USAID Helps At-Risk Families Function Effectively

Belarusian child welfare specialists learn to conduct the investigation at a USAID-funded training

Note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

In Belarus, over 20,000 children are members of at-risk families. Their parents struggle to comply with parental responsibilities, address basic needs, and provide proper supervision.  Exposure to abuse and neglect early on adversely affects children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development. Growing up in a dysfunctional environment often results in psychological trauma and developmental delays.  Removing children from at-risk families and placing them in an orphanage for many years had been a preferred response from the local child welfare system.

Since 2005, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has focused on promoting at-home family care and has contributed to introducing the family-centered approach to child protection services in order to prevent placing children into institutions for extended periods of time. The family-centered approach promotes child safety and well-being. It focuses on the family and provides services that engage, strengthen, and support the entire family to address the roots of abuse or neglect.

One case is that of Vera and Masha. In her childhood, Vera had been deprived of parental support because her mother was imprisoned and she was raised by her grandmother along with her sister. As a result of casual sex, Vera became a teenage mom at the age of seventeen. To make ends meet, the young mother dropped out of school and took on several jobs. Some years later, she met Oleg who became a father to Masha.

Vera tried to be a good mother, though with a family history of alcoholism, Vera started drinking to cope with stress. By the time Masha was 11 years old, the family unit became a hotbed of alcoholism and both Vera and Oleg lost their jobs. When drunk, Vera was aggressive, and Masha, who was strongly attached to her mother, suffered tremendously. She was under constant stress and could not cope with school.

The dysfunction drew attention of the child welfare specialists from a local social welfare center. Fortunately, the specialists had participated in a USAID-sponsored training on the child protection using the family-centered approach.  The training gave the specialists the knowledge and skills necessary to detect and report on signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect, to run a comprehensive family assessment, and to provide tailored rehabilitation support including safety provision services. After assessing the situation, the child welfare specialists were concerned about Masha’s wellbeing and temporarily placed her in a shelter.

As a result of the family assessment, the specialists identified the root causes of Vera’s systemic alcohol abuse. Due to a neglected childhood, an early accidental pregnancy, a lost job, Vera had very low self-esteem and underdeveloped social skills necessary for making positive parental decisions. The negative parenting patterns from her childhood had shaped her own parenting practices. The child welfare specialists also identified the family’s strengths and resources.

Together with Vera and Oleg, the specialists developed a family reunion action plan and provided psychological assistance to the couple, created a support program, and helped them restore distant family contacts. The parents joined an at-risk family support group.  The couple learned about the consequences of child abuse and neglect, as well as the importance of safety, consistency, and well-being for the healthy development children. They quit drinking, got new jobs, and developed a relationship of trust, respect, and open communication.

After a stable period, child welfare returned the custody of Masha to her parents.  Soon after returning, Masha became more cheerful and confident, and her grades also started to improve. “Our aim was to bring positive changes by engaging and partnering with the family. We continued supporting this family to sustain the achieved results,” said the Director of the child welfare center. Masha’s family is in a safe place today. Her parents have kept their jobs and continue working together to address family concerns in a responsible way. 15-year-old Masha is a kind and sociable teen.  Everyone around her can see her caring nature for other children, and she says that she wants to become a teacher.

Since 2005, USAID has trained close to 10,000 child welfare specialists as well as medical and educational professionals on internationally recognized methodologies and techniques of child protection, including practical skills for dealing with child abuse and neglect. Specialists from 174 communities of Belarus have started using these methodologies in their work. They have already supported over 13,000 children in the country.