Screenshot from the Care Leavers Convention webinar
Care Leavers – November 17 2020

Care leaver support networks are essential

By Amelia Andrews

Care leavers face a variety of challenges when they reach legal age, but peer-led networks are making a difference.

Care leavers face a variety of challenges: they struggle with their identity, carry trauma from their past and face discrimination. Then, when they reach legal age, they are usually left without support. A recent online workshop discussed how peer-led networks are making a difference. 

“When we turn 18, we are alone. We do not have anyone to advise or support us. Society welcomes us only if we hide who we are, our identity. When we leave the orphanage or foster care, we do not know how to manage every day affairs. We have some money but we do not know how to manage it.” - Nahla EINemr, Care Leavers’ Network, Egypt.

Nahla was speaking at an online panel discussion leading up to the first International Care Leavers’ Convention held from November 23-25, 2020. The webinar, organized by SOS Children’s Villages, is the first in a series of webinars leading up to the convention that focuses on the need to create peer support networks for care leavers and the role of civil society to support them. Representatives of care leavers’ networks and civil society organizations (CSOs) from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East shared their experiences.

Why peer-support networks matter

Care leavers face a variety of challenges: they struggle with their identity, carry trauma from their experiences growing up and face discrimination for having grown up in care. Then, when they reach legal age, they are usually left without any support. That is why it is important to have networks who can offer support. Martine Tobe from Kinderdorf Perspectief shared insights into the lives of care leavers and how they deal differently with issues and questions of life compared to children growing up with parental care. The support of care leaver organizations and networks are critical for their well-being, he said.

A care leaver network (CLN) is like a safety net where young people can feel they are not alone with challenges. The network allows them to speak with one voice, advocating for change together rather than doing it in isolation. Ruth Wacuca from Kenya, representing the Kenya Society of Care Leavers, said that a CLN is like coming home as not everyone can go back to the place where they grew up.  

The social distancing due to COVID-19 has only worsened the isolation felt by care leavers and has increased the urgency to create support networks. In a pre-recorded message, Lady Cobena of Ecuador, who represented the Latin America Care Leavers’ Network, spoke about the importance of support networks, especially during the pandemic. “Knowing that the [care leavers] have a group of young people who can listen to them, help them and give them a word of support makes all the difference to keep going on in such a crisis,” shared Cobena.

Learning about their rights and entitlements is another way care leavers learn from each other. Through CLNs, care leavers can discover their voice and use it for claiming their rights. Childcare institutions should also support care leavers by investing time in educating care leavers so that they can understand the legal provisions open to them. Karishma Singh from Care Leavers Association and Network, India emphasized helping childcare institutions so that they can educate care leavers about the legal provisions open to them.

The care leavers also discussed the need to have their rights upheld and be part of decision-making processes so that they share their needs and possible solutions directly with policy-makers rather than by people who may not understand their challenges and requirements. Fabienne Landerer from Care Leavers Austria said: "Voices of care leavers need to be taken into account and be integrated in the process of decision-making for change."

Progress so far

"Dedicated care leavers and civil society organizations (CSOs) have worked tirelessly to make headway in addressing the challenges of job opportunities, housing information, tools for policy advocacy, building financial resources and emotional support," said Chathuri Jayasooriya, Advocacy Advisor, Asia, for SOS Children’s Villages.

Growing up in institutions, many care leavers do not have birth certificates. In Sri Lanka, Generation Never Give Up (GNG), a care leavers network, advocated with the government to bring about a landmark policy change in the issuing of provisional birth certificates to the care leavers. “These documents give you an identity and an entry into the mainstream society,” shared the GNG network. During the lockdown, the GNG network supported 155 care leavers with financial aid and food rations. Together, they mobilized the government to deliver food and other items to care leavers stranded without food or money.

The GNG Network could support the care leavers as they had a database of care leavers. Mr. Divakar Ratnadurai, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka and one of the panelists, said governments could support care leavers more effectively if they collected information about them in a database. “There should be a formal government initiative to address the core challenges of employment, education, health care and legal support for care leavers,” said Mr. Ratnadurai. “Recognition of CLNs with access to bank accounts and other facilities will go a long way in bringing the care leavers to mainstream.”

In Africa, the initiatives taken by care leavers in Kenya and Zimbabwe are noteworthy. The photo project from Kenya called the "Thousand Memories Project" captures photos of children in care as they grow up. Upon leaving care, they are presented with a photo album to give them a sense of belonging and identity, as well as to see how they have evolved over the years. Another notable initiative, "Singing to the Lions", deals with healing the trauma of the care leavers.

The Zimbabwe Care Leavers network has brought about policy changes by advocating with the government. They conducted a detailed survey and, based on the results, wrote recommendations for policy changes to amend older policies that were no longer relevant. The government has undertaken a draft for a new set of policies and aims to complete it by December 2020. “Policy changes are important to bring about a favorable sustainable change to the life standards of care leavers,” stated Jeffrey Chiasi of the Zimbabwe Care Leavers Network.

Bringing care leavers into decision-making entails awareness and knowledge about procedures so that their voices are heard in Parliament. In addition, they need to understand how different bills and other legal provisions have an effect on their lives.

The Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust supports the care leavers by simplifying bills and budgets so that the care leavers can understand which programs are specifically targeted towards them and the financial outlay they can expect in the national budget. This information helps them make their case in front of the policy makers. They also train the parliamentarians to understand the concerns of the care leavers so that they can support policy changes.

The way forward

The care leavers are looking for fair and progressive solutions, which is why they are mobilizing themselves. They need to be included and treated equally. They cannot do it alone and they need allies. Civil society organizations can fill the gaps in the meantime by supporting them and building their access, knowledge and understanding so that they can meaningfully participate in decision-making processes, become employed and live full lives. By working with governments,  CSOs can educate policy makers about the challenges of care leavers. They can build a database by reaching as many care leavers as possible, eventually creating a global network of care leavers so that no care leaver is left behind.

Some 260 people attended the virtual forum from 41 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and Australia. The majority of the participants were care leavers, researchers and subject matter experts.

The International Care Leavers’ Convention will be held November 23-25, 2020. The Convention is being organized by SOS Children’s Villages, Udayan Care, University of Hildesheim and Kinder Perspectief in association with technical partners such as UNICEF, FICE-International Federation of Educative Communities and Care Leavers Networks.

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