By Lalit Gurung, Manager of the ISIS Children’s Foundation residential care programme
The ISIS Children’s Foundation (ICF) recently reached a great milestone in its children’s rehabilitation programme by closing the last of 10 children’s homes initially established to care for 136 trafficked children. Here, Lalit Gurung, Manager of the ICF programme discusses why this is such a great and exciting milestone and talks about the journey taken to get to this point.
When we found the ISIS children, trafficked and uncared for, the ISIS team spent a lot of time deliberating on how to care for the children in the best possible way, and what type of programme would be most effective. When we found the children, most of them were malnourished. Several had medical issues which needed immediate attention. Some of the girls were severely traumatised because of the abuse they had suffered. Our initial goal was to immediately create a safe environment for the children, ensuring that each child had access to quality education, healthcare and that great care was given to their emotional well-being.
Initially, ISIS set up 10 homes with a central Home Parent and support staff in each home to provide immediate care to the rescued children. The homes were located in good residential neighborhoods. The Home Parents, Didis and Dais worked around the clock to care for the children as if they were their own.
We had so much to learn! ISIS engaged many trainers and counsellors to teach our Nepali staff how to care for children in special needs situations with best-practice care. Through this training, our staff learned techniques that helped them support the children to overcome their grief and sorrows.
Every home conducted weekly family meetings to share any worries and to celebrate the children’s milestones and joys. They were all enrolled in schools and provided immediate health services. They were listened to and encouraged to share feelings and thoughts. They also were given responsibilities in the home to encourage accountability and to help them develop life skills. We framed an intensive child care system to help create a smooth transition into the next phase of their childhood.
There is an increasing body of evidence that institutional care is not the best care option for children. In these environments, children may not receive adequate contact and proper stimulation to promote physical, social and cognitive development. The ISIS team was very aware of this and the residential care programme we had set up for the children was an emergency response to a dire situation. The intention was to gradually move towards reuniting them with their biological or extended family wherever possible, and wherever safe to do so. In cases where family reunification was not possible immediately, boarding schools were adopted as the second option.
ISIS has been gradually transitioning the children over several years from the homes as we carefully considered their age and readiness for more independence. In March 2013, we closed the last ISIS home. By this point, there was only one home left with eight children remaining. By closing the homes, the children will ultimately benefit. It means that they are no longer labelled as children under institutional care, and are free from stigmatisation. It also means that they get abundant time to socialise with other children in the schools and communities.
Closing the last home was a gradual process. ISIS staff began preparing these children a year prior so they could adjust slowly to the change. They were excited about joining their ISIS brothers and sisters at boarding school. Once at school they adapted to their new environment quickly. The ISIS team still keeps the premises of the last home intact so that we can accommodate the children during their school holidays or when they fall ill.
Closing the last children’s home does not mean ISIS staff have stopped caring for these children. The children are all a part of a close-knit family unit that has survived together over the last seven years, and the basis of the family is strong. Each child has an individual case plan that is followed through by a small central team. I personally visit the children in school during weekends as well as sometimes during the week. I am usually accompanied by our Country Director. Besides our visits, my team members visit the children almost every day. This new phase in the programme presents new challenges to our team. We are now dealing with adolescents instead of children. We are now involving the children’s families in decision making for the children (which wasn’t possible earlier because ISIS had not yet found all of the children’s parents in Humla). The focus has now shifted to supporting the livelihood of these young people by engaging them in vocational training and other pursuits so that they are prepared for life after they graduate from ISIS care.
Out of 136 children that rescued, 18 of them have graduated from the programme having successfully transitioned to adulthood and finished their education. Some of these graduates are employed, some are pursuing their higher studies and some are yet to embark on their careers. In 2013, we have 21 youth pursuing higher education in different colleges in Kathmandu and Nepalgunj. Five of the children have been repatriated to their natural parents and are now being provided education and care in their own family settings. 30 children have been reintegrated with their parents and communities, but still receive ISIS-supported education and case management. And lastly, 62 children are currently enrolled in private boarding schools in Kathmandu and are being looked after by ISIS case workers.
When we found the children, the girls were very shy. The older boys were very social whereas the little ones were very wild – all the children made each of our day’s special. When I started working with ISIS six years ago, I had no idea about the dynamics these little ones would have and how the children homes would function, despite having a decade of experience looking after children in private boarding schools. Now almost seven years later, these little ones have flourished into responsible young people who live their lives with impressive integrity. I am so incredibly proud of their development. They are now well connected with their families and communities and are developing strong values. They have become very resilient and are knowledgeable on contemporary issues of the society they live in. It is heartwarming to see our young people learning life skills, developing their interpersonal skills, taking responsibility for making decisions about their futures and their career choices, and resisting negative pressures and avoiding risky behaviours. They are focussed and self-reliant and know exactly what they need to do once they leave ISIS.
I anticipate in the near future more children will be reintegrated with their families. This journey has taught us a lot, and in the future we hope to share our learning to other like-minded organisations and government agencies as we have gained abundant experiences over the past seven years regarding child care approaches in Nepal.