In most instances orphanages ask for money and dry rations. But that is not what the children want. They would want a toy or a favourite food. Hence an evil system has been created. - Professor Harendra De Silva
Every child born to this world has a mother and a father. But not every mother and father will be ready to accept their child. Hence, the possibilities are such that a child could be abandoned for the rest of its life, sometimes at a tender age. This is why stories featuring two to three- week-old infants abandoned by the roadside are occasionally reported. While every child needs parental care and affection; in certain instances parents are not ready to give the necessary care due to various reasons. Most children never get to see their parents while some others are taken away when they are in their teens. In Sri Lanka, care homes or orphanages are actual homes to many children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents. They are brought up from the day they reach these homes, but after they reach 18 years of age, they are expected to be independent. However, many among them aren’t ready to face the society yet and often become victims again. With no support, money and guidance they are often led on to the wrong paths. Who needs to be responsible for them after they leave the places which provide them with care? Whether they are safe and what they would do afterwards are few of the many questions that begs answers.
In such a backdrop, the Daily mirror spoke to a few care leavers who related their rather heartening stories and also spoke to experts to find out what is being done and what needs to be done for the betterment of these youth.
Stranded in society
Once a child reaches its adolescent years, he or she has to leave these orphanages as per the law of the country. But the Daily mirror learned that in most instances such children are asked to leave by the age of 16 if they fail their O/L examination. The plight of care leavers is such that they are being brought up from a young age within a care home and provided with all facilities. But once they are asked to leave, most of them are not ready to face society yet. They feel stranded and become victims again. Due to the stigma associated with them, they are often misled and are provoked to take wrong turns in life. Hence girls have a tendency to end-up at a spa or a massage parlour while boys are taken to do odd jobs such as carpentry or domestic work in houses. Care leavers don’t have a valid birth certificate nor an identity card. Their addresses are usually that of their orphanage and since they don’t have a permanent address on their ID they are deprived of their basic right to vote. Amidst such a backdrop there are a few who are striving to do well in life and are hoping for a brighter future. The Daily mirror spoke to a few of them;
The plight of Dinushka
*Dinushka doesn’t have both her parents and was sent to Colombo after she sat for her Ordinary Level Exam (O/Ls) in 2009. Although she has been married for five years her journey so far has had more downs than ups. “I was enrolled for a training course and sent to Colombo. I did everything on my own. I wasn’t prepared to do a job and I was financially handicapped. So I had to do a job. I was reluctant to speak to strangers, but I gained confidence. There was nobody to advise us on what we should do after we leave our homes. I remember once when I was admitted to hospital to undergo surgery I had no one beside me. It was then that I realised why everybody needs a mother in life. My husband also doesn’t have anybody and he wasn’t allowed to come inside the hospital. There is only one name in my birth certificate and the same appears in my ID as well. I don’t have a right to vote since my ID has the address of the orphanage I stayed in,” she said.
A call to empower care leavers
*Natasha was left at the orphanage when she was just three weeks old. “I have two brothers and a sister who were also at the orphanage. At one point my mother took me home along with my siblings, but I went through a rather traumatising experience. She beat me up and home was like hell to me. My mother didn’t take care of me at all and I had to do everything by myself. After I finished my O/Ls she attempted to force me into a marriage for money, but I escaped. I wanted to return to the home, but the authorities there didn’t allow me in since I was already 16. Thereafter I got myself enrolled at an institute offering a one year dental surgery course. There were many children from other homes working with me and we were all sent to Colombo. But we didn’t know the whereabouts and with no money in hand we were stranded. We didn’t know which bus to take and therefore walked on the streets till midnight on several occasions. We were reluctant to speak to people because they were waiting to take advantage of us. I then stayed with a relation of mine and learned to commute within Colombo. I left my family four years ago and now live alone. I was told that my birth certificate was a fake, and since there are two dates on my birth certificate and ID I still don’t know my actual age or birthday. Therefore I cannot open a bank account nor vote. The homes aren’t interested in finding out what happens to us after we leave especially in the case of girls. People are of the view that we don’t need money since we are from orphanages. The stigma we face is such that my friends have sometimes thought of taking their own lives. When I used to work I often heard the phrase ‘mung anatha nivase ewung’ (they are from orphanages) and similar derogatory remarks. It would be better if the Government could implement a plan to empower care leavers as we see it as a basic right which has been taken away from us,” she said.
