On the 14th of May, as part of the VIVID-T project, TearFund hosted the conference Beyond Institutional Care: Rethinking How We Care for Vulnerable Children exploring the topic of Care Reform and why volunteering in orphanages is changing. The Umbrella Foundation, an organisation that moved away from orphanage care and now focuses on the reintegration of children back to their families, shares with VIVID-T a case study that is just one part of their transitional journey.
“The Umbrella Foundation’s story in Nepal is an unlikely one. This month, we are in the fortunate position of winding up our organisation in a responsible way–closing bank accounts in Ireland and Nepal, sorting final evaluations with government bodies and figuring out how to best support a few ‘special cases’ in the years ahead. We even have surplus funds to direct to our local Nepali partner to support more care-leavers in the coming years.
But for the majority of our 17 years, as with many grassroots organisations, we struggled financially and had no real strategy that we could talk to. At our height, we had 325 children living in eight homes, with 70 staff and an average of 15 volunteers – so over 400 mouths to feed twice a day every day, and it was not uncommon to push our creditors (food suppliers, landlords, school principals, etc.) for months before payment, because we simply didn’t have it. Similarly, in terms of what was best for the children, we probably didn’t look at the big picture enough. To us, giving those in our care the best education we could afford equated to what was in their best interest. The organisation was built with big hearts but lacked proper planning.
Despite all of this, somewhere along the way we inadvertently became a leader in deinstitutionalisation – a term we would learn of years after we had begun our journey. Three things happened around 2009/10 that would lead us to shift our focus away from prioritising education, and instead focusing on getting every child that we could back with their family.
The first was a chat with our eldest youth Pasang*, then 19 or 20 and doing a bachelor’s degree, and him telling us he felt alone, that he felt like an outsider when he visited family in far west Nepal, but also didn’t feel at home in Kathmandu without family. Despite giving him the best opportunity, we could afford, as an adult, he felt lost.
The second came about when we realised that the expectations of those graduating from (private) school were not realistic. They wanted to follow their wealthier classmates in becoming doctors and lawyers, whereas we needed them to be self-sufficient and employable soon after leaving our care.
And finally, when the annual Dashain festival came around (the Christmas equivalent), we couldn’t help but notice the number of our children that had some sort of family in the villages. Our research found that the main reasons these family members wanted the children to remain in Umbrella’s care boiled down to private education, the cost-saving, and the perceived quality of care from all the white ‘foreigners’ at Umbrella…the volunteers.
Equipped with the knowledge from these experiences, the only logical next step for us was to place all in our care into government-run Nepali-medium schools (same as in villages), build our reintegration team and processes, develop support packages for families, and begin an awareness campaign for the children, families, staff, government officials and other key stakeholders in the rural communities. Umbrella has had over 200 successful family reintegrations and found the families of all but one of the 411 children in our care.”
In Europe, the most current and accurate estimate points at over 100 million persons with disabilities, including children, in the European Union (EU). 1 million persons are estimated to be segregated and living in residential institutions. Persons with disabilities, particularly those with high support needs, are highly at risk of being institutionalised. The independent living movement and disability movement are campaigning for a transition from institutional to community-based care. The aim is to arrive at a point where we no longer have institutions, and where every person, every child with disabilities has a choice about where they live, and with whom, including access to support to live independently.
EDF is working on getting more information about how the EU works on deinstitutionalisation in countries outside the EU. While concerns have been raised about the EU’s ability to implement and monitor these rules within Europe, there is no information about the work of the EU on deinstitutionalisation in EU global work. Stay tuned for more information!
This blog has been prepared by Stephen Jenkinson who was the Country Director for three years for the Umbrella Foundation and also available on Tearfund Ireland’s website.
An additional paragraph on disability and inclusion in context has been written by Dr. Marion Steff, international cooperation manager.