By Josephine Tusingwire and Henok Dana
The NGOs Railway Children and JUCONI International hosted a conference from 17-18 November, 2016 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania titled “Breaking the Cycle: Reintegrating street-connected children: applying theory, developing practice.” Breaking the Cycle was attended by a broad range of stakeholders working to change the lives of street-connected children through policy-making, research and practical fieldwork. The conference provided ample opportunity for delegates to engage in collaborative knowledge-sharing and learning regarding strategies to end the cycle of family violence impacting street-connected children. Josephine Tusingwire (Retrak Uganda) and Henok Dana (Retrak Ethiopia) attended this conference and shared their perspectives based on various programmes and events.
The conference was attended by up to 250 delegates who got a chance to collaborate and learn from one another, sharing best practice in work with street-connected children and building networks. The delegates were given the opportunity to update their knowledge of new research and current thinking from about 25 expert speakers from around the world and to discuss and understand strategies proven to break the cycle of family violence affecting street-connected children.
Delegates further explored how to put theory into practice by selecting from a variety of participatory workshops running at the same time each afternoon. The workshops I attended tackled key issues and challenges including the power of storytelling in work with street-involved families and within organizations, de-institutionalization as an entry point into reforming a childcare system, and approaches to working with street-connected children.
Here are some key lessons learned with implications for Retrak Uganda’s work –
- Storytelling can be a powerful tool in work with street-involved families and within organizations; important life cycle events like births, deaths, new relationships, and beginning of work or school can be tracked and used to create an environment for conversation, connection and reconciliation. They help families draw timelines from where they began, to where they are now and where they would like to be in the future. Telling stories connected with such milestone events further helps in creating circles of witnessing, attachment, understanding and healing. This enables counselors to assist people to share their internal experiences, examine their emotional life, self-regulate and change strong and violent reactions, and heal from challenging experiences. However, this process calls for patience and time and therefore should be deliberately organized. Also, because of the emotions that may be involved, it is safer when facilitated by a professional counselor/psychotherapist. For children who may have failed to reintegrate because of poor relationships with their families, if such children have been supported from elsewhere and have successfully completed studies, graduation is a good moment when family members can be invited to attend and connect with the child. Seeing the child achieve a milestone may bring the parties closer. This may eventually foster acceptance and the return of the child to a home environment. The deliberate marking of a child’s graduation, for instance after a vocational training course, through a congratulatory event can also help to motivate other children.
- Gatekeeping is key in preventing separation and the risks of children getting onto the streets. As such, actors need to:
- Develop a dedicated cadre of professionals to do child and family assessments as well as prepare and provide support needed for children and families to live comfortably in their homes.
- Promote community-driven interventions such that community structures are able to detect and prevent any risks that may result in separation.
- Adopt a holistic approach to family support.
- Embrace emergency foster care and other alternatives that cater to children that require emergency rescue.
Basically, it is important for actors to invest equal energy and resources into prevention of separation rather than wait to receive children who are already separated.
- There is limited capacity to deliver comprehensive transition services from institutional to family-based care; for instance, the funds and time required to carry out proper reintegration were cited by actors as huge challenges. Therefore, there is the need to strengthen a multi-sectoral approach, which enables all stakeholders to play their part to make the process less costly and manageable. This includes the need to promote alternative care initiatives and strengthen community and family care (supported by required resources). Efforts to de-institutionalize the care system should drive focus and resources towards community development to have a system that looks at root causes of separation risk, study inter-generational transmission of poverty, and understand long-term consequences of institutionalization on millions of children in terms of education, health outcomes and social exclusion.
- The session on approaches to working with street-connected children contributed to the understanding that attitudes and values affect the way people respond to these children and eventually impact what is supposed to be the best practice while supporting them (children). It is the role of practitioners to change these attitudes if the cycle of violence against street-connected children is to be broken.
Additionally, it was interesting to learn that StreetInvest, the organization that led the session, which is established in the street work field, has developed a curriculum for training practitioners doing work with street-involved children. And, with Retrak’s similar background and experience gained from outreach work, we can also open ourselves up to provide such capacity-building services to organisations in the various countries where we operate.
Overall, my impression from participating in the conference was that whereas there are many organizations and agencies doing work with street-connected children, many of them still lack sufficient knowledge on the best practices. Retrak is definitely well-positioned to support such actors to deliver structured street work programmes by sharing our practices and expertise.
Breaking the Cycle was the first conference to bring together individuals and agencies working specifically with street-involved children, and it was great to be part of a gathering where nobody criminalized children associated with the streets or blamed people working with these children as the ones encouraging them to be on the streets based on the services they offer. It was a good feeling.
I was excited to be a part of the Breaking the Cycle 2016 conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as a representative of Retrak Ethiopia.
As a core theme, the conference reinforced that the best place for children to grow and be nurtured is within their families and communities. Street-involved children are at high risk of abuse, violence and exploitation wherever they are in the world. Reintegrating street-connected children is therefore very important, and we should give more emphasis to this. As such, it is critical to address children’s reasons for being away from home, to reintegrate them and to provide holistic services. Also, to facilitate a secure relationship between children and their caregivers for the development of children, attachment theory is fundamental from a programming perspective.
Breaking the cycle of violence, which is a challenge for reintegrating street-connected children, is a crucial issue. Violence hinders reintegrating children with their families. There is no single approach to ending violence that we should use. Rather, we should promote a multi-dimensional approach to the perception and prevention of violence. This includes developing and implementing policies suited to national contexts.
To sum up, all the conference programmes/sessions were directly related to Retrak’s work, and I felt more empowered with each session. The information and skills I gained will hopefully help me to provide better care for street-connected children and their families and also empower my co-workers and staff as I am ready to share and put this new learning into practice. Overall, the conference was a valuable and enjoyable experience.