Children have an innate need to be close to their parents or a consistent caregiver.
This connection is usually achieved when a child is loved, cared for and protected by one or more adult in a family unit.
It is the most basic ingredient for raising a happy, healthy and confident child.
Recent media reports about the abuse of children in institutions are extremely worrying.
First, violence against children anywhere is unacceptable. Violence leaves children with physical and psychological scars that can affect their relationships and family later in life.
Second, children should not be separated from their families except as a last resort.
Ideally, children should be living with families, not in children’s homes, orphanages or rescue shelters.
Unfortunately, they often end up in institutional care due to the death of a parent, poverty, abandonment, disability or violence.
The 2017 "Unicef Situation Analysis" report estimated that there were about 40,000 children living in 811 registered institutions in Kenya.
There will be more children in unregistered institutions — but data on this is scarce.
Children need personal, responsive and consistent interactions to shape their brain development and behaviour. This is hard to achieve in institutions because there are often many children per care giver.
In 2000, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project examined the effects of early institutionalisation on children’s development.
The study looked at children abandoned at or around the time of birth, living in six institutions in Romania.
Researchers found that these children had significant cognitive delays, increased risk of psychological disorders and stunted growth, compared to children living with families.
Unicef is therefore calling for children in institutions to be reintegrated with families, wherever possible.
This should ideally be with surviving parents or extended family, or with foster or adoptive families where there are no relatives who can do this.
In specific situations where children cannot be reintegrated with families, because this is not in their best interests and alternative family-based care is not feasible, institutions should as much as possible replicate the family environment, with small groups of children living together with a consistent carer.
Kenya is making positive steps to prioritise family-based care. At the national level, the Government’s decision to enforce the prohibition of registering new charitable children’s institutions is an important step in the right direction.
Unicef is supporting a pilot project in Kisumu County, which is already successfully returning some of the 1,627 children living in 33 institutions to family-based care, according to data from the Department of Children’s Services.
Importantly, we want to work with institutions to make this shift.
In Malawi, Unicef and the Government recently supported Village of Hope Children’s Home to return 73 of their 81 children to family homes, mainly with relatives.
These children are thriving in their new family environment, becoming part of their communities and learning valuable life skills.
Village of Hope continues to support the children with food, healthcare and school fees. With the money saved through reintegration, it is building a school for children from the poorest families.
Other institutions have transformed into halfway houses for abused girls and women, among other roles.
In Rwanda, the Government, with support from Unicef, has reintegrated 3,000 children with families and communities since 2012, using a similar approach.
My hope is that we make a sincere effort to see that every child has the chance to grow up in a stable, safe and nurturing family environment.
The writer is the Unicef Representative in Kenya @maniza_zaman