May 5, 2022 – Sister Niluka Perera, coordinator of Catholic Care for Children International (CCCI), addressed more than 700 leaders of women’s religious orders from around the world at the International Union of Superiors General Plenary in May in Rome, Italy. CCCI is a visionary initiative led by Catholic sisters to ensure that children grow up in safe, nurturing families.
May 5, 2022
Catholic Care for Children International
Presented by Sister Niluka Perera, RGS
UISG Assembly, Rome, Italy
I am truly privileged and happy to have this opportunity of presenting the new project of UISG (International Union of Superiors General), namely Catholic Care for Children International (CCCI).
The 2019 UISG plenary Assembly led to the emergence of the CCCI in 2020. The beginnings of Catholic Care for Children International can be traced to the two-day workshop, Sowing Hope for Children in Our Care, held during the 2019 Assembly and co-hosted with the GHR Foundation. Women religious congregation leaders and others reflected together on how to express a charism of care today, especially in light of what is known about the risks associated with residential care and the benefits of family- and community-based care for children.
The workshop highlighted the inspiring work being done by the Sisters of St. Joseph in New York, the Good Shepherd Sisters in Sri Lanka, and the Cabrini Sisters in Swaziland. Each group of Sisters works to ensure a loving family for every child. Participants were also highly impressed with the work of the national conferences of religious in Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia, whose members are working to reduce recourse to institutional care and to promote family- and community-based care for children.
The religious who attended the workshop encouraged UISG to commit to explore the possibility of supporting women religious across the globe in the care sector on how best to make the charism of care relevant in today’s context. CCCI was born as a result of this. CCCI’s vision to have a family for every child invites women religious Institutes with the charism of care to read the signs of the times, to provide the best care possible for children, and to change the age-old methodology used in providing care for children.
We are aware of the crisis caused by industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century that moved the Church to respond by providing institutional care to abandoned and neglected children. Families in need and those in crisis situations turned to men and women religious congregations for assistance.
Women religious congregations especially have been at the forefront in responding to the need of care and protection for children. The known and accepted method for this until recent years was institutional care.
As we look back to what happened in the past, we realize that Sisters who worked in the orphanages had little or no training in aspects related to childcare. They worked in demanding environments which required formation and training as counselors, psychologists, and social workers. Sisters large-heartedly offered their love and care and concern to the children as best they could with their limited resources and training. We need to acknowledge that they were part of the culture of their time.
There are approximately 2 to 8 million children living in orphanages globally. Current statistics indicate that the Catholic Church worldwide oversees nearly 9,000 orphanages caring for thousands of children. Looking at today’s context, we now know that 80% of children in orphanages have a living parent or a close relative. Children are generally placed in orphanages because of poverty. We need to ask why we need to change the methodology of taking care of children, which we had been using for many years. Would it be possible to find answers to present-day problems only with the solutions of the past? This morning, Pope Francis reminded us that going back is not the right path. We need to move forward.
Many of us from residential care facilities, orphanages, and children’s homes do not best serve the needs of children. Scientific and social studies have proven that the residential care methodology does not address the real challenges that children and families face. In fact, residential care can cause trauma and harm to children. Strong academic evidence tells us that children are more likely to thrive in families. Researchers in neuro and brain science reveal delayed social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development when children are outside of family care.
Even though we understand that residential care can provide the best basic needs of children, it doesn’t take into account the social-emotional contribution that only a family can provide. It doesn’t help prepare for healthy adulthood relationships. So when children leave the institution, they aren’t prepared to live an independent life and they struggle to integrate into society. Many face unemployment, homelessness, sexual exploitation, and addiction to drugs and alcohol and finally end up in prison. According to the new report released by the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal in 2022—this year—there are more than 5.2 million children around the world who have lost a caregiver due to COVID-19, which is making many more children at risk of losing care from their family.
We need to pause and reflect. What is the Spirit calling us to do? What will be a response to the cries of children who need care and protection? Will closing down institutions bring about solutions? Will construction of more orphanages be the answer? Spirit-led creativity asks us to be open to the realities of the world as the challenges and the complexities of the problems today demand lasting and sustainable solutions.
There is a growing movement among international and national policymakers, mission agencies, non-governmental organizations, and faith-based organizations to recognize that every child deserves a family and to try to ensure that children are cared for within families. I am proud to say that we as women religious in different parts of the world have awakened to this reality. We are reading the signs of the times and finding innovative ways to address the real challenges that children and families are facing. Efforts are being made to make the charism of care relevant in today’s context and to ensure a family or a family-like environment for children separated from their families.
