National Programme Development Advisor SOS Children's Villages in Uruguay
photo: © Stefan Lechner Photography
Innovation to fulfil the children’s rights to family life
SOS Children’s Villages Uruguay is going to be 60 in 2020. It is one of the oldest and largest social organisations working for children’s rights in the country. We have high public recognition and are an organisation with a long tradition.
Starting up with a voice of conviction
I started working for the organisation in 2012. From the beginning it was clear that this was a time for change. In 2013 we started a long transformation process, which is still continuing today. As a National Programmes Development Advisor I led the programmatic changes. The challenges were enormous but I felt the call with conviction. The changes were for the best interests of the child.
With the National Direction, we decided to start a deinstitutionalisation process, working on preventing the separation of children from their families and on the family reintegration of the children who were already separated. Deinstitutionalisation, for us, mainly means improve and to strengthen the work with families. This work is essential to ensure the children’s right to family life.
In 2013 we had to make a decision about our specific SOS Policy Programme implementation. We discussed it in several management meetings. I remember the moment that I said: “OK. The Policy Programme talks about children’s rights, programmatic innovation and making suitable responses for the children. Right now, we only provide the traditional model of SOS care in Children´s Villages. We need to make an innovative plan to fulfil the children’s right to family life.” In 2016, the national Policy Programme implementation became a framework for the deinstitutionalisation process in SOS Uruguay.
Take note that we don´t have orphans in SOS Children´s Villages Uruguay. We have children separated from their families. All children have a family! Our first commitment was to start the work with families.
More work with families
Our starting point was very challenging. In 2012, we didn’t have any technical teams to work with families – only two social workers in all the programmes for 370 children in alternative care. In 2013, only 37 children (10% of all beneficiaries) lived with families after family reintegration, and there was no appropriate technical assistance.
The first step in the process was to build a common understanding with all co-workers of the children’s right to family life and how we can make this possible. We introduced a radical change of approach. I remember so many meetings with programme managers and co-workers talking about it. I would always say: “We are prepared for long-term care if necessary but, before that, we have to do everything possible to achieve family reintegration. If the children only stay with us for a short time because they go back to their family, it is much better!”
We understood three important things: first, family reintegration must be an individual child project; second, we do not work only with the parents of the children: we must work with the larger family too; and third, the search for the family members and the evaluation of the larger family is not a once off action. Because the situation is dynamic and changes, searching and evaluation must be done periodically.
The next steps were to hire a lot of professionals from social areas and make strong technical teams to work with families. We strengthened our alliance with the state and worked hard to increase the government subsidy to finance this work. We made SOS national frameworks and specific guidelines for co-workers to do our work properly and with high quality standards. In all these processes, we put the fulfilment of children’s right to a family life in the national programme planning as a strategic pillar.
In the beginning, I felt that everything had to be done and that progress was slow. However, we moved forward, step by step, and then the whole process moved really quickly. It felt like a big ship that needs a lot of energy to start and move a little bit, but then it starts to move faster and faster with less effort. Nothing would have been possible without the commitment and tireless work of our program teams.
Courage to defend our values and goals
Of course, we had to deal with opposing forces in the process. In some cases from traditional positions: “We have done the same for 55 years and have done it well, why change it?” Or, “How can I provide loving care if the children are with me for only a few months and then go to their families?” There were also fearful attitudes such as: “This is new, I don´t know how to do it.” Or: “We can´t do it.” Or, “This will destroy all that we are.” We had a lot of meetings with programme management teams, care-givers and all the co-workers to convince them with head and heart that the changes were necessary. The best argument was always: “What is best for the children? We must do it!” It is important to mention that the National Child Protection Authority in Uruguay was pursuing a child protection system reform in the same direction at the same time as our reforms.
Today, we can show our great outcomes with pride. We now have 30 social workers in all the programmes. Our technical teams are strong and experts in the field. We have done the work well. So well, that the National Child Protection Authority in Uruguay is now asking us to carry out the family reintegration process of the children from other institutions.
At present we have 214 children living with their families in our kinship care services. This is 42% of all our beneficiaries in alternative care. We provide professional assistance to all the families in their own houses. The average process duration is 2 years. Our greatest achievement has been the family reintegration of more than 300 children in the last 4 years. And not one child has come back to alternative care!
In my position, it was impossible to know all the 300 children, but can you imagine the big impact in the lives of all these children? Can you imagine the happiness of all these children when they went back to their families? I remember some particular stories.
I remember the family reintegration of eight siblings from SOS Children’s Village Montevideo. After three years in our alternative care programme, the technical team, care-givers and all the co-workers worked hard to prepare the family to receive them. When the family and the children were ready too, the team made a plan for a progressive reintegration one by one, because there were so many children. Do you know what? When the first child was reintegrated, the other siblings said: “We want to be back together with our family immediately!” This family reintegration case was closed after two and a half years. The eight siblings are happily living with their mother and stepfather.
We are an organisation working toward the children’s right to family life. It is part of our mission to assess our work every day and to look for the most innovative and suitable options for each situation, so that we can reach the highest standards in children care.
Samuel joined SOS Children's Villages Uruguay in 2012 and describes his work as challenging and rewarding at the same time. As the National Advisor for Programme Development, Samuel has had to lead programme changes for the fulfilment of children’s rights and quality of attention. His greatest goal with the national office and program teams was to achieve the family reintegration of more than 300 children over the last 4 years.
2012 was also the year his only daughter was born. Samuel describes being a father as a daily challenge that is renewed with the growth of his child. Everyday there is something new to learn and improve. Thankfully, working in SOS Children’s Villages has helped him a lot as a father.
Outside of work, music is always present in Samuel’s life. He has played the saxophone since he was 12 years old. Music is what unites him with his family and most of his friends, and is also his greatest creative force when he’s not working. Samuel lives in Uruguay, a small country between two giants: Argentina and Brazil. The people of Uruguay have three great passions: soccer, politics and carnival.