Where do the street children of Kampala go?

I am disappointed that my field trip to the western regions of Uganda had to be cancelled.  Sabine and Terra will go later, I am sure, but I will, alas, have to miss it.  I did, however, have one more field excursion, this one in Kampala.  Along with the RapidFTR field team, consisting of Tom and Zubair from ThoughtWorks and Jorge, who is consulting with UNICEF, I visited one of the Reception Centers in the city of Kampala.  These Reception Centers house children (often just referred to as the Kampala Street Children) who have been taken into custody by police, have been found on the streets, or end up in court.  There are NGOs that also provide care for the street children, but the reception centers are the ones that are officially mandated to care for these children.

Many of the street children are from Karamoja.  They’ve been left abandoned in the city by relatives who either presumably feel they have no way to care for them or sell them to individuals who bring the children from Karamoja to beg.  Some of the children are also runaways.  Some have escaped from or been abandoned by the LRA and have made their way to Kampala. Some of the children have physical and mental or emotional issues.  The difference between the NGOs and the official Reception Center is that the NGOs can pick and choose which and how many children they accept.  The reception center has no choice, as their mandate is to care for any child presented to them.  As a result, the percentage of children with some kind of problem is significant.

The remit of the center is temporary care, meaning less than three years, which seems a long time to me.  Sometimes they are not able to successfully reunite children with their families in that time, and sometimes they are unable to procure suitable alternative care.  A major part of their work, in addition to providing care for the children, is to locate their family and reunite them.  This work is what brought us to the center, as we were exploring different applications for the RapidFTR (FTR meaning Family Tracing and Reunification) system.  I’ll cover RapidFTR another blog post.

The reunification process on the surface seems easy.  The child answers a series of questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where did you live?” and “Who are your parents?”. The center then contacts the District Officials in the area with that information, and the District Officer pays the parents a visit, to assess if the family is ready, willing, and able to accept the child back into the home.  In an ideal world, the family is thrilled to get the child back and has the resources to properly support the child.  The child travels with a representative from the Reception Center to the District, and the District Officer takes the child with the representative to the family home, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Sadly, the real world diverges from this ideal world.  Sometimes, the kids ran away so they lie.  They might be traumatized by their experience, and thus might not be thinking clearly.  The name might not be unique enough for certain identification. Transportation to remote areas in a District is often difficult.  In many cases, the representative travels with the child from Kampala, picks up the District Officer and they all proceed to the family.  Of course, in this case, the family has had no warning about the pending arrival of their lost child. The child may indeed be placed in the awkward position of watching his family says he’s not wanted anymore.  If the family situation is too dire, even if the family does want the child back, he might still be returned to the Reception Center.  These alternative scenarios occur all too frequently, particularly in the more difficult cases, where the children are ill or the family is very poor.

The Center is crowded.  In 2009, the center we visited took in over 325 children.  Out of those, and the standing population of around 150, about 200 were re-settled with their families, and another 100 were taken by one of the local NGOs working with children.  Another 30 ran away, and one child died.  These numbers are just for the Kampala reception center; other NGOs also take in children directly, although they are supposed to have a court order of some kind before doing so.  I should note that most of my information is from the perspective of those working for the Reception Center or the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development.  As we all know, there are multiple sides to every story, and the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.

The grounds of the Reception Centre include a couple of cows for milk, and several chickens for eggs.  The older children help out in the kitchen, among other things. They tried to have a garden, but it kept getting torn up, demonstrating one of the real problems the Center faces.  Many of its kids are troubled in some way (or more accurately in many ways).  The kids act out.  For example, while there are mosquito nets for all the girls in the dorm, there are none in the boys dorm as the boy there keep destroying them.  They also destroy the mattresses.  The facility has counselors on staff, but there’s only so much that they can accomplish.

The place is rather grim, I must say.  How much of this is a result of under-funding, avoidable or not, from the government or from government ineffectiveness is hard to estimate.  Government institutions for taking care of children are often grim places, regardless of where they are. It’s no coincidence that several dark, brooding, not really social characters in fiction have a government institution for children in their past. Private groups, who have more control over how many children they accept, and what issues the children have, frequently have nicer, more vibrant, and seemingly more caring environments.

The folks I met at the Reception Center were caring individuals who honestly discussed the problems they face.  They are in the unenviable position of dealing with children who have literally been discarded.  It would be easy to sit in judgment of their efforts, but without the level of funding available to the NGOs, and with the reality of some disturbed children in their midst, easy solutions are few and far between.  I am sure their situation would be improved with more funding from the government.  The question becomes how much more would it take, and even is this the right approach.  I have no answers; I wish I did.  The expressions on the faces of the children, including one boy of about 8 or so who clearly had some kind of problem, were heart wrenching. Unfortunately, without ideas and resources to follow-up with, my emotions were not terribly productive.

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