways in which the existing facilities and assets, formerly used in residential care, can be repurposed to support family-based care.

Vision Africa is fervently working to place children in permanent families. In one of their children’s homes, 73 percent of the children have been reintegrated into Kenyan families through fostering or adoption. One nine-year-old girl named Lilian* lives with her foster family. As a toddler she was abandoned by her birth family and brought to one of the children’s homes. The staff was unable to locate her family, and she remained at the home until she was nine years old. The caregivers saw her as quite vulnerable, in need of more care, attention, and love than was available in the context of the children’s home. A single woman in Nairobi chose to foster her and is now pursuing a full adoption of Lilian. The foster mother has found deep happiness in contributing to Lilian’s development and helping her navigate the relational gaps that are typical of children raised in institutions. Lilian is enrolled in school, has made friends, and has settled well in her new family. Vision Africa continues to make family visits and support Lilian and her foster mother as part of their reintegration process.

Vision Africa utilizes their resources to benefit children in a variety of circumstances. The children’s home facilities were converted to training and resource centers. Families who are caring for children coming out of the children’s homes have full access to supportive services at the newly converted centers, and a valuable network for the children and their new caregivers has developed there. The repurposing of the homes has also made Vision Africa a greater resource for the broader community, providing support for families who are at risk of separation. Finally, Vision Africa is able to provide for emergency and temporary care needs that arise out of dire situations from these centers. For children experiencing abuse, having access to short-term shelter is a critical safety net.

For one family, the temporary shelter in the converted children’s homes was a lifeline. Baby Alice* arrived at one of the centers when she was only two months old because her mother was experiencing acute postnatal depression and was unable to care for her. During Alice’s stay, her mother accessed psychiatric support services and therapy, while her father and siblings visited her every weekend, and efforts were made to ensure healthy bonding. After being treated for a year, Alice’s mother was able to reenter Alice’s life, beginning with visiting Alice to initiate further bonding. Upon evaluation and approval by governmental mental health professionals, Alice and her family were fully reunited after one year.

Throughout the transitioning process, Deborah has learned, “The biggest task of all is not the family tracing and reunification, but rather it is the shifting of a community’s mindset. It takes a lot of convincing to really show people the challenges of institutionalization, and yet we continue to see that the harm goes well beyond the obvious.”

For those interested in learning more about this and other aspects of planning for transition, the Transitioning to Family Care for Children guide is the good place to start. Such guidance sustains Deborah’s conviction that Vision Africa must work toward full deinstitutionalization to family care, while using their existing resources in creative ways to continue to support children in emergency situations and those who have been reintegrated into alternative family care.