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What do I need to know about volunteering with children in care institutions?

Date added: Thursday 6th October 2016

Q. A programme I am interested in says that I will work in an orphanage but I’ve seen others that mention children’s home or child care settings. What is the difference and why are there criticisms about this type of volunteering?

A. The terminology can be confusing and often, no two projects are exactly alike. Perhaps the best distinction to make is that a residential care setting (also known as orphanages and institutional care) ‘refers to group living arrangements for children without primary caregivers or whose biological parents are unable to care for them. It is meant to provide 24-hour care by paid staff, meeting children’s basic needs of shelter, food, clothing and education. These can be places of safety for emergency care, transit centres in emergency situations, and all other short and long-term residential care facilities including group homes' (Source UNICEF). This means that children can often be separated from their families and communities for extended periods of time.

Because these are generally regarded as the least effective means of supporting a child in their early years, their proliferation in some countries has been blamed on the fact that tourists, volunteers and non- governmental organisations have invested in or donated to such projects. The argument is that this makes them more attractive to families who feel they offer better life chances to their children at the expense of separating those families members from each other. Furthermore it is felt they have encouraged exploitation of the poor who are sometimes paid to send their children to sub-standard and dangerous institutions, and of well-meaning foreigners who then donate several times more money or volunteer. This helps to keep these places running whilst also lining the pockets of individuals with little interest in the short or long term futures of young people in their care.

Q. So what should I do to ensure I don’t make the situation worse?

A. First, you should ensure that you understand the nature of the volunteering you are being asked to do and also of the place or establishment you will be working in-this could include day care centres or care centres that offer schooling. Avoid companies offering 'add-ons' to holidays that include some sort of volunteering 'experience' or just a visit to a care institution. Work with children should never be regarded as a some sort of holiday activity or even a bit of light work experience to add to your CV.

The interpretation of working in an orphanage might be that you are offering primary care but unless you are qualified this should not be the case. You should be supervised and only undertaking duties that fit with your level of skill. You may be doing some teaching, research, games activity, helping with meals or other related duties.

Secondly, you should do some research of your own and try to develop a view as to whether on balance, this type of volunteering is doing some good. You can also consider the country you are visiting and any information or research about how this type of volunteering is viewed.

Finally you could chose not to engage in this type of volunteering at all and that is something that is encouraged by watch groups such as Tourism Concern amongst others, who also publish literature and research to support this view. You could also choose to support a charity such as Lumos, which works to help children in institutions regain their right to a family by transforming systems of care.

Q. Year Out Group claims to represent the best of gap year organisations. Given the criticisms of this type of volunteering, why do you allow membership to organisations that offer such placements?

A. Year Out Group has been in existence since 1998 but some of our members have been operating since 1967, so there is a great deal of experience in the group. We have also moved with the times to ensure we are following and often leading best practice, in so far as we can be sure what that is. The phenomenon of ‘voluntourism’ is relatively new and whilst travel and the ability to donate time and money have become easier and bring many benefits, it’s negative effects are beginning to be better understood and members have responded to that and taken additional steps to ensure the projects they support are making a difference. Some have stopped working in certain countries or moved on from projects where they have doubts about their effectiveness, focusing on education or vocational training instead. This would be true for all projects not just those involving work with children. The organisations that do work with children’s projects understand the issues and the criticisms, which is why they go to great lengths to ensure these projects are of high quality. It might be easier for them to stop the work so as to avoid criticism altogether but they believe their work is making a difference.

Year Out Group does not have a policy directly relating to work in residential care settings. We do however have a code of conduct that makes it clear member organisations should work with local organisations and communities in the development of any projects (though sometimes they will be supporting ‘official’ projects that are already in existence) and that there is agreement that such projects benefit local communities. Admittedly this does not mean there will be universal agreement so our members can be contacted directly by anyone who has cause for concern about specific projects.

Given the experience amongst our members we felt it useful to compile responses to some of the common criticisms.  The answers represent the views of more than 1 organisation in our membership and you should always contact the member organisation directly for their view, if you have any concerns.

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How do YOG organisations establish the need to be involved in an orphanage projects and what efforts are made to establish if this is the best/only option?

Organisations dedicate a lot of resources to community care, supporting placements whose aim it is to keep children in their families or immediate communities. The needs and infrastructure of each location they work in are different, and they respond to the need as appropriate.

They ensure that it is a genuine project that has been licensed / registered and working in conjunction with local social services. They vet all the projects carefully and visit them regularly to assess them. Local staff members in each country select placements and any requests for partnership followed up by local staff, who understand the needs of both the local community, and an organisation’s goals.

They collaborate with local partners who can prove that volunteers will do worthwhile work while contributing towards long-term goals – achieved through collaborative discussion of task lists, management plans and reporting tools. They also ensure that their facilities, training and procedures meet the requirements of child protection policy.

However, organisations may not feel it is their position to overly challenge the existence of a particular orphanage where they are an ‘official’ institution, i.e. government approved. Member’s core competency is recruiting and preparing volunteers to work with genuine overseas charities and NGOs in need, not to undertake broader development work that may lead to alternative arrangements in future and there is a limit to the involvement it is appropriate for them to make.

How are projects monitored to ensure they are a means to an end rather than creating a dependency or a 1st resort option for families in difficulty?

Organisations may only work with a very small number of orphanages and to date they have not seen any growth in the homes that are supported. They would prefer there to be an alternative, but until that alternative can be safely established and managed, then they feel orphanage care is required to protect and support vulnerable children.

