Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We don't need no education...No wait, we really do.

Unethical Social Welfare: Progression At Home While Continuing to Offer Sub-Par Level Care Overseas

To anyone who reads our blog, I am going to be sort of a ‘guest writer’ with this post I guess. Truth is, I really am not “In the know” when it comes to the blog world. I only read a blog post if someone sends me a link to it, and as you can tell, I don’t write too many of these myself.

There is something I have been wrestling with A LOT over the past few months. Something blog worthy? Maybe. I’ll let you decide. I need to provide a little disclaimer before I begin: When we discuss the ethics of orphan care, it is just that a discussion.

I study Social Work at University. This semester I had an adjunct professor who just so happens to be a supervisor at DHS in Philadelphia (Department of Human Services). He liked to tell stories, maybe a little too much. But that’s okay, because I’m pretty sure all of his stories helped me realize how upsetting the gap is between our services for Children and Youth here in the U.S. and the services we offer to the developing world. In this post I am going to question most directly why individuals from the developed world, individuals from countries with progressive social welfare systems- why on earth we think it is okay to move backward and continue offering solutions that have been found ineffective and actually damaging in our own countries. Obviously we have moved away from institutional care in the U.S. (with a movement toward family preservation), but we insist on offering the developed world this sub-par level of care that countless studies have proven damaging not only to the child and family, but to entire communities and cultures.

In Philadelphia, families who DHS feels it necessary to separate are scheduled to be seen in court on multiple occasions. To give you an idea of what this would look like, individuals present at said hearings would most likely include: a judge, a child advocate, the child(ren), parents, other family members, a case worker, and a lawyer defending the parents. These court hearings are held to make sure all parties are doing their job. The judge wants to see evidence that there is a movement toward permanency for the child. If at all possible, it is in the form of reunification with the natural family. For a child to be released back into the care of the home they were removed from, the caregiver must take the necessary steps to make their home a safe place for that child.

Anyone at DHS would tell you that as often as they are referred to as “baby snatchers”, that is not what they are about. Not at all. The social workers, supervisors, and department heads all want to see children out of foster care and reunited with their biological family. They want to see caregivers making the necessary changes to help bring their children home. And it is in fact the case workers’ job to do everything in his or her power to make this possible. Whether it is providing transportation to NA meetings, helping the caregiver look for employment, or finding necessary mental health treatment- the caseworker serves as a broker and advocate for the caregiver.

What I walked away from that class with this semester was DHS’ overwhelming focus on family preservation. So many of the things we are fighting for in Uganda, DHS has and continues to fight for here on the home front. Why? Because they have studied the effects of institutional care on children. They have understood that it is a child’s right to grow up with their God given family. They have realized that it is unethical to automatically write a caregiver off as unfit regardless of your gut feeling. They have understood it entirely necessary to provide a caregiver with the tools to bring their children back home. Does it always work? No way. There are many parents who don’t take advantage of the services provided to them. They do not do their part in completing the steps to make reunification possible, and in this case the caregiver’s rights would be terminated. The point is, they ARE to be given every opportunity to make it possible for their child(ren) to return home. It is up to the caregiver to choose whether or not they will take responsibility and work with the case worker and the courts to meet the requirements for regaining custody of their children.

In Uganda at-risk families aren't even presented with this choice. Just imagine how the number of children living in institutional care would decrease if instead of simply placing children in orphanages, we came alongside the parents and gave them a choice. What if we focused on empowering and helping link them up with the necessary resources to keep their children? We could prevent family separation in the first place.

In some cases there is a definite need to remove a child from the home, however there is a major difference between the care provided when this occurs. One of the major differences between orphanages and foster care as temporary solutions- when children are placed in foster care in the U.S. a social worker is working with their parents to help them regain custody. In Uganda when a child enters an orphanage, the orphanage is not working with the caregiver to help improve their situation- thus the orphanage becomes more of a long-term solution for these families. One of the big questions I want to ask is: If we really love these kids, why aren't we loving their families too?

Why am I presenting you with all of this? Because when we measure services offered to at-risk families in the U.S. against what we fund and promote in Uganda there is a disparaging gap that should upset all of us. I don’t believe in satisfactory care. I believe in researching and educating ourselves before starting NGO’s in cultures SO vastly different from our own. I believe in offering the best care possible, whether it is in North Philadelphia or East Africa. Because if you are not doing this, you are committing a serious disservice to the population you are serving. And you just might be doing more harm than good.

This is only the beginning of this discussion. I tried to keep this post short and to the point, to maybe gain some insight on what others think before expanding further. I plan to address the problem of cultural discrepancy in relation to orphanages in Africa as well as expand further on why family strengthening makes sense as a foundation for addressing care for OVC in Uganda.

Also please read: The Rileys In Uganda.

***Something VERY important I forgot to address in the original post: The focus of this post was on the use of orphanages as permanent, long-term solutions in the developing world. There are orphanages who function as a transitional or interim period for OVC. These orphanages work to resettle children with their families, work to place children in domestic families, and when necessary adopt children internationally. The point I am trying to make here is that these institutions recognize the need a child has for a family, and if at all possible work toward permanency outside of the orphanage. Over the past two years we have been very fortunate to work with and see such a good example of this. Amani Baby Cottage (www.amanibabycottage.org) has provided Megan and myself with the unique opportunity and experience in resettlement work in Uganda. I (Kelsey) also got the chance to work with international adoptions for a brief period as well. I can say with all honesty, in seeing Amani from the inside out, it is one of the most ethically run orphanages in Uganda we have ever come across. The children are well cared for, well loved, and the director/staff are actively working on executing exit strategies for each of the children in their care. Thank you for your example and all you have taught Megan and myself. We would not be where we are without you.



  1. Fantastic Stuff Kelsey. We estimate there are 400+ orphanages in Uganda... imagine if resources flooding into those were directed instead to family and community based empowerment! That's our challenge. Mark

  2. Kudos to you Kelsey! The foundation is the family in any culture. With the family empowered, not enabled, you begin the process of fortifying the foundation. To get to the "root" cause of any issue is always the best way to start. Love your incredible insight, and God given love for these families. ~Sandy

  3. so grateful for people like you, willing to do the "nitty-gritty" of missions work. willing to get behind the scenes and dig deeper to figure out whats really the source of the tragedies. thanks for your example. keep pressing on.

    grateful for your insights in this post...

  4. Kudos for touching a touchy issue with knowledge and compassion. Sounds like this is just a classic case of treating the symptoms instead of the problem. By the way you should read "Little Princes" by Conor Grennan.

  5. Thank you for the recommendation- I just looked it up and will add it to my 'must read' list!