Caring for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) in Ghana; A Critical Review

The purpose of this article is to take a retrospective view of the social intervention programs for orphans and vulnerable children in Ghana and reflect on the way forward.

After independence, the government of Ghana introduced universal welfare interventions for all Ghanaians including children. However, around the 1980s, the country made a u-turn in its social policies.

There was a complete shift from Nkrumah’s universal state interventions and welfare policies built on Keynesians economic principles and social democratic ideology to a globalised neo-liberalism propagated by the World Bank.

This continued until recently when the reverse appears to be taking place gradually with the introduction of the Free Compulsory and Universal Basic Education (FCUBE), the National Social Protection Strategy (NSPS), etc.

In caring for children especially orphans and the vulnerable ones (OVC), social intervention programs employed can commonly be classified into 3 broad thematic areas; preventive, protective and transformative.

1. Preventive measures: These are social intervention programs aimed at preventing families from disintegrating. That is, providing direct support to families to enable children to live with their own families (natural, traditional or legal) to be cared for. These include direct cash transfers, improvement in access to life necessities such as health care, education, shelter, clothing etc.

2. Protective social intervention programs: These are alternative family placement and care interventions for children who have already separated from their parents such as orphans and abandoned kids. Another target population under this intervention are children who stand the risk of abuse and exploitation in their families (vulnerable children). Protective measures are thus safety net interventions which restore hope, life and dignity to the helpless and hopeless kids.

The unfortunate reality is that no matter how effective the preventive measures are, there are some children whose continue stay with their parents put their life at extreme risk. For instance, children of lunatics, paedophiles, alcoholics, etc.

3. Transformative measures: These interventions enhance the capacity of the state and its agencies to be able to effectively promote the development of vulnerable children.

Assessment of Ghana’s performance on the various social intervention areas.

Preventive social interventions
Over the years, Ghana, compared to many other developing nations, has done extremely well on the Preventive social intervention measures and deserves a rating of A+ without any element of exaggeration or bias. The country has as a matter of fact been able to put in place many effective preventive social intervention programs which have mitigated the effects of the enormous social and economic tribulations besieging Ghanaian families and children. No doubt, in the world today families are confronted with unprecedented levels of physical and social stresses. For instance, the threat of a child becoming an orphan or vulnerable today due to economic hardship, HIV/AIDS, violence or accident is higher than it was in thirty (30) years ago.

In the developing world like Ghana, the situation is even far worse. Among the tall list of preventive social intervention programs which have earned Ghana this admiration, stretching from the People’s National Defense Council (PNDC) era through the New Patriotic Party’s (NPP) regime to the era of the National Democratic Congress-NDC, mention can be made of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), The livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty Program (LEAP), The Free School Feeding Program, Capitation Grant to schools, The Program of Action to Mitigate the Social Cost of Adjustment (PAMSCAD), Cost of Living allowances (COLA), Tax Relief incentives, various scholarship opportunities , free vaccinations and child health promotions.

Currently, by the National Health Insurance Scheme exempt policy, for instance, the payment of premium is even waived for children under 18 years. Notwithstanding, this gives them free access to healthcare for the entire year.

Quite recently, I visited a Senior High School (Nsawkaw State Senior High School) in the Tain District of Brong Ahafo Region. I was flabbergasted to find in place five (5) different functioning scholarship schemes—Northern Extraction scholarship, Cocoa Marketing Board (CMB) scholarship, Government of Ghana Merit-based award, Secondary Education Improvement Program Scholarship (SEIP) and Mathematics, Science and ICT Education Scholarship.

In all, nearly fifty percent of the students placed in the school each year by the Computerized Schools Selection and Placement Scheme (CSSPS) benefit from these scholarships. My investigation revealed a similar trend in many other high schools across the nation. Even in the other schools, students enjoy additional scholarships including the GetFund scholarship, MPs Common fund scholarship, etc. As if this is not enough, the NDC government of Ghana recently launched the progressively free education program, ushering in virtually free secondary education for most day students in the country.

The then main opposition political party (the New Patriotic Party-NPP) even made free education the central theme of their campaign manifesto. Such interventions do not only make it possible for children from economically disadvantaged families to receive the much-needed education but also enhance the abilities of their respective families to save and invest in improving their living standards.

The LEAP program also ensures direct cash transfer of approximately $30million annually to the extremely poor households in all the 210 districts in Ghana. In fact, such tangible social support has been demonstrated by experts to be the most effective social support for poor individuals. No one can thus underestimate the huge impact this LEAP program has had on the welfare of children in its over 70,000 beneficiary households who could not have offered themselves one decent meal a day.

