Along the Thai-Burma border are communities fraught with poverty and filled with families struggling to survive. The communities mostly comprise people who fled Burma due to decades of violence and oppression. Their children, stateless and without citizenship or official identity, are at high risk of exploitation, chronic poverty, abuse, and human trafficking. Yet, in the midst of this brokenness is a group of people who, choosing to follow Christ’s example, enter into their neighbors’ suffering and work to bring about restoration and hope. This group is the community outreach team of Compasio, a Christian relief and development organization focused on responding on behalf of at-risk children along the Thai-Burma border. The community outreach team is a key component of Compasio’s broader gatekeeping strategy, which works to determine the best course of action for the at-risk children they encounter.

According to the Better Care Network, “Gatekeeping involves making decisions about care in the best interests of children who are at risk of losing, or already without, adequate parental care.” Gatekeeping is a crucial decision at every decision point on the continuum of care. If a child has been separated from parental care, gatekeeping is the process of assessing whether reunification is possible and appropriate, and if not, what form of alternative care is best given an individual child’s particular situation. Gatekeeping is especially critical in preventing unnecessary or inappropriate placement in formal residential care and is also used to assess the best family options once a child has entered into formal residential care.

Gatekeeping is especially critical for children living in the communities where Compasio works. According to a report by World Vision, “The migration of Burmese to Thailand is one of the largest movements of migrants in all of Southeast Asia making them extremely vulnerable to human trafficking.” Through effective gatekeeping, Compasio is working to strengthen and support these families, reducing their risk of exploitation.

At Compasio, gatekeeping begins with their community outreach team identifying families who are struggling to provide for their children or who believe giving up their child is their only option. Led by their guiding principles, Compasio provides support and services that allow these families, if at all possible, to remain together.

Another component of Compasio’s gatekeeping strategy is found in their understanding that the work they do cannot be done in isolation. Therefore, when a child is found in a high-risk situation, the case comes before the Child Protection Network composed of Compasio and 20 other organizations committed to caring for vulnerable children in their community. Together, they discuss the case, work to determine what is in the best interests of the child, and function as a referral system acting as a bridge between government agencies and the family. Because the concept of alternative care is new to many of these organizations, Compasio has been introducing the network to the importance of prioritizing family strengthening, kinship care, and foster care over the tendency to remove children from their families and place them in long-term residential care.

By providing training on alternative family care, Daniel Nyan, Compasio’s Country Director, has been instrumental implementing a more effective gatekeeping system. This is seen in a case that was brought to the attention of the network by a local orphanage involving Mya,* who had been left in their care. It was known to the orphanage staff that Mya’s mother was mentally disabled, and they believed no other family members were available. Before deciding that the orphanage would be the child’s permanent home, Compasio asked for the child to be allowed to stay in their temporary care while they worked to identify any possible family members. Compasio’s community outreach team located Mya’s father, as well as her extended family. The family members were more than willing to come together to care for the child and support the mother.

Compasio is setting up an informal foster care system that is safe for children and in line with the standards set by Thailand’s Department of Social Welfare. For gatekeeping to be effective, there needs to be a continuum of diverse and high-quality services to choose from. Foster care would add another element to Compasio’s care options, which include family support and strengthening, kinship care, an emergency shelter for women and children, and a drop-in center for children living or working on the street. The variety of care points provides options for the families and children Compasio is serving. Daniel explains, “We do everything we can to see that children can grow up in families in a safe way.”

As seen in the following case, securing family-based care for vulnerable children often involves faith in God’s design for family and belief that brokenness can be restored through the implementation of effective gatekeeping. Compasio’s community outreach team became aware of a couple in their community trying to sell their infant daughter to a family who they believed were better equipped to meet her needs. To assess the best way forward, Daniel and the outreach team made several visits to the family’s home. During one home visit, Daniel asked the mother why she was willing to sell her daughter. She replied, “What do you think makes any mother around the world want to give her baby away? She is one of my beloved. I don’t have options. I lost my hope.” Daniel explains, “It’s a crazy mentality that they love this girl so much, and they know that if they keep her she would grow up to be really poor like them.”

Through critical assessment of the family’s situation, the community outreach team determined that remaining in her parent’s care was the child’s best option. With support and continued follow-up, the parents would be able to properly care for their daughter and understand their crucial role in her development. As a result, a child was protected from exploitation, trafficking, or unnecessary placement in residential care, and a family unit was restored.

For Compasio, gatekeeping is embedded in the entire process: from discovering an at-risk child, to assessing the child’s best care option in collaboration with the Child Protection Network, to being a lifeline for the child and his or her family by providing support, training, and encouragement. Effective implementation of this process ultimately plays a role in the restoration of families and communities.

To learn more about effective gatekeeping strategies, you can refer to a working paper recently published by Better Care Network and UNICEF on the role of gatekeeping in strengthening family-based care and reforming alternative care systems. The role of gatekeeping is also described in Faith to Action’s publication A Continuum of Care for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, and the Christian Alliance for Orphans’ webinar series Knowledge + Practice.

*Name has been changed.