The term ‘anatha madama’ isn’t accurate
*Ramya was left at an orphanage when she was eight-months-old. Her story is an example of how care leavers are stigmatised in society. “After I completed my Advanced Level Exam (A/Ls) I started working at a communication centre. After sometime the owner sold it to another person and he took advantage of me. He promised to send me reloads and give money for food and transport. But after a while he demanded a huge amount of money from me. So I had to spend all my savings to cover up the debt. Likewise I have faced many challenges in life. The term ‘anatha madama’ is not accurate; it is actually our home. When people realise that we don’t have parents they treat us like animals. We are labelled in society and it puts us under huge stress. We don’t have money in our bank accounts and because we are being treated in this way, we too look at society with anger. Therefore I make a humble request to everybody to accept us for who we are and allow us to lead a normal life like everybody else,” she said.
Seeing opportunities through media
I knew how people looked at us. I went to four schools and viewed society with much hatred
*Nimmi was sent to an orphanage when she was 10-years-old. “We had to wear uniform. From those days I knew how people looked at us. I went to four schools and viewed society with much hatred. I used to wonder why all this happened to me and those around me. I then had to appear in courts and even the day before my O/Ls I had a hearing. I failed my O/Ls in the first attempt and I thought I should pass. I stayed at the home for an additional year and passed the exam. Although I did A/Ls I couldn’t do the subject of my choice. I wanted to study music, but I didn’t get a popular school. I then wanted to study law, but then again I thought it wouldn’t be the best bet for me. Thereafter I got in to writing and eventually was interested in media. I was lucky enough to do a course in journalism in India. I write a lot during my free time and I thought the media is the best way to stand up for our own rights and spread awareness about it. I stay at the Sarvodaya hostel. I can’t stay at a rented place because I have no money. I like to study further, but I don’t have the support nor money. When we leave the homes we don’t have a right to choose the job we like. We are just put into anything that is available, so we have to continue whether we like it or not,” she said.
Facing pregnancy alone
Sumudu was left at an orphanage when she was two-months-old. “After I did my A/Ls I was handed over to my mother, but I didn’t want to go. I then did a course in nursing and it was quite challenging with night shifts etc. I later came to Colombo, but didn’t have lodging. I didn’t have cash to pay the boarding fees. In the meantime I contracted dengue and I didn’t have anybody to look after me. Without parents we don’t know how to proceed in life in certain instances. For example if a girl becomes pregnant she would need her mother by her side, but in our case we have nobody. The Government needs to have a plan for those who leave orphanages; at least a plan to reconnect them with their biological parents. To date I haven’t shown my birth certificate to anyone. The ID too doesn’t have a permanent address and it’s a challenge to live with fake documents. Therefore we urge the authorities to come up with a plan for the betterment of care leavers,” she said.
They are now employed at a church and are advocating for change through the Voice for Voiceless Foundation.
*The true names of the interviewees have been withheld under strict condition of anonymity
Mapping out their future
In her comments, Western Province Commissioner for Probation and Childcare Chandima Dissanayake said that once the children reach the age of 16 they are returned to their biological parents. “But there are instances when we cannot send them back to their homes because there have been instances when they have been raped by family members. During such instances we send them for a training course or a job and also provide accommodation. If they like to marry we allow them to proceed with their consent. In 2017 we handed over 279 children back to their guardians and these included children under 18 as well. We have also sent 15 of them for vocational training and 38 were permanently employed. If the youth are sitting for their A/Ls after they reach 18 years, they are allowed to stay at their homes and complete the exam. We don’t simply allow them to leave the orphanages because we know that they have reached an age where they are quite mischievous and stubborn,” said Dissanayake.
