Home­ward bound

Rather than liv­ing at or­phan­ages, about 400 chil­dren ben­e­fit from a pro­gramme that pro­vides tem­po­rary foster care. Hoàng Thuùy re­ports.

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Arecently launched pro­gramme in the cap­i­tal pro­vides about 400 or­phans from dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances with new homes, en­abling them to find support, new fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties.

Joy lit up four-year-old Nguyeãn Dieäu Höông's face as she squealed in de­light at the pen and blank pa­per that was given to her.

The scrawl she was mak­ing with pen on pa­per meant noth­ing to un­con­cerned and un­car­ing eyes, but it meant the world to her.

At times, she would raise her bright eyes to seek words of en­cour­age­ment from me as she laid on the floor and drew images from her own imag­i­na­tion. The level at which she ex­pressed her­self in speech and art made me ques­tion my own per­cep­tions of the lim­i­ta­tions of the men­tally hand­i­capped.

"Höông was very timid and eas­ily frightened at things when she first came to my fam­ily," re­called Höông's care­giver, Nguyeãn Thò Sen. "Hardly a day passed by when she did not cry upon see­ing strangers. She had to take tran­quilis­ers be­cause we feared she might have an epilep­tic fit."

"Thank God Höông is dif­fer­ent now. Not only has she be­come ac­cus­tomed to ev­ery­one, but she has also proven to be an emotionally sta­ble girl," Sen said.

Höông seemed con­scious of us talk­ing about her and of the en­cour­ag­ing words I spoke to her while she was scrawl­ing, so she put down her pen, walked to me and sat on my lap. She sat like a bird and looked at me with long­ing. Then all of a sud­den, she called me "Mom".

"She is a bright girl, though we wish she could go to school and blend with her peers in class," Sen re­marked, as she spread her arms to give Höông a hug.

The Haø Noäi Labour, In­valids and So­cial Af­fairs Depart­ment un­der­stands the ben­e­fits of fam­ily-based care for chil­dren sep­a­rated from their nat­u­ral fam­i­lies. So it has col­lab­o­rated with Holt In­ter­na­tional Chil­dren's Ser­vices (Holt In­ter­na­tional) in im­ple­ment­ing a pro­gramme that pro­vides tem­po­rary foster care ser­vices to about 400 or­phans in cir­cum­stances sim­i­lar to that of Höông.

In­stead of keep­ing Höông at her or­phan­age, Holt In­ter­na­tional has hired Sen to take care of her in Sen's own home be­fore bring­ing her to her foster par­ents.

Un­der the pro­gramme, Holt In­ter­na­tional is pro­vid­ing a VNÑ958,000 (US$45) food bud­get and 1.5 ki­los of pow­dered milk to Höông each month. It is also pay­ing Sen VNÑ780,000 ($37) per month to care for Höông and is shoul­der­ing the tu­ition fees for the child's kinder­garten ed­u­ca­tion.

Med­i­cal ex­penses are not in­cluded in the monthly bud­get for Höông but are cov­ered based on the ac­tual cost of doc­tor's pre­scrip­tions.

Nguyeãn Thò Loan, a Holt In­ter­na­tional staffer, ad­mited it had taken a year for Höông to at­tend kinder­garten. "Most pub­lic kinder­gartens do not want to re­cruit or­phaned chil­dren be­cause they do not have per­ma­nent res­i­dence in Haø Noäi. Adding to this are the tu­ition fees, which are much higher in pri­vate schools," Loan ex­plained. Yet through the donors' ef­forts, Höông was able to en­ter a pri­vate kinder­garten.

Ideal mod­els

In keep­ing with global prac­tices, Vieät Nam has shifted from in­sti­tu­tional to fam­ily­based care for peo­ple in need, in­clud­ing chil­dren who are aban­doned, or­phaned, af­flicted with HIV/AIDS or with poor sin­gle par­ents, as well as poor and home­less el­derly per­sons and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

The tran­si­tion be­gan in 2007, when the Gov­ern­ment aimed to pro­vide so­cial as­sis­tance and fi­nan­cial support to peo­ple liv­ing in ex­tremely dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances un­der fam­ily and com­mu­nity-based care.

In­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions like Holt In­ter­na­tional are en­cour­aged to take part in pro­vid­ing ser­vices such as foster care, kin­ship care, small group homes and respite day care.

But this type of fam­ily and com­mu­nity-based care was in­ten­si­fied last year after the Gov­ern­ment is­sued De­cree 136, call­ing for so­cial as­sis­tance and fi­nan­cial support to peo­ple in need and their foster fam­i­lies.

