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Learnings From the 4th BICON 2021 – Biennial International Conference on Alternative Care for Children

Fourth Biennial International Conference (4th BICON) hosted online with practitioners, policymakers, academics, and young care leavers on 8th and 9th December 2021 with the theme of alternate care for children in Asia. Around 200 representatives from across the globe participated in BICON 2021 to explore –

  1. strategies to address unnecessary family separation, including children with disabilities and children on the move,
  2. regional approaches and practices to formal and informal kinship care, foster care, and guardianship,
  3. policies and practices to support children and young people leaving care,
  4. social welfare workforce development and systems strengthening, and
  5. impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children in alternative care, and their protection during the pandemic and other emergency responses.

The opening session of the 4th BICON was started with the keynotes of Dr. Kiran Modi, Founder, Udayan Care, Dr. Rinchen Chophel, Executive Director, South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), and member of the UNCRC Committee, Ms. Mikiko Otani, Chair, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and Miss Karishma Singh, Youth Advocate.

Dr. Kiran shared the evolution of the conference since 1st BICON in 2014 and stated how it has become a leading region-wide debate on alternative care in Asia.

Dr. Rinchen emphasized prevention, alternative care, addressing violence against children, providing psychological support to the children living in alternative care, and listening to their voices.

Ms. Mikiko briefly stated the outcomes of the 2021 UN Day of General Discussion (DGD) on Children’s Rights and Alternative Care. She emphasized that the institutionalization of children is harmful to their health, education, and overall development. She mentioned that special focus is to be given to children with disabilities. In the immigration process, detention and separation of children are not recommended. She urged the organizer to share the outcomes of BICON before DGD general assembly report in January 2021.

Ms. Karishma, a young care leaver urged decision-makers: ‘Keep us in the centre of all that you do for us. Don’t decide for us: include us, and support us’.

On the first day of the conference, two breakout sessions were conducted focusing on Tackling unnecessary separation in Asia and Family-based alternative care formal and informal which were further divided into three breakout groups.

The first breakout focused on:

  1. Family strengthening
  2. Inclusion towards prevention
  3. Preventing the separation of families on the move and emergency settings

Whereas the second breakout highlighted on:

  1. Specialist foster care
  2. Informal kinship care
  3. Community-based foster care

In this article, we would like to focus on lessons learned about family strengthening and community-based foster care from experts across Asia.

  1. Family strengthening: A series of family strengthening initiatives were showcased by the experts from Child in Need Institute (CINI) in Jharkhand, Butterflies in Delhi, India, and Friends International in Thailand to address unnecessary family separation.

CINI established a peer-led model with children/adolescent groups in collaboration with the government child protection system to create safe spaces within the community, identified hotspots through Civil Society Organisation (CSO) networks, set up a comprehensive vulnerability tracking system through Village Level Child Protection Committee (VLCPC) in the hotspots, linked them in referral system under Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) program, facilitated linkages of families with government schemes and support services, promoted kinship, sponsorship, and foster care, and initiated community-led child protection approach through involving local leaders and Gram Sabhas. Through these steps, they have prevented 1200 children from separation, tracked 5000 children from 12 hotspots, supported 8400 families to link with government schemes, and facilitated linkages of 42 children with alternative care in the state.

Butterflies works on building family resilience through a therapeutic approach. They tried to bring positive bonding within the family through mental health interventions. Butterflies believe family, community, and school are the continuum of care and protection for children. Children and adolescents indulge in risk and problematic behavior identified by the educator or social worker and referred to the social caseworker (professionally qualified medical and psychiatric social worker). The social caseworker conducts individual casework sessions with the children and family member/s to understand and resolve the issues or conflicts. Child Social protection Committee (CSPC) was formed in 8 communities in Delhi as a community-based child protection mechanism where the community members, including child representatives, come together to make the community a caring and safe place for children. In CSPs, information on government welfare programs is shared and supports families to access the same. Butterflies organize awareness sessions for school teachers on child protection, basic communication, counseling, and issues in adolescents. They also conduct life skill sessions and group work sessions with children and adolescents in schools.

