Volunteering directly with vulnerable children
The background - issues with orphanage volunteering
We now have comprehensive guidelines in place for the promotion of volunteering trips that involve any interaction with vulnerable children. In summary, the guidelines stipulate that:
- Only people with professional qualifications and experience are allowed to volunteer;
- Placement lengths must be for a minimum of 4 weeks;
- Volunteer operators must have a child protection policy in place and conduct CRB checks (or equivalent).
- Research suggests children are better off in a family or community setting rather than residential care;
- 'Hug an orphan vacations': The emotional risk to the child of continual short term attachments being formed and 'abandoned' as untrained volunteers come and go;
- There has been a surge in residential care homes because parents are tempted to give up their children for the Western ideal of education e.g. Siem Reap in Cambodia is a town of 100,000 and has 35 orphanages. Many are unlicensed or funded by overseas donors who turn to orphanage volunteering and train children to perform to attract donors.
We received invaluable advice and input from a group of industry experts who have helped us formulate our new guidelines - a huge thanks to all of them:
- Sallie Grayson and Kate Stefanko from responsible volunteering operator, Responsible Travel member and past winner of The World Responsible Tourism Awards, People and Places
- Luke Gracie, Alternative Care Manager, Friends International & http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/
- Bharti Patel, CEO, ECPAT
- Rebecca Smith, Child Without Appropriate Care Advisor, Save the Children
- Harold Goodwin, Director, International Centre for Responsible Tourism
- Daniela Papi co-author of a new book on effective volunteering and an international advocate for responsible volunteering
- Justin Francis, co-founder, Responsible Travel
The campaign received unprecedented support from individuals, Responsible Travel members and other organisations around the world.
Articles appeared in Telegraph Online and Daily Mail Femail, as well as across online media, blogs and social media channels.
About the new guidelines
Our guidelines now address all trips on Responsible Travel that involve volunteering with vulnerable children, not just in orphanages but in children's homes; youth centers (including drop-in centers); residential facilities; trafficking shelters; women and children violence refuges and other similar settings.
These guidelines will be used by our team at Responsible Travel to screen new and existing volunteer trips that involve working with vulnerable children.
The partner organisation must:
- read and agree to the guidelines for each of the trips they wish to list on responsibletravel.com
- write in their own words, what they are doing, under each of the guidelines' section headings - this will constitute their 'making a difference' section to be published on their trip page
- submit relevant child protection policies and commitments to responsible publishing of child-related images and material
- update their own responsible tourism policies to reflect the adherence to our guidelines
- publish their responsible tourism policies on responsibletravel.com
Qualified volunteers, safe settings
The new guidelines address the volunteer and the setting itself. The priority of the guidelines is to safeguard the children involved.
Evidence overwhelmingly shows that family based care is always going to be preferable for children over any other form of institutional based care which should be the last resort. There are very few times that volunteers should be volunteering directly with children unless they have appropriate qualifications, skills and experience in dealing with vulnerable children. This has therefore become the central point of our guidelines.
Skills matching and the need for proper child protection policies and reporting mechanisms are also essential. We hope to see an end to the revolving door of short term volunteers forming attachments and then leaving these vulnerable children, days or weeks later.
Ideas for volunteering responsibly to help vulnerable children
Our vision is that these guidelines will help put the child back at the center point of thinking around volunteering. The good intentions of well meaning volunteers can be channelled in many ways, for example:
- Supporting the organisational development of NGOs that help put children in foster care placements
- Fundraising for organisations that try to reunite children with their families
- Helping poor families and communities so that these families and communities are better able to keep their children safe at home
What happens to the children in the centers?
Sallie Grayson, People & Places:
"I fear there will indeed be some orphanages, including some that put their children's welfare first, that may suffer initially from this brave leadership by Responsible Travel. However it is simply irresponsible for short term and/or untrained international volunteers to work in orphanages - all the childcare expert advice cannot but lead us to this diagnosis. The withdrawal from orphanage support will need to be planned carefully by these volunteer sending organisations. But I for one believe, having created the supply chain to satisfy demand they have a responsibility to engage with child protection actors who are working to keep children in their communities. The largest threat will probably be a loss of income achieved by the acceptance of short term and unqualified volunteers (we know this from experience!) - BUT there is enough proof that the constant engagement with a stream of strangers is hugely damaging to children."
"There are many small, underfunded NGOs that have the courage to place the children's emotional needs first and only accept qualified volunteers - those are the establishments responsible volunteer recruitment operators should be supporting. As a Responsible Travel member we fully support this difficult decision - Responsible Travel promotes responsible travel - the placement of unskilled volunteers in poorly managed child care centers is not responsible - it's that simple."
Rebecca Smith, Child Without Appropriate Care Advisor, Save the Children:
"By removing one of the incentives for the growth of poor quality orphanages, children are less likely to find themselves separated from their families without a good reason. The closure of orphanages that have been specially set up to attract money from well-intentioned Westerners means that children will be able to return to their families and resume their lives in their home communities. As more questions are asked about the quality of care that children receive in orphanages, there will be more pressure for orphanage staff to be able to demonstrate that the children under their care are well treated and have no alternative places to live. People who want to volunteer and support vulnerable children should focus their efforts on helping poor families and communities so that these families and communities are better able to keep their children safe at home.
Save the Children believes that reducing the number of volunteers and support to child care institutions (orphanages) should be part of a larger effort to support parents and community members to care for their children and to regulate child care institutions. As such, we, along with many other agencies, work with communities, parents and governments to provide children with a variety of alternative family based care options. In many countries we assist the government to assess and reunify children in child care institutions with their families (including extended families). We help governments to write laws and policies regulating child care institutions and we train social workers to assess the best placement for each individual child. If you are concerned about what will happen to children you used to volunteer with, we recommend supporting efforts in the surrounding community (for example: supporting schools, local NGOs, parenting groups, etc) that benefit all families who are struggling."
Indeed, organisations that support and encourage family-based care will need to support these children until the system changes. Luke Gracie, Friends International believes it is wrong to present a binary view of the argument as being about orphanages/institutional based care versus life on the streets as the only realistic alternative. This is not the case, he says: "this binary distinction actually makes it harder for innovative family-based solutions to get off the ground or get support."
There is much that people can do to support the organisational development of NGOs and progressive organisations - this type of work will be crucial. We look forward to celebrating, encouraging and supporting projects and initiatives of this nature.
It is simply irresponsible for short term and/or untrained international volunteers to work in orphanages
There is enough proof that the constant engagement with a stream of strangers is hugely damaging to children.
As a Responsible Travel member we fully support this difficult decision - Responsible Travel promotes responsible travel - the placement of unskilled volunteers in poorly managed child care centers is not responsible - it's that simple.
- Sallie Grayson, People & Places
People who want to volunteer and support vulnerable children should focus their efforts on helping poor families and communities so that these families and communities are better able to keep their children safe at home.
- Rebecca Smith, Child Without Appropriate Care Advisor, Save the Children
responsibletravel.com should be commended for taking leadership in this area by removing orphanage volunteering from their offerings and putting clear guidelines in place. We hope others will take note and follow suit.
- Daniela Papi, learningservice.info