It is a dangerous thing having friends who actually want better for you. I get regular emails from a dear friend who is always letting me know of the greater world of international child welfare enticing me to fantasize of the possibility of doing social work in the way I dream. Even living so close to New York City, it is rare to get the chunk of time needed to engage. Lucky for me, I married the right man who endorses just about every chance I get to play with my fantasy.
Sent email reading…“Please make it home in time to pick up the kids from school, skip taekwondo, stay home to work on the cars for the pinewood derby so no one needs to be shuttled about and I will be home by 5:30 to put dinner on the table.” Thus, by 3PM, I am sitting in UNICEF house to witness the Launch Event of Moving Forward: Implementing the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.
Facilitating the presentation was Susan Bissell, Associate Director of Child Protection at UNICEF. In my mind, Ms. Bissell has the most amazing job. More pointedly, she has the most amazing memory. I met her once and she has been gracious to remember me every time I make contact with her.
Jennifer Davidson, Director for the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland shared the process in developing the Handbook. She offered that in launching this Handbook offers a new paradigm. To me, she offered hope that there were real tools to use from the simple front line practitioner to the government of a country to change the way we see the care of a child who needs intervention and others to take the charge in giving them care. The writers chose to highlight programs from countries – none represented twice – implementing various recommendations. From the US was the adoption agency, You Gotta Believe!, an agency that specializes in finding homes for adolescents and kids who age out of foster care. Anyone who has ever heard Pat O’Brien, Executive Director of this organization, would walk away believing in him and his mission. I still remember a marvelous story Mr. O’Brien shared years ago of a creative mother, a curse word and a birthday cake.
Third to speak was Cecilia Anicama, Programme Specialist to the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children. What stood out of Ms. Anicama’s presentation was the affirmation that we need to prevent institutionalization. That statement wasn’t made to pander to the audience as she knows all too well, there will always be children who need to be cared for outside of their family of origin. But institutionalizing a child exposes a child to violence six times higher than a child who is placed in foster care. Ms. Anicama specified this violence in terms of bullying, abuse and violence by other children. An affirmation again of what I learned living with the children of the orphanage I came from. It felt like “Lord of Flies”, I don’t think I was far off in that analogy.
Minister of Social Welfare of Indonesia
Inspiring that a country that actually commits to implementing the guidelines and use the Handbook as a tool to inform government. A country that espoused a “system of child welfare as institutional care” in 2005 with 8000 child care institutions where 90% of the children are not orphaned or abandoned has a right to be optimistic about their changes as by 2011, Indonesia set a national standard of care that targets education, health, parental support and social welfare for children. I think the standout statement was when Minister Sunusi admitted to a governmental re-evaluation of the funding of institutions and suggested that funds were changed to family support with a comprehensive assessment of a child’s needs.
Listening to Minister Sunusi, I had the fantasy that someday, the Minister of Health and Welfare of South Korea would say something along the same lines. While talking to one of my orphanage brothers recently, I am reminded our orphanage is still a home to children, not one legally free for adoption. My old Home exists for the parents to temporarily place their children while they get their act together, get a job, get remarried, etc. But I know, rare is the kid who escapes the stigma of being an “orphanage kid” as rare is the kid who gets to leave the Home before the age of 16, forever a second class citizen.
The room was nearly 60 plus full of people and I felt so small and inconsequential knowing that many were doing the work that this Handbook was recommending. Hard questions were asked about how to promote this new paradigm of child centered thinking where there is so little in the way of funding and resources.
Language was the most profound concept for me while listening. Global initiatives and working with people who use words differently, speak differently, will push one to be polite, respectful, circumspect, careful and very specific. With dissonance there comes even more care in the choice of words without losing the passion for the work that needs to be addressed. There was the call to make a distinction between “residential care” vs. “institutional care”. Too, culture was all enmeshed in the rhetoric. It was brought up that there is an Eastern European country that has physicians encouraging parents to place their special needs newborns into an institution, eschewing these babies away. I know they are not the only one choosing to hide away their less than typical babies to be raised in aggregate care rather than in the arms of humans, especially their parents, who will touch them, reach out to them, be touched by them, see them with potential. An education not just for a society to change the way they see their children, but the education may even begin with the most educated of society.
Adoption was everywhere in the discussion. My ears perked every time I heard the word being used. It was refreshing to hear it in the context of a list of alternatives for children, in neutral but necessary terms. I believe that is where the word adoption is suited best, within a context of options.
The paradigm I was hearing and envisioning was a space in which the child was the source and center of intervention options. I hope I was getting that right.
Please read the complete Handbook with me. I am halfway through. http://www.alternativeguidelines.org