By Amelia Andrews
“When we turn 18, we are alone. We do not have anyone to advise or support us. Society welcomes us only if we hide who we are, our identity. When we leave the orphanage or foster care, we do not know how to manage every day affairs. We have some money but we do not know how to manage it.” -Nahla EINemr, Care Leavers’ Network, Egypt.
Nahla was speaking at an online panel discussion leading up to the first International Care Leavers’ Convention to be held from 23 to 25 November 2020. The webinar, organized by SOS Children’s Villages and the first in a series of webinars leading up to the convention, focused on the need to create peer-support networks for care leavers and the role of civil society in supporting them. Representatives of care leavers’ networks and civil society organisations (CSOs) from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East shared their experiences.
Why peer-support networks matter
Care leavers face a variety of challenges. They struggle with their identity. They carry trauma from their experiences growing up. They face discrimination for having grown up in care. Then, when they reach legal age, they are usually left without any support. That is why it is important to have networks offering support. Martine Tobe from Kinderdorf Perspectief shared insights into the life of care leavers and how they deal differently with issues and questions of life as compared to children growing with parental care. The support of Care Leaver organizations and networks are critical for their well-being, he said.
A care leaver network (CLN) is like a safety net where young people feel they are not alone with challenges. The network allows them to speak with one voice, advocating for change together rather than doing it in isolation. Ruth Wacuca from Kenya, representing the Kenya Society of Care Leavers, said that a CLN is like coming home as not everyone can go back to the place where they grew up.
The social distancing due to COVID-19 has worsened the isolation felt by the care leavers and has increased the urgency to have support networks. In a pre-recorded message, Lady Cobena of Ecuador, who represented the Latin America Care Leavers’ Network, spoke about the importance of support networks, especially during the pandemic. “Knowing that they (care leavers) have a group of young people who can listen to them, help them and give them a word of support makes all the difference to keep going on in such a crisis,” shared Cobena.
Learning about their rights and entitlements is another way care leavers learn from each other. Through CLNs, care leavers can discover their voice and use it for claiming their rights. Childcare institutions should also support care leavers by investing time in educating care leavers to understand the legal provisions open to them. Karishma Singh from Care Leavers Association and Network, India emphasised sensitising childcare institutions so that they can educate care leavers about the legal provisions open to them.
The care leavers also discussed the need to have their rights upheld and be part of decision-making processes so that they share their needs and possible solutions directly with policymakers rather than by people who may not understand their challenges and requirements. Fabienne Landerer from Care Leavers Austria said: "Voices of care leavers need to be taken into account and be integrated in the process of decision making for change."
Progress so far
"Dedicated care leavers and civil society organisations (CSOs) have worked tirelessly to make headway in addressing the challenges such as job opportunities, housing information, tools for policy advocacy, building financial resources and emotional support," said Chathuri Jayasooriya, Advocacy Advisor, Asia, for SOS Children’s Villages.
Growing up in institutions, many care leavers do not have birth certificates. In Sri Lanka, Generation Never Give Up (GNG), a care leavers network, advocated with the government to bring about a landmark policy change in issuing of provisional birth certificates to the care leavers. “These documents give you an identity and an entry into the mainstream society,” shared Nimmu from the GNG network. During the lockdown, the GNG network supported 155 care leavers with financial aid and food rations. Together they mobilised the government to deliver food and other items to care leavers stranded without food or money.
The GNG Network could support the care leavers as they had some sort of a database of care leavers. Mr. Divakar Ratnadurai, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka and one of the panellists, said governments could support care leavers more effectively if they collect information about them in a database. “There should be a formal government initiative to collectivise the care leavers to address the core challenges of employment, education, health care and legal support for care leavers,” said Mr Ratnadurai. “Recognition of CLNs with access to bank accounts and other facilities will go a long way in bringing the care leavers to mainstream.”
In Africa, the initiatives taken by care leavers in Kenya and Zimbabwe are noteworthy. The photo project from Kenya called the Thousand Memories Project captures photos of children in care as they grow up. On leaving care, they are presented with a photo album to give them a sense of belonging and to see how they have evolved over the years giving them identity. Another notable initiative, Singing to the Lions, deals with healing trauma of the care leavers.
Zimbabwe Care Leavers network have brought about the policy change by advocating with the government. They conducted a detailed survey and, based on the results, wrote recommendations for policy changes to amend older policies that may no longer be relevant. The government has undertaken to draft a new set of policies and aims to complete it by December 2020. “Policy changes are important to bring about a favourable sustainable change to the life standards of Care Leavers,” stated Jeffrey Chiasi of Zimbabwe Care Leavers Network.
Bringing care leavers into decision-making entails awareness and knowledge about Parliamentary procedures so that their voice is heard in Parliament. In addition, they need to understand how different bills and other legal provisions have an effect on their lives.
The Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust supports the care leavers by simplifying bills and budgets to help the care leavers understand which programmes are specifically targeted towards them and the financial outlay that they can expect in the national budget. This information helps them to make their case in front of the policymakers. On the other hand, they also sensitise and train the parliamentarians to understand the concerns of the care leavers so that they could support policy changes.
The way forward
The care leavers are looking for fair and progressive solutions. That is why they are mobilising and collectivising themselves. They need to be included and treated equally. They cannot do it alone they need allies. Civil society organizations can fill the gap by supporting them, building their access, knowledge and understanding so that they can meaningfully participate in decision-making processes, get employed and live a full life. On the other hand, working with governments, CSOs can educate policymakers about the challenges of care leavers. They can build a database by reaching as many care leavers as possible, eventually creating a global network of care leavers so that no care leaver is left behind.
Some 260 people attended the virtual forum from 41 countries from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and Australia. The majority of the participants were care leavers themselves followed by researchers and subject matter experts.
The International Care Leavers’ Convention will be held from 23 to 25 November. The Convention is being organised by SOS Children’s Villages, Udayan Care, University of Hildesheim and Kinder Perspectief in association with technical partners such as UNICEF, FICE-International Federation of Educative Communities and Care leavers Networks To register for the convention click here. The full report of the webinar is available here.