We recently caught up with some of the children who lived in the residential Centres we supported in Kinshasa from 2006-09 (see photos here). It provided a chance to look back at some of the successes and learning points from the project.
The five Centres were a sanctuary for 240 street children – providing a safe bed for the night and some education or vocational training to set them up for the future. They were supposed to be temporary staging posts, the ultimate aim was to reunify as many of them as possible with their families or set them up to live independently.
Over the course of the project we reunified 139 of them – to be honest, that's less than we had hoped for. In hindsight, reunification was even tougher than we had anticipated, and it wasn't the best solution for many of the children anyway.
Even the ones who weren't re-unified enjoyed an enormously better quality of life than they'd had previously. Most now have the skills to build themselves a better future.
Room for improvement? What we learned from the project:
The children got a better standard of care at the Centres than at home. This meant that they often didn't want to be reunified with their families. Odd as it may sound, our new Drop-in-Centre is deliberately less 'comfortable' (there are no beds, just sleeping mats).
There wasn’t any real incentive for the staff to move the children on and get some new (and potentially more disruptive) children in. Although the Centres were supposed to be a temporary solution, many children stayed there for 2-5 years. Our new project in Kinshasa has a much higher turnover - ensuring that a lot more girls can access the service.
Mixed-sex Centres don’t work very well. Girls aren’t so comfortable in that environment, so fewer of them stay. In our work in Kinshasa and Goma, we’re focusing on girls-only Centres.
Successful reunification takes time and resources. In our current project in Goma, it took 391 family visits to reunify 30 girls in the first year of the project. This includes research to locate the family, meetings, day or overnight visits and follow up checks. Our expectations are much more realistic now in terms of the number of girls we expect to reunify, and how much it will cost.
Outreach is really important. Street children are mistrustful of authority and are generally reluctant to come and ask for help, but outreach services can help identify and protect the most vulnerable (and often most-hidden) street children. Our Night Ambulance project goes out onto the streets to speak to the children, and it is led by staff who used to be street kids themselves.
Getting to newly-arrived street children as early as possible is crucial, especially for girls. If we can get to them before they are sexually exploited then that makes a vital difference. Our Night Ambulance can find these vulnerable girls and refer them to the emergency accommodation in our Drop-in-Centre.
If you'd like to know more about working with street children in Kinshasa then have a read of our 'Better off on the Streets' report and also the pretty horrific stats revealed in our Street Girls' survey.
Why can't you just take them back home to their parents?
Reuniting street children is a tough job. They’re one of the most marginalised groups of people and their lives are often very chaotic. Many are involved in petty crime, prostitution or drug/alcohol misuse as daily survival and coping strategies. Most ran away or were kicked out because of extreme poverty and often the death or divorce of their parents. Some are running away from abuse and mistreatment at home. Without addressing root causes of why children left home in the first place, reunification will not work (indeed, our survey revealed that a quarter of street children in Kinshasa had previously been ‘re-unified’ – some up to five times).
Even finding their family can be hard. Congo is a huge, remote country and many poor families live quite transient lives. Locating them can be a very time-consuming and expensive task in the first place.
We can help parents earn a better income or provide support for school uniforms and fees, but if they’ve died or remarried and their new spouse doesn’t want the kids around, then it’s hard to find a solution. There isn’t a functioning social welfare system that acts as a safety net for children like this.
Sometimes their family home isn’t the best place for them to be. The children may have been accused of sorcery & witchcraft (usually as an excuse for throwing them out) and it may not be safe or advisable for them to go back. Similarly, they often don’t want to go back to somewhere they were neglected and abused. In comparison, the Centres provided the food, shelter and sense of family they never got at home.