In this guest post, Child and Maternal Health Nurse Terese gives insight into some of the many complex issues caused by institutional care.
“In a few months, my husband and I will be driving to the airport to meet our daughter who will have been studying in the US for a semester. We will be excited to be reunited with our daughter after missing her for six months. It’s obvious that we don’t want to pick up just any 21 year old young woman. We can’t wait to see our special daughter!
I could describe a hundred different interactions that many of us experience every day, like this, which demonstrate the important of irreplaceable relationships in families. They are so common that we mostly don’t notice that everywhere in the world, human beings are expressing deep and intimate feelings for those who are most important to them. From the youngest baby to the oldest person, this experience is universal. Even when these relationships are difficult, people always long for this connection.
The depth and intimacy of our family relationships are what make life meaningful. If we don’t experience this in our childhood, we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to create this in the families we form as adults.
That is why, in my interactions with families, as a Child and Maternal Health Nurse, I not only check that the baby is growing well and meeting developmental milestones, but also observe the nature of the relationship between the baby and parents. The quality of this relationship is the foundation for everything that is necessary to the child to thrive and develop into an adult who can enjoy life, function well and be compassionate to others.
A concept in developmental psychology called attachment theory seeks to understand the nature and importance of this connection in relation to childhood development.
We all have a lived experience of attachment theory, as we have all been cared for as children. We now live with the impact of these experiences; good, bad but never indifferent.
It is complex to understand how this theory relates to vulnerable children in residential care. The experiences of childhood are woven into our everyday lives, embedded in our personalities and ways of going about life. And because we can’t remember those early years, the intense experience of forming a bond with our parents is not easily reflected upon.
Some aspects of attachment theory that I have found helpful to think about include:
The infant brain is immature at birth. The basic structures are in place but the connections (synapses) between the brain cells (neurons) are not fully developed. This means there are infinite possibilities for the wiring of the brain at birth. These connections are formed by the environment and interactions that a baby experiences. The crucial time for the establishment of these connections is the first few years of life. These repeated experiences become the wiring of the brain.
A baby is born with instinctive behaviours that seek closeness with their caregiver who will comfort, protect and nurture them. A child must have the opportunity to attach to at least one consistent person to achieve optimum development. When a child makes these important connections, the relationship is much deeper than someone they simply become familiar with, as we might with a work colleague. This relationship with the primary caregiver is hardwired into the architecture of the brain.
The process of attachment occurs regardless of the quality of the care provided. A baby cannot discriminate between a nurturing parent and neglectful or abusive parent. Even in situations where a child needs to be removed from a family due to abuse, the child will still be traumatized by the loss of this relationship.
In light of this, it is essential that children, where possible, continue to live with their biological family. It is far better to provide support for the family to help them to thrive. The resources invested in this will also assist the extended family and wider community. If this is not possible, care within the extended family is the next best option. Residential care should be the last resort when all other options have been explored, and even then, for as short a time as possible.
To put this into a context that helps us understand from a child’s perspective:
Imagine for a moment that you are taken away from all of your significant relationships to live in a different community. You have no power to stop this and you are completely cut off from everyone you know. It may be in response to a trauma your family has experienced (i.e. a death or illness), a natural disaster or a longer term situation, like poverty or unemployment. In any case, this situation is extremely distressing and you desperately need your family to cope. To exacerbate the tragedy, you now live with others who are also traumatized because they were also separated from their family and community.
This scenario is the lived experience for many children placed in residential care. Decades of research show that 80 to 90% of children in residential care have one or more parents alive, and the primary reason for placing them in care is poverty, not abuse or neglect or being orphaned. Parents are desperate to ensure that their children receive adequate food, clothing and education.
To address the issues of poverty, and help families continue to have the resources they need for their children, is complex. It needs local community involvement and a multi-disciplinary approach. But surprisingly, once established, family- based care costs about 7 x less than funding a children’s home or orphanage. Think of the possibilities of being able to reach 7x more children with same amount of money currently allocated to funding an orphanage! It also has the added benefit of being able to support whole families and their communities.
Instinctively, we understand that children, where possible should remain in families. If something happened to us where we couldn’t look after our children, we would want our children to be cared in an environment as close as possible to a family experience. Do we find it difficult to identify with parents in another culture and country, as having the same feelings of deep connection and love for their children, as we have for our children? Or perhaps many of us are unaware, that most children in orphanages are not true orphans and that better options such as family preservation or family based care is being introduced all over the world.
After reading this blog, I encourage you to reflect on the following:
Notice attachment in your everyday life. Being connected to your family and friends isn’t an optional extra in life. We don’t want to replace someone we love with someone else. When we lose someone we love, the grief is profound. Think about this in the context of a child being placed in residential care.
If you are a parent, empathise with parents who are desperate enough to put their child in residential care. How would you feel if you had to be separated from your child due to tragic circumstances?
Imagine the difference for a child between living in an institution or family-based care. Take the time to consider why orphanages do not exist anymore in Australia.
We cannot be part of a system that allows children to live outside of a family environment without exhausting all other options. We wouldn’t want anything less for our own children. We shouldn’t want anything less for vulnerable children living in other cultures.