In all, without these strategic preventive social programs from successive governments as well as multinational donor agencies (e.g., UNICEF, USAID, JICA) the stability of many families in Ghana would have been threatened and more children would have been dumped at refuse dumps, become school dropouts, child prostitutes, hardened criminals or head porters (Kayaye).

This assertion is in line with an observation by a famous social work educator, Nancy Boyd Webb. She noted in her book (1996), titled Social Work Practice with Children that “after years of abuse and neglect children internalise and then replicate the dysfunctional behaviour they have witnessed and experienced during their formative years”

From my years of experience in this field, if anything at all is left to be added to the interventions highlighted above, to further empower and enhance the abilities of Ghanaian families to function more effectively as the most conducive environment for children to receive protection against abuse, neglect and exploitation, they should include;

Linking families to support systems

  • Providing education and training in parenting and child care skills, home management, occupational and vocational skills, etc
  • Promoting access to individual and family counseling, substance abuse and mental health treatments.
  • Making social welfare workers available to families.

Protective measures

With Protective interventions (caring for abandoned and at-risk children) unfortunately, efforts by successive governments in Ghana have been woefully inadequate and very disappointing.

In fact, Section 19(3) of the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child (CRC) which Ghana was the first country to ratify on 5th February, 1990 mandates government of Ghana to remove a child in need of care and protection to a place of safety; outlined in the Children’s Act,1998 (Act 560) as the various homes under the Department of Social Welfare (DW), privately owned children’s homes and fosterages—being kingship or non-kingship. This conforms to a provision in Article 28(1a) of our own 1992 Constitution that says that every Ghanaian child shall be entitled to “special care, assistance and maintenance as is necessary for its development”

Major dangers which confront these vulnerable and disadvantaged children in Ghana are endless and they include child labor, sexual abuse, child trafficking, child prostitution, ritual servitude, excessive corporal punishment and “streetism”. Others are harmful socio-cultural practices (e.g., forced betrothals and child marriages). Because Ghana has not experienced any rebel activities nor mandatory conscription into the Ghana armed forces, we do not have child soldiers as compared to other African countries like Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Chad, South Sudan etc.

In line with the provisions above, the Department of Social Welfare (DSW), faith-based organizations and other charitable individuals in collaboration with the Domestic Violence Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service, have been very quick, kind and professional in removing many hundreds of Ghanaian children deemed to be at risk to places of “safety”. This no doubt is highly commendable.

Orphanage vs Fosterages

The only unfortunate thing here is that the orphans and the vulnerable children removed from dangers are placed in orphanages and children homes located mostly far away from the families and the communities of these children. Thus, currently, in Ghana, children homes and orphanages have become a well-recognized and widespread child-welfare protective social interventions. This has no doubt given rise to a sharp increase in the number of charlatan orphanages and children homes across the country (demand-driven) with an estimated children population of not less than 4000.

As for formal foster care, it is unavailable in this country due to lack of resources as claimed in the Ghana’s report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (1997-2003) Article 7.6 (148c). This is my major concern and worry. Fortunately, in Ghana, we have some form of informal kinship foster care. But this has not in any way guaranteed protection for our vulnerable children due to lack of regulations and monitoring. The more privileged individuals grab children of deceased and/or poor families, exploit their domestic labour, abuse them for years and abandon them on flimsy and cooked up pieces of evidence that cannot stand the test of law even in the era of slavery and colonisation.

In 2008, the government of Ghana launched the Care Reform Initiative (CRI) towards integrated care services for vulnerable children and families in Ghana. The main objective is to transform Ghana’s care system which is over-reliant on orphanages into foster care enterprise. A large number of initiatives, Acts and conventions including, the Children’s Act 560 (1998), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990 (UNCRC) and the UN Guidelines for the Protection and Alternative Care of Children without Parental Care, agree on one major recommendation; to use institutional care as a last resort.

This, unfortunately, has not happened in Ghana. Institutional care has rather become the first resort in caring for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC). In my opinion, this is unacceptable, “un-Ghanaian” and a big smack in the face of the “Ghanaian Hospitality” philosophical accolade for a country that has promised the best possible care and protection for her OVCs.

My question is whether we have as a country ever bothered to test the efficacy and the effectiveness of these orphanages and homes we have relied on so much? That is, whether these institutions can and are serving their purposes of providing the critical care, nurturance and socialisation Ghanaian children need so much in such formative years? We should not lose sight of the fact that Ghana has a unique culture which is quite impossible to learn under formal institutional structures, other than in loving family settings.

