Photo: UNICEF Athit 2011
Northern Thai Alternative Care-Leavers Study: World Childhood Foundation
Vimala Crispin, December 2022
The Child Frontiers research team
The experience of children who have lived in residential care is complex, diverse and often misunderstood, in part because the voices and perspectives of children and young people are not heard. Recent studies have found that an estimated 120,000 children in Thailand are growing up away from their families in alternative care settings. Poverty and access to education are identified as the most common reasons for placement in care, rather than the absence of caregivers or orphanhood. In northern Thailand, the challenge is compounded by the proliferation of small, unregistered homes for children operated by missionary groups and both foreign and local civil society organisations.
Previous studies have found that many of these alternative care settings also work with volunteers who may not be adequately vetted to ensure the safety of child residents. And the majority of care facilities are not formally registered with the Thai Government and official oversight of both registered and unregistered care facilities appears very limited. Efforts are underway to map the several hundred homes that have been identified in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. To compliment this information, World Childhood Foundation asked Child Frontiers to study children’s experience of growing up in private residential care in northern Thailand, considering how supportive relationships protect children and identifying factors that contribute to successful family and community reintegration and long-term wellbeing.
The information currently available indicates that children’s experience of care and their lives after leaving care are complex and cannot be simplified into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ experiences or outcomes. For many children, assessing the overall experience is not straight-forward and it is impossible to accurately predict or contrast what their lives would have been like if they had not placed in care. However it is clear that the experience of residential care affects young people in a myriad of ways throughout their lives.
To collect in-depth and nuanced information, young people who have left care within the past 5-10 years and their families will be invited to participate in the study to understand how, retrospectively, they perceive this experience. Preliminary findings indicate that young people identify both positive and negative aspects of being placed in alternative care – for example, many state that being in care offered access to education and other opportunities that would have otherwise not been available to them. They recognise that their lives and careers may have been very different if they had remained in their home village. However, care leavers also express sadness about how long separation has impacted their relationships with their biological family and community, sometimes including the inability to communicate in the same language. Importantly, the majority of young people consulted so far say that they would not choose to place their own children in the same alternative care situation.
Through this research, we encourage young people who have grown up in residential care to talk about and analyse their experiences and form their own conclusions and recommendations. Understanding the paths these young people follow after leaving care – the relationships they established, challenges faced and how they dealt with these – will offer important insights for developing strategies, policies and services to improve outcomes for other children facing similar experiences.
The study team recognises that the data collection could be skewed towards interviewing young people with more successful outcomes, as they may be more accessible and willing to participate in the study. We will therefore attempt to also capture the stories and experiences of young people who have faced significant challenges and negative outcomes after aging out of or exiting alternative care. It is well known that some young care leavers in northern Thailand struggle with addiction, have difficulty finding and maintaining employment or may come into conflict with the law. Where it is not possible to interview care leavers themselves, we will interview care facility staff, social workers and other service providers familiar with the context and young people’s post-care experiences and outcomes.
Ms. Ya Sae-War, one of our Thai research coordinators, has established an advocacy group of northern Thai care-leavers. In this capacity, she has created an infographic (in English and Thai) to share information about this group with care-leavers and their families, and inviting them to participate and share their experiences and views. In accordance with ethical standards and good practice, this study is designed to be completely voluntary – this infographic and the study details will be shared through social media and care leaver networks. Young people and their families wishing to be involved will be invited to contact the research team to participate in study. The study methodology and tools have been submitted to the Mahidol University Committee for Research Ethics (Social Sciences) for ethical approval.
At the conclusion of the data collection, a consultation with the wider stakeholder groups linked to alternative care and care reform efforts within Thailand will be held to review, discuss and validate the study findings, as well as map known risks, outcomes and challenges linked to residential care. It is sincerely hoped that the findings of this innovative study will contribute valuable information and recommendations for meaningful reform of alternative care in Thailand and across the Southeast Asia Region.