When asked about the issue of permanent residence on IDs, she said that it depended on the way in which the form was filled. “If they just include the number and the address of the place without mentioning the name of the children’s home it will not be an issue. But in the case of a child from a certified school, if he or she doesn’t have parents then we have to include that the child is from a certified school. We also send the youth to do jobs depending on the court order. We also support unmarried girls and boys and give them food and accommodation and allow them to take up whatever job they like. When I took office there was no plan for care leavers in the Western Province, but I’m happy to say that we have already implemented an effective plan afterwards,” added Dissanayake.
Foster care system the way forward
Speaking to the Daily mirror , founder Chairman of National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), activist and legislator in child protection Professor Harendra De Silva said that institutional care isn’t the best for a child. “There are many different institutions including orphanages run by the private sector which are usually funded by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In addition to that there are state-run orphanages and institutions such as certified, demand and detention homes. Children in detention homes are above five years of age whose actions have been in conflict with the law. They may be found guilty of stealing two coconuts or for jumping over a fence to a neighbouring land etc., and therefore will have to face a jail term. Some of these children have been abandoned while the others are street children. While within these institutions they have a greater tendency to experience sexual and other forms of abuse. There have been so many such incidents in the past. There’s a huge amount of emotional abuse experienced by these children which cannot even be defined. When I was NCPA Chairman each child received Rs. 21 per day for food and other expenses and orphanages and care homes relied on alms givings and other donations in kind. However there is open mismanagement of funds and resources by the staff,” said Prof. De Silva.
“In most instances orphanages ask for money and dry rations. But that is not what the children want. They would want a toy or a favourite food. Hence an evil system has been created. We aren’t trying to empower the children, but wish to enhance their self-respect. Western countries have adopted the foster care parent system which is a cheaper approach for the government as well. Here, each foster parent is given a certain amount of money to take care of the child. But the only issue here is that these foster parents should be screened because in certain instances these foster parents could be abusers or they may use children for domestic work. Hence we should establish a proper screening system for foster parents by seeking support from qualified psychologists and social workers. We are experts at showing off people who appear to be pseudo-experts and they flood the market. They appear with fake certificates and claim to be proper counsellors,” warned Prof. De Silva.
Prof. De Silva further said that Sri Lanka also doesn’t have a proper monitoring system. “Once a child is in foster care there should be people who must monitor and evaluate the progress of the child. They should be able to go to school and monitor the performance, check for absenteeism and observe how the child is being treated at home. Foster parents may look at legal methods to adopt a child servant and such moves should be discouraged.
During a screening the child’s health and nutritional status should also be monitored and evaluated. Another way of foster care is where the child lives with his or her biological parents, but another foster family could support them with money and resources. A few limitations of this process would be that it has to be handled by someone who knows the subject.
The Government doesn’t have as many professionals from the perspective of administration.
They work according to regulations and circulars and therefore things don’t happen as planned. We need good professionals who are committed to the subject and they should decide on the standards of procedures. We can seek support from Grama Niladhari and Samurdhi officers who could be trained to go from house to house to monitor the foster care process.
There are probation officers in the country, but they have been appointed for political purposes.
They would obey an order from the top, but will not work for the best interest of the children. In addition to that we could identify dysfunctional families and provide them with supplements. Hence there has to be a paradigm shift in the way of thinking. There’s politics everywhere, but somebody has to take a decision and this responsibility is vested upon the leadership,” he opined.
Generation Never Give Up
‘Generation Never Give Up’ is a platform that has been established to empower youth leaving residential care in order to create a generation that will never give up. Therefore it aims to create a safe and inclusive society, for youth leaving residential care before or after the age of 18 with the support of state and non-state stakeholders. Services provided under this platform include job opportunities and career guidance, scholarships for higher education, psychological counselling, legal support, peer support, an emergency hotline and an information database.
For further details visit www.gnglk.org
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