This post has been contributed by Dr Kate van Doore, a member of the Law Futures Centre and the co-investigator on the project, Rebecca Nhep, Better Care Network.

In early 2020, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, triggering unprecedented disruption. Governments enforced public health measures including stay at home orders, social distancing, curfews, travel restrictions and the closure of borders, schools, services and businesses. These measures have had both direct and indirect impacts on all segments of society and sectors, including social welfare and services such as residential care for children. Economic insecurity has worsened, and already fragile coping mechanisms are being pushed to the limits. 

Public health measures triggered a near complete shutdown of the international travel and tourism industry and widespread global economic shocks are set to eclipse the global financial crisis. The ripple effect of these dynamics on the privately-run residential care sector are yet to be fully understood, but we know that these measures have directly impacted the functioning of residential care institutions (RCIs). RCI’s are often referred to as orphanages, children’s homes/villages, or children’s shelters, and are located in low- and middle-income countries caring for orphaned and vulnerable children. Many RCI’s operate volunteer programs or visitor where foreigners come for a period of time to provide care or activities for the children. Such programs are termed as ‘orphanage tourism’ and raise funds for the RCI’s as well as contribute to labour needs.  

Government directives, classification of ‘essential services’, social distancing and isolation requirements, school closures and travel restrictions have all affected RCIs, and we expect that there will be more disruptions to the sector to come. These will likely include impacts that stem from the rapid cessation of orphanage tourism and volunteering; changes in regulatory environments (including government directives to send children home and moratoriums on registering or opening new RCIs); and financial insecurity due to the economic downturn and impact on donations coming from other countries.

We recently conducted a study which explored the effect of COVID-19 on a small number of privately-run and -funded RCIs. We interviewed founders, funders, and directors of RCIs in Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Kenya and Myanmar in order to reveal the impact of COVID-19 on the operations of privately-run RCIs, including funding, care for children, staffing, the presence of volunteers, impacts of public health measures and directives, reintegration of children and future planning.

Most of our interview participants reported that COVID-19 had a negative impact on children; however, over half of our interviewees also acknowledged some positive impacts. These included improved caregiver-child relationships and stabilised child behaviour, which were attributed to greater consistency of caregiving (with caregivers isolated onsite with children for extended periods) and the lack of volunteer presence.

In most cases, what we found was that the roles filled, and activities conducted by international volunteers/visitor were largely unessential and superfluous to the actual operation of RCIs. The main value of volunteers and visitors lay in fundraising. These roles were aimed at increasing emotional attachment between the visitors and children as a means of capitalising on volunteers returning home and continuing to be involved as ongoing donors and longer-term advocates and fundraisers. As such, most participants noted no detriment to the functions of the RCI due to the loss of volunteers/visitors apart from financial impacts.

Nevertheless, the RCIs who participated in the research intended to resume accepting volunteers and visitors as soon as possible. This is problematic because the presence of volunteers and visitors and the funding dynamics they create perpetuates institutional modes of care and does not appear to be in the best interests of children. 

We did find that COVID-19 has caused RCI directors to reflect on how their centres run, how they are funded, and their purpose for being. This may provide an entry point for starting or progressing care reform/transition considerations – but this won’t happen if the funding implications aren’t considered in tandem.

Our findings demonstrate how important it is for governments to progress care reform, address the major drivers of child institutionalisation via strengthening access to social welfare support and education, and ensure enforceable gatekeeping and assessment mechanisms are in place. Government involvement is a major determining factor in the successful reintegration of children, and as such, they are vital partners.

The outcomes of this study provide important insights to support ongoing advocacy, engagement and technical support for care reform targeting a range of stakeholders including RCI directors, donors, volunteers, and governments. While COVID-19 has created untold pain and suffering, let it also offer us an opportunity to reform the operation of RCIs. You can read the Report, Briefing Notes and associated Case Studies here.