To begin to tackle the large number of children living on the streets around the world, we have to begin with a program that works in one community in one set of circumstances, one child at a time. Understanding the efficacy and contributing mechanisms of a successful program will enable us to better predict potential success elsewhere.
In addition to rescuing, restoring and reintegrating street-involved children, preventing child maltreatment is also imperative. We are beginning to identify factors contributing to child maltreatment around Meru County, Kenya. Working with governmental, non-governmental and community partners, we will begin targeting these factors in an effort to reduce the risk of children moving to the street.
The strategy we use to address the issue of children living on the street, and preventing children living on the street, begin with a well-defined, empirically-derived, community-based effort. Eventually, to make a bigger difference in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children, these efforts will have to multiply and our strategy will have to expand to include policy and advocacy work. Policy and advocacy work, like replicating our community-based efforts elsewhere, will benefit from a successful first program, rescuing, restoring and reintegrating one child at a time.
Globally, the phenomenon of children living on the streets has followed a pattern of globalization and urbanization. As previously remote communities become more urbanized, a process driven by access to global trade markets, two things happen that create the setting for children living on the street.
First, the fabric of rural communities becomes disrupted through new social and economic possibilities. Opportunities for education, employment, and social ties draw rural community members away from their homes. Some members of a community benefit disproportionately from these new possibilities, creating new inequalities whereby less advantaged community members derive a negative sense of their social location. The relationship between having a lower social status and poorer mental health, contributing to household stress and violence, is well-documented globally (cf. Social Determinants of Health: http://www.who.int/social_determinants/en/). Additionally, new opportunities may drive away would-be caregivers and providers who abnegate family responsibilities in pursuit of new opportunities - social or economic. This reality makes life more difficult for the children, and often women, who are left behind by such selfish decisions. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the social ramifications of HIV/AIDS include a high orphan population. The transmission of HIV/AIDS follows the transmission of human contact, made possible by a globally connected world. It is probable that the zoonotic transmission of the simian virus that created HIV happened previously in human history, but before the increase of human contact facilitated by the global economy there was no HIV pandemic. Sub-Saharan Africa has an estimated 56 million orphan and vulnerable children, of whom nearly 40% are orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Secondly, the new urban areas provide a meeting place for people with all sorts of commonalities. In the case of children from very poor, violent or orphan households, urban streets provide a place to find other children from similar backgrounds. Children often, though not always, move to the streets after a trial-period whereby they become increasingly familiar and accepted in the streets by peer children. While it is most certainly the case that household challenges existed before urbanization, the existence of cities and towns provide a common location for vulnerable children to find a family and support network. We have found in our research that bonds of mutual support and care exist more strongly between street-involved children and other street-involved children than between street-involved children and other members of the community or family.
The push and pull factors mentioned above are found in Meru County, Kenya, whose economy has been growing recently. There are numerous townships with street-involved children numbering between 50-100 children per township. Taken together, including Isiolo and Meru towns, there are more than an estimated 3000 Kimeru-speaking children currently living on the streets who may directly benefit from our Wototo wa Ahadi Rescue Center. Anecdotal reports from community members are that these numbers are increasing, which would make sense given the factors known to contribute to the street children phenomenon globally.
The idea for a rescue center to benefit the street-involved children of Meru County, Kenya began in the mind of a local leader - Stanley Gitari. Mr. Gitari, coordinator of the Community Health Department at Maua Methodist Hospital, has overseen the research, community-stakeholder meetings and asset mapping, and program definition alongside other local community leaders and the executive director of Sodzo International, Michael Goodman. Bishop Jacob Gituma, bishop of the Nyambene Synod of the Methodist Church of Kenya, proposed the idea of using the church-owned 73-acre farm at Giika as a transitional facility for the street-involved children. The Resource Mobilization Committee of the Methodist Church of Kenya, Nyambene Synod, has contributed its hearty support for Bishop Gituma’s vision to use the land in this way.