Interventions of Friends International in family strengthening involve marginalized children, youth, and their families. They support the families in savings lives, build livelihood initiatives and provide psychosocial support. Friends International organizes and implements community-based prevention and response mechanisms through the development of the ‘ChildSafe agents’ network. ‘ChildSafe agents’ are selected from the community and trained as an agent of protection. They are involved in direct protection, referrals, awareness-raising, and support school reintegration of the children. They have a strong network of 4500 childSafe Agents. During the year 2019, Friends International reached 7269 families, and from January to September 2021, they reached 9429 families.

  1. Community-based foster care: In this breakout session we have learned about community-based foster care initiatives of three Asian countries. Experts from India, Japan, and Indonesia explained how they applied community-based foster care in the sphere of family-based alternative care.

Commissioner and Joint Secretary, Department of Child Rights, Govt. of Rajasthan, India started her speech by mentioning that Rajasthan is the first state in India to have a separate and independent Department of Child Rights to address child rights issues in the state.  She observed that children in foster care homes are more cheerful than Child Care Institute (CCI). Presently 163 children need foster parents in the state.

She specifically mentioned the recently launched Goradhai Group Foster Care Scheme. It has been introduced in the year 2021 in all districts of Rajasthan in coordination with NGOs and civil societies. In the scheme, District Child Welfare Committee has a provision to provide recognition to a voluntary institution or service provider for the first three years for the care of children. This period will be extended for the next three years, depending on the work of the institute and the compatibility for the scheme. The decision of the Child Welfare Committee in this regard will be final. A maximum of 8 children can be placed in a group foster care. Financial assistance is earmarked for nutritional, clothing, teaching-training, and daily needs of the child, two caretakers, and for miscellaneous expenditure. The detail of the scheme is available in the link.

Another foster care scheme named Vaatsalya Yojna was launched by the state in the year 2020 with an aim of providing family-based care to the children who do not have parental support and are provided with institutional care as a measure. This scheme focuses on the de-institutionalization of children through family-based care in form of foster care. Financial support has been provided to the foster parents. The detail of the scheme is available in the link.

Executive Director of International Foster Care Alliance (IFCA), Japan stated recent changes of child welfare law in Japan. She said the majority of children in Japan live in a large orphanage-like home. In 2017, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), Japan launched the “New Foster Care Vision” and set the foster parent placement rate goals like 75% of children under the age of three by the year 2024 and 50% of school-age children entrusted to foster parents by the year 2029.

In the year 2018, IFCA and Mockingbird Society, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, USA formed The Mockingbird Family Japan (MFJ) under IFCA’s caregiver program. Mockingbird Family™ is an innovative foster care delivery model that creates an extended family network to support, develop and retain quality foster families so they can meet the challenging and complex needs of children and youth experiencing foster care. It provides multi-layered support to community caregivers and children. In 2019 and 2020, several constellations were started in three areas of Japan.

The expert from Muhammadiyah, an Islamic organization in Indonesia stated that the spirit of helping others in the community through donations based on religious beliefs regarding the obligation to help orphans is financial energy in the formation and management of childcare programs at Muhammadiyah. Their social program is focused to find alternatives to residential care and new methods to promote family-based care. They provide support to vulnerable families through preventative services and want residential care facilities converted into community centers. They also work to ensure that no new residential care facilities are built by educating its district staff in preventative care solutions.

The above initiatives gave a good insight into what makes community-based foster care work and how some of the models can be adapted or replicated across Asia.

The 4th BICON concluded with vigor from all participants to promote family-based alternative care for the best interest of young people. It conveyed the messages to the governments to promote family strengthening, deinstitutionalize programs and strengthen the social workforce.  It also emphasized an inclusive plan of child protection irrespective of disability, migration, and gender. The BICON also highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on child rights and the way forward to address it. Concerns of care leavers were raised and urged the policymakers to include their voice.

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