Each child living on the street in Jinja, Uganda has a unique story, but many of their stories have similar themes. Broken homes, poverty, abuse, neglect, and addiction are common threads. And many of these children have something else in common—a family who loves them—and if provided with the appropriate supports, these families could welcome their children home.
The passionate and well-trained staff at Jinja Connection run a day program open to children and youth who live on the street. Their goal is to walk with each child, at his or her own pace, never forcing or demanding, but encouraging and listening, with the hope that one day the child will ask for help in going home. There are a number of reasons a child might leave home for a life on the streets. Sometimes poverty is the driving factor and the streets offer the chance to seek out money or food. Other times it is the death of a parent or a separation between a child’s parents that creates a turbulent atmosphere at home.
Three times a week, social workers from Jinja Connection walk the streets where the children tend to congregate, urging them to take advantage of the services offered at the center. The gates open at 8:00 a.m. for a time to shower and wash clothes. The children are required to be at the center by 9:00 a.m. to take part in the activities of the day. This fosters an environment where each child is encouraged to take initiative in his or her own rehabilitation.
Breakfast is served, followed by Bible study, a physical education session, or group counseling, depending on the day. The center does not have an official school; however, classes are offered where trained teachers prepare lessons in basic subjects. While the children are having lessons in math, English, and science, they are also able to practice important skills such as respecting the teacher, collaborating with peers, and learning in a classroom environment. These classes are strategic in building these particular skills, and this type of socialization will aid the children if and when they are able to transition back into a formal school environment.
Individual social work meetings with the children take place throughout the day. While the children are encouraged in group counseling and individual social work meetings to consider the possibility of returning home, a successful transition to home hinges on the child making the decision of his or her own volition. Often, there is a fear associated with going home. Children may fear that after running away they are no longer wanted at home or that they will be in trouble upon returning. If poverty was a driving factor, they could fear that there will still not be enough to go around. These fears, and others, are heard and individually addressed. The value placed on the voice of the child exemplifies one of the key principles in the Transitioning to Family Care for Children: A Guidance Manual which notes, “Meaningful participation goes beyond simply letting children express their views and opinions—it is engaging children and youth as active partners in the process” (20).
Once a child expresses interest in returning home, the staff at Jinja Connection apply the continuum of care model to the child’s case. The continuum of care model is a tool that depicts the different types of care that can come into play when a child is separated from family. Because each child and family has a unique path, the model assists in working toward the best care option in each situation.
In line with best practices, social workers at Jinja Connection do everything possible to reunite the child with his or her family. The child’s unique situation is taken into consideration when social workers construct a reunification plan. There is a family meeting, with as many family members as possible, which includes the child and a social worker from Jinja Connection. Follow-up is provided by weekly phone calls from the Jinja Connection social workers with a home visit after a month’s time. If family care options have been evaluated and are deemed unfit or unsafe due to reasons of abuse or neglect, Jinja Connection partners with local small group homes and places the child temporarily in their care while continuing to work to find a family placement.
David* was one of the first children to take advantage of the programs offered at Jinja Connection when their doors opened in 2012. After being falsely accused of committing a crime in his village, his neighbor suggested he run away to avoid imprisonment. Feeling as if he had no options, he ran away and took to life on the streets in Jinja. When he first arrived at Jinja Connection, he kept a tough exterior and often acted out in violent and manipulative ways. The staff, however, knew that beneath his strong personality was an even stronger leader. After being released from a routine police roundup of children living on the streets, David told the staff that he was ready to go home. By this time, his mother had assumed that her son had died. One can only imagine the joy David’s mother felt when her son was returned home. Today, nearly five years later, David is still at home with his mother and is doing well in a local school. He visits Jinja Connection once a school term to update the staff on his progress.
Children who live on the streets are often labeled as criminals, cast aside by society as hopeless cases. But they are loved and were born in a family, and family is where they can grow and thrive as God intended. The staff of Jinja Connection see beyond these misconceptions and reach out to these children who desire to be loved and to show love. They see a child who desires to go home.