Where organisations support placements whose aim it is to keep children in their families or immediate communities, some have developed location-(and even placement)-specific management plans, which ensure that these all work towards long-term goals.

Innovations include a Care Database, which allows volunteers in one organisation to identify their contribution using specialised checklists designed to assess children’s levels of English, numeracy and overall development, according to the rate at which their age-groups should reach crucial developmental milestones. These checklists help guide daily activities and updates are regularly uploaded and tracked. In this way the organisation and its local partners can monitor the children’s development in real-time so staff and future volunteers can quickly target specific areas of need.

This research provides insight into the social, emotional, cognitive, language, physical and motor development of hundreds of children. Volunteers conduct this research as part of their daily activities, and the information can then be analysed and shared on a local, regional or global level to inform best practices in both Early Childhood Intervention programmes and volunteering best practice.

Where volunteers are accepted for very short periods e.g. 1 or 2 weeks, how are risks to children’s well-being considered and monitored?

The management staff/directors of the orphanages monitor attachment issues. Short-term volunteers have limited interaction with the children whom managers would argue, are very aware and accepting of the fact that there will be a regular turnover of volunteers. In some cases institutions actually ask for shorter-term volunteers only. In other cases volunteers may be placed on longer placements of up to year and in these cases there will inevitably be stronger bonds between a volunteer and a child. However in these cases the quality of the relationship is also much stronger than on short placements and there are benefits in that too.

The important thing in all such work is that volunteers are closely supervised and thoroughly briefed and de-briefed on a daily basis. Daily work-plans with clearly stated goals agreed with local staff and management ensure that all the work is purposeful, monitored and evaluated.

Short-term projects are possible because organisations also work on long-term goals. A short-term volunteer (of 1 or 2 weeks) can be given a very specific goal – for example, focusing on 2 or 3 children who are behind the rest of the group in their language skills. They will work on selected checklist items (for example using plurals or vocabulary of the classroom) for those 2 weeks, and by the end, aim to move the children up to that level.

How do you ensure volunteers are suitable, surely they should be qualified in some way?

Establishing a volunteer’s motivation and ability to manage the role is perhaps the most important element of recruitment. It’s also important to ensure the volunteer does not have fanciful expectations of ‘saving children’ or is unrealistic about the impact they can make.

Interviews, briefings, inductions and background checks are made as appropriate and all YOG members will have a Child Protection Policy. Child Protection Policy covers areas such as one-to-one interaction with children, photography restrictions, attachment and appropriate behaviour.

Information given to volunteers via a website, is re-emphasised during pre-departure preparation and is also highlighted during the workplace induction which will include specific skills training,  cultural awareness training and access to thousands of activities, which are volunteer-appropriate and contribute to goals set with partners.

If the placement requires specialist skills (such as physiotherapists or occupational therapists in residential centres for children with special needs), then organisations recruit volunteers to fit those needs.

One should not understate the value that volunteers can bring to a placement, even if they are unskilled. Volunteers who lack specialist skills can perform more basic tasks, which allow permanent local staff to manage and focus on work that requires specialist skills or local knowledge. They also have the ability to acquire different skills during their volunteer project, which enables them to perform some roles beyond the purely unskilled.

These placements are first and foremost about supporting others to address local problems. Volunteers can expect to learn and through their experience, gain a deeper understanding of why such issues exists. In turn they are more likely to take action and make better decisions about the influence they can have in their lives on many of the world’s pressing problems. Volunteering back in the UK is a very common outcome.

How is it ensured that volunteers do not have unsupervised access to children or given unsuitable duties?

Child protection policies are very clear on preventing unsupervised access to children, and on the expected standard of behaviour from all volunteers and partner organisations towards children. They will have have clear systems to report any concerns about child protection to the appropriate authorities.

Volunteer role profiles make it clear what is expected from the role, making it easier to flag up situations where someone feels they are being asked to work outside of this remit or indeed if they take on more than they should and need to be reminded of the limits to their role. Regular feedbacks are conducted with volunteers, during which tasks are reviewed and placement partners are in regular contact with local staff.

What would be the consequence for the local community of stopping all child care volunteering projects immediately?

Many projects operate in communities or locations that receive little or no attention from local governments or NGOs. YOG organisations feel they fill a much-needed gap in the development needs of many countries, and would consider it irresponsible to withdraw such support without alternatives in place. Partnership projects are structured to avoid financial dependence on volunteers, so while financially some placements would still be able to operate, the needs filled by volunteers would not be met. Permanent staff would be over stretched and the ‘care’ level therefore reduced. The placements have identified the need for volunteer support so withdrawing entirely, risks causing significant short-term and long-term damage in the communities affected.

So how might organisations involved in ‘orphanage’ volunteering change or adapt in future?

Volunteering in orphanages or residential care settings has changed over the years and research will continue to inform the impact this has on young people and their families. Meanwhile evidence from research should establish where resources are most needed, most effective and to ensure proper training and support for local staff and volunteers. The ethical standing of each placement needs to be considered before a long-term commitment is made.

The onus is on the organisation to ensure that the advertising of placements is clear. That checks, training, policies, safety and monitoring of projects is informed and regularly reviewed. No organisation is perfect as it stands, and we have a lot to learn from each other and from local authorities and academics.

Because projects are established on a needs basis as soon as the orphanages no longer have a need for additional support, volunteer organisations would happily withdraw. This would demonstrate that our projects have contributed successfully to communities striving to be more self sufficient.