The District Children’s Officer, charged with promoting child’s rights and well-being across the sub-county, has expressed full support for the project and has gone out of his way to help get the project off the ground. Other governmental, non-governmental organization, tribal and faith leaders have and continue to express enthusiasm for the project, noting the challenges faced by the community and children due to child homelessness.
We have asked the local community about their beliefs related to street-involved children. There is a general perception that the children are cared for by God, and helping them would bring blessing to the community. The community also sees that children come from challenging family backgrounds, though are not only victims of their environment. There is a sense that some children are more difficult to parent and care for than others, though the community generally stops short of blaming street-involved children for their problems. In addition to receiving a blessing from God, providing care for street-involved children may also bring practical benefits as the children are likely industrious and hard-working, given a chance. There are concerns about behavior and attitudes that may be difficult to accommodate within an established and caring household. The community has been part of our guide as we have considered program priorities and targets, and they will continue to help guide us in our efforts to help the street-involved children be reintegrated with productive community life.
There are solutions and efforts to provide solutions found across Kenya and many low-income countries. Within Maua, Kenya, there is a small project to pay school fees of vulnerable children to help keep them enrolled in school instead of dropping out to join the street life. Approximately 60 miles south of Maua, there are and have been institutions targeting the welfare of street-involved children. Further southward, in and around Nairobi, there are more institutions that have been in place for decades. The options in place range from short term, drop-in care to permanent homes where children are kept in school until they complete high school, and sometimes longer.
Each of the existing programs offers some insight into work with street-involved children, providing lessons on what works and what may not work so well. We have established friendships with the organizations we believe are most successful, and have created mutual anticipation that these organizations will train and mentor our staff until our own staff are sufficient experts.
Within Kenya, there are an estimated 250,000 street-involved children and youth, and globally the estimates typically provided by UNICEF and other organizations range from 10s of millions to 100 million. The organizations in the surrounding area are at their capacity, and obviously do not benefit the children remaining in the streets. Moreover, we believe we have the opportunity to document the changes in children as they participate in our program, increasing the very sparse scientific knowledge on successful interventions for street-involved children and youth accessible globally.
Unfortunately, there are too many children in the streets around Meru County to admit all of them into our program. One key component to children participating in our program is their interest in doing so, and their giving voice to their interests and expectations within the program. Recruitment of the children from the streets to join our program will be based largely on willingness and readiness to move from the streets back into community life, through the program model we have designed. Participation in the program will continue only with the child’s free choice to remain there. Ground rules for behavior will be generated largely based on the wisdom provided by the children as to what sort of setting they would like to live in, and what the ramifications of non-compliance to those rules should be. The children will regularly be invited to give their voice to the program through scheduled meetings with staff, and will be participants not only in the program’s activities but also in the formation and reformation of program plans.
In cases where it is possible to acquire parental permission for a child to stay at our farm, we will do so. The benefits of parental involvement in the program, awareness of its activities and expectations of its success, are critical. Securing these benefits from the outset of a child’s time at our farm will be of utmost importance.
Unfortunately, not every case will permit the acquisition of parental permission. The children are on the streets for a reason, and the reason often pertains to parental abnegation of responsibility, abusive behavior or death and desertion. In such cases a court order will be secured for each child prior to the child moving to our facility. The Area Advisory Council (AAC) is a sub-governmental entity that combines governmental and non-governmental leaders, and includes a legal wing. It is in the interest of the government, who has already committed support to the project, to promote the welfare of the country’s children and sustainably remove them from the streets. The government is a close partner in this sense, and other program models utilize a similar process.
The facility itself will be designated a formal residential facility for children by the District Children’s Office, who has already provided consultation to us on how this process proceeds. The process can formally commence once the facility is up and running, and will involve a visit by a member of the District Children’s Office.
