A Social Worker Fighting for Family Reunification in Uganda

Written by Michael Mangeni

Written by Michael Mangeni

I was born and raised in Kampala, Uganda. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and have been practicing in Uganda for six years, working closely with orphaned and vulnerable children and their families.

My journey into this work dates back to when I was a child myself, sometimes my family would go downtown and I would notice kids on the street begging, looking so hopeless and distraught. This was in the late 1990’s when war in Northern Uganda was at its height. The war caused family separation, orphaned children, child headed households, among other evils. Seeing people go through these struggles, who often fled to Kampala, stirred a great deal of sympathy and compassion within me, especially for the children. I was growing up in a safe, secure family and I knew every child should have food, shelter, education, love and protection as I did. When I grew older, my world view broadened. I started noticing ways children in society were oppressed. I knew I needed to become an advocate to bring about positive change in the lives of children so they could lead purposeful lives. 

Family reunification is important to me because I believe that the protection of the family unit is fundamental to a child’s wellbeing. Every child deserves the right to grow up in a loving and safe home where family values are instilled and there is a great sense of belonging. The family unit also protects cultural values, which are often lost in long-term separation cases. 

Currently in Uganda, orphanages are still very operational, but most are in the process of being phased out. Their main focus is providing education and medical care, among other things, to the children that they house. The Ugandan government is working to close orphanages that do not meet its requirements for approved homes. Uganda has also fronted the Alternative Care Framework which prioritizes children being placed in family based care, with institutionalization (orphanages) as a last resort. As a Social Worker, one of my jobs is to work closely with orphanages to repurpose them into community based organizations which will work to support reunified, orphaned and vulnerable children within a family unit. In my observation, supporting children within their families has a far more reaching impact. 

The process I use for reunification is Case Management and involves identification of the child, child profiling, tracing for and identifying biological family members, registering, assessing families’ willingness and ability, developing a case plan, pre-placement case review, child preparation, family preparation, implementing the case plan through delivering or referring to services, facilitating and overseeing the placement of the child into the family environment and on-going monitoring and documentation of their reintegration, reviews and finally closure or transferring the case. This is done over a fifteen-month period.                                                    

I came across a boy in one of the child care institutions I work with; he had been abandoned on the streets of Kampala at age 3. The police picked him up, and a probation officer brought him to an organization for vulnerable children. After three failed attempts to trace his family, I was able to finally find the village he originally came from. Upon finding his mother I engaged with her and established, without a reasonable doubt, that they were related. She told me that she was unable and unwilling to take the boy back. Her reason was that she feared for her marriage. Since abandoning her son she had gotten married, and never told her husband about the boy. If her son were to return, she feared her husband would be angry, kicking her out of the house and even ending the marriage. At a later visit, she disclosed other family members and I got in contact with the boy’s grandfather to explain the situation. He was very welcoming and willing to have his grandson live with him. Eventually the boy was reunified with his grandfather in April of 2018. We are still actively working with the family and this boy is now thriving, attending school and beginning to develop a relationship with his mother through visitation. 

As with any topic within orphan care, there will always be challenges because this was not how the family was designed to be. Here are a couple of the challenges I’ve faced when working as a social worker in reunification:

  • Being unable to trace and find family members or next of kin for a particular child. This is due to largely poor record keeping, uncooperative child care institutions and the child having a vague memory of where they might come from.

  • Finding a family member that is unwilling to take back the child. 

  • The inability of some families to receive the child, mainly due to extreme poverty. In these sorts of situations, an alternative solution must be found

I am motivated to do this work because I do not view it as a job, but a passion. Over time I have seen families transformed through reunification. I know this work is impactful. It helps that reunification is strongly supported by the Ugandan government, and local and international organizations. I am motivated by the fact there are millions of advocates out there, in different capacities, working towards the same goal.

Reunification is critical to ending the problems of children living in institutions in Uganda. Traditionally in our culture orphaned children were immediately taken in by extended family members. Today, reunification reminds people of this custom. The truth of the matter is, most children living in orphanages in Uganda today are not total orphans. They have living extended family members that can take them in with the right support. This is possible because there is considerable financial support and research put into reunification today. Beginning in 2011, there has also been a campaign called Ugandans Adopt, which encourages Ugandan adults to adopt and foster. Local child care institutions that are willing to be repurposed into centers that support families are also a key component. 

I do see deinstitutionalization happening in other African countries, for example, it has already begun in Rwanda. When the proprietors of these orphanages are equipped with the right information, they are told how they can repurpose into community based organizations, and have any fears addressed (closing down, staff losing jobs) then I believe we can all work towards family reunification.

People interested in reunification can support organizations that are dedicated to the protection of the family unit. Most organizations doing this kind of work, like the one I work for, entirely depend on donations and funds in order to change children’s lives. Through writing, storytelling and donations, people can become advocates for vulnerable children.

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