Ac­cord­ing to the de­cree, peo­ple liv­ing in ex­tremely dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances shall be given a min­i­mum al­lowance of VNÑ270,000 ($12) per month, which will be mul­ti­plied by co­ef­fi­cients rang­ing from 1.0 to 3.0 de­pend­ing on their fam­ily sit­u­a­tion. The ben­e­fi­cia­ries shall also be given free health in­surance, ed­u­ca­tional support and vo­ca­tional train­ing.

Like­wise, fam­i­lies and com­mu­nity-based care or­gan­i­sa­tions that vol­un­teer to pro­vide foster care for peo­ple in need are to re­ceive the min­i­mum al­lowance mul­ti­plied by co­ef­fi­cients be­tween 1.0 and 2.5 as their monthly pay­ment. They will also be trained in foster care, given ac­cess to credit at low in­ter­est rates and be pri­ori­tised in hir­ing for em­ploy­ment.

Peo­ple in need

Gov­ern­ment fig­ures show that about 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Vieät Nam need so­cial wel­fare ser­vices. There is a great need to pro­vide al­ter­na­tive care for them un­der in­for­mal ar­range­ments for fam­ily and com­mu­nity-based care rather than in­sti­tu­tional care, said Toâ Ñöùc, deputy di­rec­tor of the So­cial Pro­tec­tion Depart­ment.

Fig­ures from UNICEF re­veal that ap­prox­i­mately 2.1 mil­lion chil­dren live in ex­tremely dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances in Vieät Nam, in­clud­ing 176,000 or­phaned and aban­doned ones.

The coun­try has 6.5 mil­lion peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties aris­ing from war, dis­ease, poverty, and low-qual­ity health care.

An in­crease in the num­ber of el­derly peo­ple has also be­come a so­cial is­sue, af­fect­ing sec­tors such as the econ­omy and health care. Ac­cord­ing to the Vieät Nam As­so­ci­a­tion of the El­derly, the coun­try had about 8.5 mil­lion peo­ple over the age of 60 in 2009, or 9.9 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Labour, In­valids and So­cial Af­fairs, Vieät Nam had more than 2.1 mil­lion poor and more than 1.4 mil­lion near­ly­poor house­holds in 2012, ac­count­ing for 9.6 per cent and 6.6 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, re­spec­tively.

Though the fig­ures cited do not in­clude peo­ple with HIV/AIDs, Agent Orange vic­tims and sin­gle moth­ers, among oth­ers, they rep­re­sent a huge de­mand for wel­fare among the ben­e­fi­cia­ries need­ing so­cial support.

The majority of peo­ple in need are liv­ing in in­for­mal ar­range­ments within the com-

mu­nity. Ñöùc said only 41,000 of more than 18 mil­lion peo­ple were be­ing cared for in State and non-State so­cial spon­sor cen­tres which also serve as shel­ter for home­less el­derly peo­ple, aban­doned and or­phaned chil­dren and peo­ple af­flicted with HIV/AIDs and other dis­abil­i­ties.

"Vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple are left in the care of th­ese cen­tres only when they have no chance to be taken care of in fam­ily and com­mu­nity-based care mod­els such as foster care, small group homes and respite day care," the deputy di­rec­tor said. "This type of care is es­pe­cially good for aban­doned chil­dren and or­phans."

In­ter­na­tional stud­ies have proven that warm, loving and home-like set­tings are the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment for chil­dren to re­ceive the safety and com­fort they need in child­hood. When prop­erly im­ple­mented, fam­ily care in a child's own com­mu­nity is the best op­tion, the re­search showed.

"Nur­tur­ing from nat­u­ral par­ents typ­i­cally pro­vide the best con­di­tions for a child's healthy de­vel­op­ment," Ñöùc said.

"Where this is not pos­si­ble, an al­ter­na­tive ar­range- ment such as foster care and kin­ship care is needed to give chil­dren a sense of be­long­ing and the life skills train­ing that are in­te­gral to their de­vel­op­ment."

Re­search has shown that years of in­sti­tu­tional care have made a good num­ber of chil­dren feel alien­ated and cut off from so­ci­ety, Ñöùc added.

"They find it hard to live in har­mony with their peers in the com­mu­nity after be­ing dis­charged by so­cial spon­sor cen­tres at the age of 22. In most cases, many have no choice but to re­turn to th­ese cen­tres," the deputy di­rec­tor noted.

Low al­lowances

Due to the large num­ber of peo­ple in need and the speed at which this num­ber is grow­ing, main­tain­ing th­ese peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren, in fam­ily and com­mu­nity-based care is the most ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive way to help them.