Article 28(1c) of the 1992 Constitution states unequivocally that in everything that is done by parents, legal guardians or the state for a child, the interest of the child shall be “paramount”. This is consistent with the guiding principle of all other international and regional conventions and social interventions on the rights and welfare of children.

Article 3(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance, is very clear on the premise that “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare childcare institutions, the best interest of the child shall be a primary consideration”.

It has long been observed that in many Ghanaian orphanages and children homes, the stories there contravene these provisions. Profit motive and personal gains have taken precedence over the welfare of the children. It is thus not uncommon to find many children crammed into small dormitories while management of the orphanages live in well furnished and luxurious apartments in the same orphanage facility paid for by donations meant for the running of the orphanage.

In sum, decades of child welfare research demonstrate that children homes and orphanages have not been successful in addressing the enormous psychological, physical and emotional needs of vulnerable children the world over. The Ghanaian Government’s report on “The Care Reform Initiative for Orphans and Vulnerable Children” launched in 2006 even admits that “children raised in institutions often have psychological problems of insecurity and emotional instability due to detachment from a close caregiver”. The same report acknowledges that “a good number of these homes and orphanages are poorly run and more often do not comply with either national or international standards and requirements”.

What makes the current situation in Ghana more disturbing is that services provided in most orphanages in Ghana are not based on Social work at all—they are just physical. At best, the children are offered places to sleep and food to eat. They do not have Permanency Planning arrangements.

In addition, the children no access to mental health services and/or counselling. This does not exclude even children with various forms of mental and physical disabilities. No wonder in some remote villages in Ghana children born with disabilities is sometimes killed at birth or left to die out of desperation and frustration. Overcrowding, abuse, exploitation and sexual harassment are too rampant in Ghanaian children’s homes.

Not too long ago, a top quality investigative Ghanaian journalist, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, uncovered massive act of corruption, abuse and exploitation at one of the major orphanages in Ghana—The Countryside Children’s Home at Awutu Bawjiase in the Central Region. His report, carried in all major news outlets in Ghana revealed a chilling story of poor feeding, forced fasting, the sweeping sale of donated items, excessive abuse and neglect, malevolent pregnancy and abortion and lack of health care for the children.

A similar heart-breaking story of excessive abuse, neglect and exploitation had been reported at other homes including Osu Children’s Home in Accra and the Peace and Love orphanage.

The UNCRC (Article 20(1) states that “a child temporally or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose best interest cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the state” Do these exposes portray any protection from the government of Ghana as promised? Certainly no. The operation of orphanages in Ghana has become a lucrative business initiative and best fit the description of child warehouses.

Should this trend continue, it will no doubt make the future of this nation very bleak and uncertain. At this stage, we cannot pretend to be ignorant of the empirical demonstration that criminals are made but are not born.

It must also be noted that about 40% of girls who pass through orphanages and grouped homes end up becoming prostitutes while over 45% of boys who grow out of these facilities become armed robbers due to the abuse and exploitation they experience. Besides, the cost of running orphanages is far more expensive than foster homes. In terms of employment creation also, foster homes create more jobs than orphanages.

What then is Ghana waiting for before introducing formal foster care like Kenya and/or modernising the existing informal care?

Already in Ghana, the rates of armed robbery, substance abuse, prostitution, unemployment and other social vices are very alarming. So if we continue to keep about 4000 children in grouped homes and orphanages, only God knows what our future will be. This behaviour is also synonymous with the action of the proverbial bird “Kokonekone” which goes to the head of the stream to make it muddy and comes downstream to search for the person responsible for making the same water undrinkable. That is, we cannot continue to maltreat about 30% of our own children who are our future leaders through orphanages and later organise expensive workshops to look for the causes of juvenile delinquency, armed robbery, prostitution, streetism, the spread of HIV/AIDS, bribery and corruption.

The time has, therefore, come for us to take a critical reflection of the way orphans and vulnerable children are cared for in Ghana. Specifically, we need to rethink about foster care and institutionalisation. This debate I am very confident if done objectively and is supported by logical analysis and scientific research, devoid of self-interest will surely favour the former.

Let me end this chapter with an admonishing from God to treat orphans and vulnerable children with love to avoid curses; “If thou afflict them in any way and they cry unto me, I shall surely hear their cry; and my anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless”—Exodus 22: 23-24.

In conclusion, we have a moral and legal duty to offer the best possible protective and preventive social interventions for our children and not either.

Written by Augustine Djan – Augustine Djan, is a Ph.D student in Social Work at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), U.S.A. Contact: adjan@gradcenter.cuny.edu.

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