By Linda Bordoni
“Catholic Care for Children International” is the name given to the network promoted by the International Union of Superiors General.
It will be launched on 2 October during an online event with the participation of religious women and men on the forefront of providing childcare and protection for vulnerable children.
Sr. Niluka Perera, a social worker with over 25 years of experience in working with children, is the first Coordinator of Catholic Care for Children International. In an interview with Vatican Radio, she talked about the need for a global reform in child care.
“CCCI is a project aiming to ensure a world where every child will grow up in a safe loving family or a family-like environment” Sr Niluka explained pointing out that there are already Sisters in different countries, mainly in Africa, who are implementing a new model along these lines.
“We are standing on the shoulders of these Sisters,” she said, especially those in Uganda, Kenya and Zambia.
That’s why the UISG is launching a global platform so that religious across the world can learn how to move towards this trend that is taking vulnerable children out of institutions and into families or family-like environments and communities.
Almost 9,000 Catholic residential care institutions worldwide
According to statistics, there are nearly 9000 Catholic residential care institutions or orphanages serving over 5,500,000 children globally.
Sr Niluka said that in moving towards a new model, the Religious are reading the signs of the times as “research and studies have proven that the best place for the children to be is in the family.”
It is interesting to note, Sr Patricia Murray, Superior General of the UISG said, that developing countries are leading the way in trying to give children what is called “a continuum of care where there can be a response in which children are placed back in their families because we know that 80% of children are not orphans but have a living parent or a family structure, and that family structure is helped to keep the child at home.”
“That's a much more preferable solution than putting a child in an institution", she said, adding that at UISG, “we see the importance of helping to spread this movement.”
Of course, it is not simple, because to be able to take a child back in the family, it needs to be economically able to do so, and that means that in many cases it becomes necessary to support the family “for feeding, for school fees, for clothing, for the things that are child needs.”
If the family is struggling, she explained, it very quickly places the child in an institution where his or her needs will be met and where the burden will be taken away from the family itself.
“In this day and age, we have to be much more enlightened,” Sr Pat continued, and although the process may take longer “it’s the way to go because a child needs to be in his or her family.”
She explained that there are some very imaginative ways of creating such environments where children are placed in a structure in which there is the support of the local community or with the help of some sort of organisation that works to create a ‘family-like’ environment.
Looking at best practices and learning from others
The platform, Sr Pat said, is a way for us to look at best practices and learn from what others are doing in different countries, often with the help of NGOs and of governments who are looking at new policies in terms of vulnerable children.
“I think we have to be part of that worldwide movement, and I think that as the Church, we have something, in addition, to add by always focusing on the dignity of the child and always focusing on the importance of each individual who is unique.”
That, she said, is the aim of religious congregations who are guided by the Gospel that speaks of the fullness of life: “I think the time has come to evaluate what we are doing and to improve as we constantly do,” with attention for all the needs of an individual: "material, physical, emotional and spiritual".
One thing, she said, many don't realise even at the level of society, "just how demanding it is to take care of children who are wounded and hurt by life and who need accompaniment and nourishment that will heal those wounds and help restore the child so they feel loved, cared for and cherished."
She is grateful, she said, to so many sisters worldwide who bring their social work training and theological and religious formation together highlighting the fact that "this requires something new of us at this time."
The Rights of the Child
Sr Niluka also noted that most countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child that states that “every child has the right to develop harmoniously and to develop his or her potential”. She said that since that Convention was signed in 1989, other legislation has come into effect in this regard and governments and societies across the world are aware of the fact that it is their duty to give vulnerable children a family in which to grow and thrive.
Her hope, she concluded, is that all the congregations who are serving children in institutional settings will make the move, read the signs of the time and help to realize this vision in which every child will grow up in a safe and loving family or family-like environment:
“There is expertise, skilful people in the congregations, […] and my wish is that we all should come together to give the best place the best environment for every child to grow in a healthy manner.”