Orphanage vs Community Based Childcare: The Experience of JeCCDO, Ethiopia

February 10, 2015

In August, a study comparing children’s experiences growing up in orphanages versus foster care was discussed on NPR, Study: Kids in Orphanages Can Do as Well as Those in Foster Care. We asked Mulugeta Gebru for his thoughts on the study. Mulugeta is the Executive Director of Firelight partner, Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organization (JeCCDO) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He’s also a Firelight Advisory Council member.

by Robin Dixon
If you’ve had the good fortune to meet him, you know he’s a kind-hearted, wise man that listens closely and offers a smart, thoughtful perspective. His sincere smile and deep laugh lends itself well to his deep commitment to children and families.

Mulugeta joined JeCCDO at a time the organization operated orphanages and decided to transition children back into community-based settings. We asked him a few questions to shed some light on this important subject.

Do you think children should be in a family setting instead of institutions?

Yes, from its practical experiences while running orphanages for more than a decade, JeCCDO  has drawn a powerful lesson that institutional child care is not the right place for children to grow and develop. We strongly believe that orphans and vulnerable children should be taken care of within a family setting which is the natural environment for any child for proper socialization and upbringing.

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What motivated you to change the JeCCDO model, and transition children out of orphanages and into family settings?

The shift of JeCCDO in Childcare approach from the institutional model into community based model almost twenty years ago, was derived from realistic lessons learnt about the shortcomings of the institutional childcare approach and the advantages of the family centered and community based approaches. Our experiences have clearly told us that institutional childcare:

  • Promotes dependency and undermines the child’s potential for self-reliance
  • Deters proper socialization process of the child
  • Denies the love and protection a child should get from his/her family  and community
  • Leads to identity crisis and disconnects the roots of the child with the family and the community
  • Does not address root causes of child vulnerability• Discourages responsibility of the family and the community in caring for children
  • Is not cost effective and, thus does not allow to address as many needy children as possible
  • Does not take individual difference of the child into account as it deals with children collectively
  • Stigma from the surrounding community on a child  living  in orphanages.

What happened once you dissolved the orphanage model at JeCCDO?

JeCCDO deinstitutionalized its orphanages through careful planning and implementation of child-family reunification and reintegration programs guided by a strategy in phased manner. The reunification program dealt with reuniting the younger children with their immediate and extended families after undertaking family tracing and reunification survey for each child. The reintegration program, on the other hand, focused on ensuring the social and economic self-reliance of older children aged 16 and above through vocational skill training, higher education and small business schemes.

While implementing the deinstitutionalization process, we at same time started the family centered and community based childcare approach as pilot project (in one of the areas where we were running orphanage) with the view to prevent child vulnerability and ensure the growth and development of children in a family setting within their communities. The deinstitutionalization process created a chance for JeCCDO to establish relationships with communities and to learn advantages of family centered and community based approach over the orphanage model.

After transforming orphanages, we scaled up the pilot project and continued implementing child focused integrated community development programs in different parts of Ethiopia which aimed at enabling families as well as the community at large and its grassroots structures to provide care for its own children. The underlying principle behind this approach is that if families and communities are supported to develop the necessary capacity to take care of their children, there will not be a need for orphanages. The JeCCDO’s infrastructures now are used to implement the new approach by changing them into community development training and demonstration centers for community based organizations. Currently, JeCCDO is working with about 137 community based organizations undertaking child-focused projects in different parts of the country.

What advice do you have for others questioning the institutional versus family approach to caring for children?

JeCCDO always challenges institutional child care model and would like to advise that:

  • Orphanages are not the right places for children to grow and they should never be encouraged. No one wants to send his/her child to orphanage if that is the case why orphan children are supposed to stay in orphanages.
  • If circumstances dictate for institutional care of children, it must be taken as a temporary solution and the durations of children’s stay in orphanages should be as short as possible.
  • As children stay longer in orphanages they lose their roots with the community and deinstitutionalization becomes more complicated.
  • Deinstitutionalization of orphanages is a process, not a one time and abrupt activity. It requires careful planning as well as institutional and personal commitments to face and overcome associated challenges from different directions.
  • Families and communities should be given the opportunity to develop their overall potentials so that their children can be taken care of within the family.

This article was originally published on the website of Firelight Foundation and was copied with the approval of Firelight and Mulugeta Gebru of JECCDO.