The development of the Catholic Care for Children (CCC) movement is one such innovative effort by women religious. CCC is a Sister-led, charism-driven movement to ensure children grow up in safe, loving families or in a family-like environment. With the help of the GHR Foundation, the Association of Religious in Uganda gave birth to the CCC movement in 2016, and within three years, the roots of CCC spread into Zambia and Kenya and now the movement is promoted by CCCI at international level.
Catholic Care for Children is built upon three main pillars. It is rooted in the Catholic faith, which gives the mandate to care for children and other vulnerable persons, and Catholic Social Teaching, which emphasizes the dignity of each person, option for the poor, and the rights of each person to participate fully in family and community. CCC is informed by social sciences, which proved the importance of a nurturing family for the holistic and healthy development of a child.
CCC is aligned with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. CCC strongly believes that no child should be in an institution because the family is poor or finds it difficult to access basic health services, social protection, or education.
Grounded in the three main pillars, CCC is committed to the best interests of each child, promoting the continuum of care, which is aligned with the UN Guidelines for Alternative Care. In practice, CCC emphasizes: if families are in distress, provide support to prevent separation of children. If separation occurs, see that children are reunited with families or placed in permanent family-like settings. If alternative residential care is necessary, ensure care is of the highest quality and shortest duration possible. Strengthening the family to prevent separation is given number one priority in this model.
Let’s think if such a situation arises in the family very dear to you and me, where a child loses his or her parents. What care option would we suggest for the child? Would we suggest institutional care? Or would we consider other alternative care options?
As I said before, the complexity of today’s problems demands that we find new ways of being and doing. The theme of this assembly, Embracing Vulnerability on the Synodal Journey, reminds us that we need to work together in embracing and responding to the vulnerabilities of today. Brian Swimme rightly states that we can no longer decide only what is best for a corporation or congregation or a culture. But we must move to a larger context—to the planetary level.
The Catholic Care for Children movement invites religious with the charism of care to come together to find better care solutions for the children who need care and protection. The beauty of the CCC movement is that it connects the religious institutes that had been working isolated in the care sector. It brings them together into a common platform at their respective country level and facilitates the process to identify the factors needed to update their work in the care sector.
The CCC movement in Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia has proven to us that we are stronger together. The assumptions on which the work of the CCC is based are to win the hearts and minds of the people for reform and to develop the skills and capacities needed of them leading to change.
I feel greatly encouraged that the Sisters in these three countries have become champions in care reform. They have become the voice for the many voiceless children living in orphanages for many years who could have otherwise experienced life in a family. Under the project of CCC, the Sisters and caretakers received professional training and skills in social work, counseling and psychology, child safeguarding, child protection, case management, and many other skills in taking care of children. The midterm evaluation conducted in Catholic Care for Children in Uganda last year shows the incredible results the Sisters have achieved. When Uganda started the program in 2016, there were 1,207 children in 21 childcare institutions. In 2020, the number had been reduced to 311.
The goal of CCCI is to strengthen congregations of Catholic Sisters in their expression of the charism of care and to see more children growing up in safe, loving families. How do we do this? CCCI communicates with the national Religious conferences to find possibilities for initiating CCC work. I’m happy to say that Malawi, Sri Lanka, and South Africa are the initial faces of beginning the CCC their respective countries. Very soon, the CCCI website will be available for the sharing of resources and learnings with a wider group of religious in the world.
CCCI organizes global webinars to educate and impart information and learning on care reform with religious. CCCI is planning an online training program on care reform for women religious. The first online training program is scheduled for first week of July. We targeted two courses for this year and afterward four courses yearly. These are some of the CCCI initiatives to further the work of the CCC.
CCCI will communicate directly with you, the congregational leaders, to inform about online courses. We request your support in all our activities. Together let’s bring about changes in the way we care for children who need our care.
We thank the GHR Foundation for support to CCCI and to religious in different parts of the world for this good work. CCCI has prepared a UISG flash drive with material for your reference. We are happy to share them with you.
I would like to end my presentation with Pope Francis’ words from the document on Human Paternity for World Peace and Living Together, in 2019: The protection of the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a family environment, to receive nutrition, education and support, are duties of the family and society. Such duties must be guaranteed and protected so that they are not overlooked or denied to any child in any part of the world. All those practices that violate the dignity and rights of children must be denounced.
Thank you very much for your presence and participation.