Safe and loving families are important for the development of communities and our wider society. Their existence is critical for the protection and holistic development of children and by extension the well-being of our nation. It is primarily `through families that social and cultural norms are learnt and transferred to the current and future generations. Separation of families, in particular children being removed from their families because the family home is unsafe, threatens the stability of the social framework of our communities. Children exposed to these adverse circumstances experience fear, anxiety, and trauma and sometimes further abuse and violence. There are many factors that lead to children being separated from their families, these includes divorce, death, poverty and migration. However permit me to focus on child abuse in its various forms and family violence as this is the main reason for children being separated from their families and placed in orphanages/ institutional care.
ChildLinK’s 2016 report: An Analysis of the Nature and Extent of Institutionalization of Children in Guyana, explored the experiences of children in orphanages in Guyana as well of that of their parents. The report found that an alarming total of 565 children were placed into institutional care as result of child abuse during a two-year period of 2014 and 2015. It should be noted that the Childcare and Protection Agency (CPA) is making every effort to reintegrate children from institutional care back to family-based care because they recognize the importance of children growing up in families. This is evident, especially in the Alternative Care Policy adopted by Cabinet in November, 2018 which places special emphasis on deinstitutionalization of children from institutional care and strengthening family-based care. However, the increasing rate at which child abuse cases are reported to the CPA indicates that the issue of child abuse threatens the likelihood of many children remaining in their families. In 2014, 2,745 cases of child abuse were reported to the CPA. In 2018, 4,917 cases of child abuse were reported to the CPA. That is an increase of 79% in a five-year period!
ChildLinK’s aforementioned 2016 report stated, “Caregivers and Key Informants participating in the study stated that children were commonly placed in residential care due to sexual abuse, with victims being both girls and boys. While sexual abuse was perpetrated against girls between the ages of 10-16 mainly, boys as opposed to girls were the main victims of physical abuse” (Bess-Bascom, 2016). With respect to child sexual abuse, 40% of child sexual abuse victims referred to ChildLinK between 2014 and 2018 were abused by a family member with access to the child (Fontes, 2018). This data indicates that children are vulnerable to abuse in the very place where they should be safe: their home. Thus, the unfortunate but necessary measure of removing the child from the home is sometimes necessary for the safety of the child; but only as a temporary measure.
According to an article published in Guyana Times March 9th, 2019. First Lady Sandra Granger stated that, in 2018, it was reported that there was a 14 percent increase of cases of violence against women over a six-year period. “Women are often targets of … violence. However, domestic violence is also inflicted upon children, whether they are witnesses to the abusive behaviour or themselves victims of it… The children were removed for their safety” (Bess-Bascom, 2016). We tend to overlook the extent of the impact domestic abuse has on children involved. The April 3, 2019 edition of Stabroek News reported a 2015 case where a man was sentenced to 14 years for the killing of the one year grandchild of his ex-lover and wounded the child’s then 12 year old aunt in his attempt to shoot his ex. Children are not only separated from their family due to domestic violence, but in many cases some of these children either grow up to become perpetrators of domestic violence or victims.
The troubling reality is that there is a lack of safe families for children and it is one of the leading reasons in Guyana that many children are placed into institutional care. This is certainly an eye opener. Children who are placed in institutional care as a result of abuse suffer double trauma. The trauma from the abuse and the trauma of being separated from their families and communities.
In spite of the violence that remains in the home, many children have a strong desire to be reunited with their families. “When asked to identify what makes them happy; 33% of children in the study reported that being with their families made them happy… Children in the 10-12 age group are bothered about their parents dying and them having to remain in residential care as a result. They expressed that they felt assured of their parents’ continued existence only when they see them. There is generally a preoccupation among the 13-17 age group with being able to live in a family setting, and receiving family care before they become adults. Children in the 13-17 age group perceived visits by their parents and other relatives as an indication of care and concern for them (the child), and they highly valued this experience” (Bess-Bascom, 2016). The report further states, “Children across all age groups in the sample longed for the love and care of their families, particularly their parents, and viewed parents not visiting or seldom visiting as an indication that their biological families did not care for them” (Bess- Bascom, 2016). At the time of ChildLinK’s 2016 study, a then 19-year-old was in institutional care due to child sexual abuse revealed to the researcher, “I just want to see my family… I want my daughter to know her grandparents and aunts and cousins… I don’t want my child to grow up all her life in a children home. I want her to have a normal life…” (Bess-Bascom, 2016).
Government and civil society face a daunting challenge: keeping children in family based care despite the reality that there are increasing reports of abuse and violence against children and women in those homes. There is also the challenge of reintegrating children from institutional care back to their family; and doing so in a manner that is in the best interest of the child and in line with international best practices.
Where reintegration is possible ChildLinK and its development partners; European Union and the British High Commission collaborated with the CPA to reintegrate children from orphanages to their families. This initiative is called the Recovery, Safeguarding & Reintegration (RSR) project. In this initiative counselors in both the CPA and ChildLinK are working collaboratively to reintegrate children back to their families. This is a process that starts with engaging the families to determine their interest in having their children being returned and to assess the extension to which the family setting may be conducive for protecting and caring for children. Where there is an interest for the children to be returned home, ChildLinK and CPA work with the families to prepare for the return of the children and the children are subsequently informed and are prepared to return home. This process takes several months as both carers/parents and children are counseled and the home is prepared, in some instances the CPA will provide some initial support to help the families adequately cater for the child needs. Both ChildLinK and CPA officers and Parenting Skills Trainer work closely with the families assisting with each stage of the reintegration process.