Two of the most critical factors the children should learn prior to their exiting the program pertain to their own self-perception and skill set. Psychologically and spiritually, the children are under great duress. We have measured self-esteem, self-efficacy, depression and resilience among the population of street-involved children around Maua and other townships. The children show exceptionally low mental health assets and high burdens of depression. Through one-on-one interviews, the children largely demonstrate very low self-concept, identifying themselves as on the bottom of the social ladder. In order to succeed in community, it is critical that their mental health assets increase. As a faith-inspired program, our model seeks to instill the very real conviction that the children are first and foremost children of God - loved eternally by the Maker of the universe. Our aim and prayer is to help the children learn of their infinite value, and find agency in the source of their true identity - children of God. One way self-efficacy and self-esteem is learned comes through witnessing the successful use of one’s energy and time in a productive capacity. Growing crops, caring for animals, and consuming the literal and figurative fruit of one’s labor will help the children come closer to their true identity.
Further, we want these children to have a successful life after they complete their time on the farm. In this still rural (though urbanizing) context, farming skills are highly valued. Other skills will be taught, but all with the strategic aim of helping the children become future assets and leaders in their community. It is anticipated that some children may become assistants to agricultural extension officers in the area, helping train local community farmers on best practices and most efficient crop production techniques. It is our aim to help the children be transformed and to help transform the community’s perception of the value of children through farming.
The needs of families and children who exit our program will be diverse. We will not end our commitment to the children who come through our program once they leave the farm. Rather, we will have dedicated staff, community members and resources able to identify and respond to the needs of families and graduated children to ensure the successful re-entry into society is permanent. The specific needs of children and families will vary, but include two major expected categories of items: material and psychosocial needs.
Material needs will be met primarily through cash transfers to support the care of dependent children who have graduated from our program and are in poorer families willing, but otherwise materially unable, to provide care.
Psychological needs will be met primarily through on-going counseling and support groups for graduates and their families provided by a trained social worker.
Graduates will be expected to continue in support of the program and its functions by serving as mentors or volunteers as able and willing. The farm will have become like a home for them, one which will welcome their return from time to time.
Across Kenya, as with larger sub-Saharan Africa, there is a deep and wonderful sense of community and family support. Surveys have been conducted in Liberia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania assessing interest in adoption or fostering of children. Typically, the percentage of a population affirming some interest in fostering children is surprisingly high. There are an estimated 2.1 million orphans and vulnerable children across Kenya, the large portion of whom are cared for by community members and extended family. In Kenya, we have anecdotal and qualitative data on support for fostering, which tends to likewise be higher than expected. In summer 2015, we are working with the University of Texas Medical Branch and our partners in Kenya to quantify the percent of at-large population willing to foster a child who formerly lived on the street.
Children who matriculate through our program will reintegrate with their families and communities through a staged process. The initial contact with future families will begin before the children arrive at the farm, during the recruitment stage. Contact will grow in degree of exposure throughout the first year, culminating in a home visit for 4-6 weeks at the beginning of the second program year. Problems with placements will be identified throughout the first year, and most acutely during the 4-6 week trial period. It is possible that some children will not need to remain on the farm for the full 2 years, but will have earlier success at reintegration. It is also possible that some children will need longer-term stay at the farm. While we hope to have all children reintegrated fully by the end of 2 years, the circumstances of each child sets his timeline for full reintegration with community.
We are working with the District Children’s Office, and the Office of Public Health from the local government in Kenya; additionally, we are working with established non-governmental organizations: Action for Children in Conflict, AMREF and Made in the Streets. These organizations work with street-involved children around Nairobi, and will help train our staff. We are also partnering with ZOE Helps/Kenya, which works with orphans and vulnerable siblings who live in houses in the community around Meru County and has provided critical mentorship in our work with a similarly vulnerable population. Our two implementing partners are the Methodist Church of Kenya and the Maua Methodist Hospital.
We have an emergency medical fund to pay for care of children while they are on the farm. One of the benefits of local partnerships is access to local resources. The Maua Methodist Hospital has an established inpatient and outpatient clinic which will be able to provide care for children in need of medical assistance.