The case of Höông pro­vides a good ex­am­ple of how foster care can change a life in a pos­i­tive way, no mat­ter how long it took her to make it to kinder­garten.

Ex­perts, how­ever, be­lieve this type of care will be most ap­pro­pri­ate when the needs of the child, the so­ci­ety's tra­di­tional care prac­tices and the avail­able re­sources are taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.

Ñöùc said each foster child needed a case­worker who must en­sure that the child would re­ceive good care in his or her foster home.

Ñaøm Thò Thuùy Haèng, Holt In­ter­na­tional coun­try di­rec­tor, re­marked that all forms of care should be de­vel­oped within the con­text of a plan that would ad­dress the best in­ter­ests of the child and work to­wards fam­ily re­union.

Be­sides this, Holt In­ter­na­tional also at­taches im­por­tance to help­ing foster fam­i­lies im­prove their means of sub­sis­tence through monthly pay­ment for care­giv­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The Gov­ern­ment has made sim­i­lar ef­forts to support peo­ple in need, in­clud­ing aban­doned and or­phaned chil­dren and their foster fam­i­lies, through so­cial as­sis­tance and cash trans­fers.

The reach of such poli­cies re­mains limited, how­ever. Nguyeãn Ñình Lieâu, chair­man of the Vieät Nam As­so­ci­a­tion for the Support of Dis­abled Peo­ple and Or­phans, said cur­rent al­lowances paid to peo­ple in need and their foster fami- lies re­main low com­pared with the na­tional poverty line of VNÑ400,000 ($19) per capita per month in ru­ral ar­eas and VNÑ550,000 ($26) per capita per month in ur­ban ar­eas.

"The cur­rent al­lowances are far too low to meet their liv­ing costs, even when they are read­justed at the same level of the na­tional poverty," Lieâu ob­served.

The chair­man noted that peo­ple cared for at so­cial spon­sor cen­tres were paid at least VNÑ700,000 ($33) per month for food and another VNÑ100,000 ($4.7) per month for other ex­penses like books and school uni­forms.

"This kind of pay­ment should be ap­plied to peo­ple liv­ing in fam­ily and com­mu­nity-based care. Oth­er­wise, the Gov­ern­ment will fail to support more peo­ple and pro­vide the sta­bil­ity that they need with ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers and the com­mu­nity where they have grown up," he added.

Fund­ing con­straints and a lack of guid­ance have re­sulted in in­ter­est in foster care for peo­ple in need among only a few in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies, Ñöùc said.

He agreed that cur­rent al­lowances were lack­ing but ex­plained that th­ese were be­ing taken from the bud­gets of ci­ties and prov­inces, whose cof­fers re­main quite mea­gre as a re­sult of eco­nomic chal­lenges.

"I be­lieve that many in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies have the hearts and the abil­ity to take care of chil­dren in need. But they need in­cen­tives to con­vert their hearts into skills," Ñöùc added.

No doubt, in Vieät Nam, foster care, small group homes and respite day care re­main scat­tered and in most cases, in­for­mal or un­reg­u­lated by the State.

In an at­tempt to tackle the is­sue, the So­cial Pro­tec­tion Depart­ment is draft­ing support poli­cies and pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to en­cour­age in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions to get in­volved in com­mu­ni­ty­based care mod­els.

Ñöùc said the project would be sub­mit­ted to the Gov­ern­ment in the fourth quar­ter of this year for ap­proval.

"Although there is enough le­gal ba­sis for the project, it is hard to say for sure whether it will be im­ple­mented be­cause re­sources are de­cided by State bud­get," he added.

VNA/VNS Photo Minh Ñoâng

Class­room: Kids lis­ten at­ten­tively to their teacher at the Phuùc Tueä Cen­tre, a day care cen­tre for chil­dren with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties.

VNA/VNS Photo Nguyeãn Thuûy

Needed care: Chil­dren from ex­tremely dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances are cared for at a So­cial Spon­sor Cen­tre in Ninh Thuaän Prov­ince.

Ben­e­fi­cia­ries: The two girls (left) ben­e­fit from schol­ar­ships and al­lowances from the Bình Ñònh Red Cross that en­cour­age in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions to pro­vide foster care for or­phans and aban­doned chil­dren. VNA/VNS Photo Döông Ngoïc

Meal­time: Or­phans and aban­doned chil­dren eat to­gether be­fore be­ing sent to their foster fam­i­lies. VNA/VNS Photo Nguyeãn Thuûy

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