An interview with Director And Co-Founder of Child In Family Focus Peter K. Muthui
Volunteering is considered to be a good thing to do, and volunteering in orphanages around the world is something that many people engage with. However, according to Lumos, an NGO charity founded by J.K Rowling in 2005, 300 global research studies have shown the long term harm of children living in institutions. An estimation of 5.4 million children are living in institutions worldwide due to poverty, lack of access to health and education services, and discrimination. More than 80 per cent of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent.
A study by Lancet Child and Adolescence Health, an independent and international weekly medical journal, showed that orphanages are harmful to children, leading to significant delays in physical growth and brain development, causing social and emotional difficulties and exposing children to neglect and abuse.
Peter K. Muthui was one of these children placed in an orphanage in Kenya. He was six weeks old when his mother died in a building which was struck by lightning and collapsed. One year later, he was orphaned alongside his five other siblings when his father died. Having no family member willing to take care of them, they were put, separately, in institutional care by the local Children’s Court.
“My two elder brothers were placed in an institution for boys that are in conflict with the law. Nancy and Mercy, my two older sisters, were placed in a similar facility for girls. Joyce and I, being the youngest, ended up in an institution for children living with disabilities,” says Peter.
Two years later, he was reunited with all of his siblings in a Children’s Home which became their home for the remaining of their childhood and teenage years.
“Even at this facility, contact with my siblings was rare, because children of different ages housed different parts of the campus. And the effect of this limited interaction with my siblings is felt to date as there is not a tight sibling bond between us,” he says.
Being one of the 30 children under the care of two care workers who worked in shifts, Peter felt “lost in the crowd”. He lacked “their attention, their love, their care and their guidance that (he) needed”.
“I vividly remember the admission procedures from being roughed up to join the queue for head shaved. To the Mickey Mouse t-shirt I was wearing on that day, getting torn and discarded as it was too dirty for the new orphanage,” he says.
Family placement was only given to abandoned children, not to those who have living family.
“Seeing my childhood friends getting placed in foster care. That was in the eventual adoption, left me wondering when my time would come. And every time visitors and volunteers came to the home, in the orphanage in this case, I was on my best behaviour. Why? So that I could increase my chances of being loved and taken away to be part of a family,” he says.
When he was 17 years-old, a new administrator at the orphanage engaged in a conversation with him.
“What was unique about this conversation is that she listened to me and this was really rare for me, as it is the case for many children and young people in care. We were so used to receiving orders and instructions and not being given an opportunity to speak or to be heard.”
“And that conversation with Sheila from 24 years ago, was a turning point for me. She gave me an opportunity that many couldn’t get and called out the leader in me. She tapped into potential that had been trapped for a good 16 years,” he says.
She helped him getting a job at a gas station as a pump attendant, which “taught (him) life skills that have stuck to this very day”. After leaving institutional care, Peter was bewildered and lonely. Becoming independent, forming relationships and performing elementary tasks such as cooking or budgeting were hard for him.
“The majority leave care with poor educational results as well as limited life and social skills. Lack of socialisation makes it pretty hard for many to get jobs as well as even hold onto them if they do get them. Many are left vulnerable at this stage and fall prey to abuses, sex exploitation, crime, bad company, early marriages, amongst other vices,” says Peter.
According to Child in Family Focus Kenya: one in three become children leaving institutional care become homeless. One in five gain a criminal record. One in seven become involved in prostitution. Tragically, one in 10 die by suicide.
“My eldest brother’s suicide in the year 2007, proved that many young people leaving institutional care, indeed, end up depressed and suicidal. And this sad outcome, as well as the dysfunctions many care leavers have to grapple with, goes to prove that,” he says.
Peter eventually obtained a BA of Arts degree in Sociology and Communication from the University of Nairobi and a Diploma in Mass Communication from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication. He has spent 15 years advocating for children rights and protection, and family based care for orphans and vulnerable children as a member of the board of Safe Families for Children and of Kenya Society of Care Leavers. He is also a founding partner and Director at Child in Family Focus Kenya. And he is the father of a four-years old boy.
“When on duty at the abandoned baby unit, which happened mostly on weekends, as well as after school hours; it was commonplace to find babies banging their heads on their mattresses in their baby coats. In retrospect, I now know why that was the case.”
“Taking care of the hardware is not enough, but the software must be attended too. When I speak of hardware, I mean, availing clothes, food and shelter. When I speak of software, I refer to the longing for love attention, consistent caregiving, and so on. Love, one on one care, attention, having a sense of belonging, identity, having trusted relationships and being part of a community are needed by all children. And only a family can provide this,” says Peter.
For more information on Child in Family Focus Kenya, you can visit at Child In Family Focus.
For more information about research on the institutionalisation of children worldwide, you can visit www.wearelumos.org/.