The short term consequence of inhalant abuse is a disassociated mental status, whereby users are numb to psychological and physical pain. Decision making while under the influence of inhalants can be impaired, as one is indifferent to typical and legitimate fears - of eating rotten foods, playing with broken glass, starting fights with others, and other behaviors one would typically avoid while sober. It is a coping mechanism borne of sadness, hunger and isolation.
Long term consequences include visual-spatial difficulties, visual scanning problems, language deficiencies, motor incoordination, memory deficits, attention and concentration problems and peripheral neuropathy. The amount of time that a young person is exposed to glue inhalation affects the degree of damage, making it imperative to identify and rescue children off the streets with the least amount of exposure.
There are organizations working across Kenya to help rescue, restore and reintegrate street-involved children. We are able to train our staff at three organizations working around Nairobi, which is a 5 hour drive from the Maua, Kenya. We believe that with a staff trained at leading organizations, we will be able to run a novel intervention in Meru County, Kenya with specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely goals that can inform the scientific literature and be replicated elsewhere. We are in a unique position with respect to local partnerships in Kenya, and technical and funding partners globally, to pioneer an intervention that addresses rising incidence of street-involved children in Eastern Province, Kenya.
Jesus said the poor will always be with us, and it is true that wherever we are some people are less well-off than others. Taken from a global perspective, there are few who face more hardships to becoming their full selves than children on the streets who live without adult care and supervision. While there are homeless children even in Houston and the United States, whom we must also care for, most of these children have some adult care and more community support than street-involved children in low resource countries. While we take care of people in our own backyard, we also remember our global neighbors. As Christians, we remember that not only those within our American borders are created and cared for by God, but that all of humanity bears God’s image and eternal worth. We at Sodzo International envision a world where all of God’s children can live out their full God-given potential.
The negative consequences of a NGO-based economy primarily relate to sustainable growth and financial ownership within a country’s economy. The economic consequences of increasing the labor pool within an economy are also well-documented. From a macro-perspective, we believe that untrained human labor, dependent on outside funds for viability, is detrimental to a country’s economy. By increasing human capital within Meru County and reducing dependency, we seek to add to the productive capacity of the region’s economy, strengthening food security and social capital through a joint venture to promote the well-being of the area’s most vulnerable children.
At Sodzo International, we are committed to the well-being of the world’s most vulnerable children. We begin with children on the street, and are working to define an intervention that works with this population. In the future, we also hope to work with other child populations in similar ways - through sustainable, faithful action, evidence-based, promoting a kinder world in which children can become who they are. We can imagine working with child soldiers, children in famine, and other special populations of children with exposures that are unimaginable by most of us. For now though, the reality of 10s of millions of street-involved children, deadening their senses through glue addiction and largely without a future, is enough to occupy our hearts and minds.
Within Kenya, recent events involving terrorist activity by Al Shabaab, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, have created some legitimate concern for the security situation. This activity has largely been isolated to areas bordering Somalia, though a couple of events have occurred in Nairobi in the past few years. In Meru County, Kenya, where we work, there have been no terrorist-related acts of violence or threats of violence. The bigger threat to our partners in Meru County, Kenya is that of withdrawal of support due to concerns of violence occurring elsewhere in the country. Efforts to disrupt meaningful, good activities is part of the evil intent of terrorism, and we refuse to let the terrorist win in this way, especially when the actual risk of injury to ourselves in Meru County is non-existent.
We are all too aware that in some places, street-involved children provide income sources to some through criminal sexual and physical exploitation. If our work is ever in a position to disrupt these funding streams, we hope we have the courage and wisdom to do so. In doing so, it is likely we will become the enemies of those exploiting street-involved children, and may risk violence and attack ourselves. This is part of the cost of being a follower of Jesus Christ, who was crucified for declaring God’s love to all.