Baba Watoto Comes to the Community: A study of child protection centres in Kenya
by Ken Ondoro, with contributions by Pia Vraalsen
Ken Ondoro is the Managing Director and Founder of African Research and Development (ARD) a Kenyan consultancy.
Pia Vraalsen is a Senior Associate at Child Frontiers
In 2019, UNICEF Kenya commissioned Child Frontiers to conduct a formative evaluation of child protection centres (CPC) in the capital, Nairobi, as well as in the counties of Malindi, Garissa and Nakuru. Working in partnership with the Department of Children Services (or children’s office) of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, this review explored how the CPC model has been adapted to the local context in each of the four counties. The purpose of the evaluation was to generate learning and recommendations to improve service delivery and, ultimately, improve protection outcomes for children and families in Kenya.
The CPC model is based upon the premise that county-level centres provide children and families with greater access to welfare and protection services. Designed as a holistic service hub for protecting children from abuse and violence, the staff at the centres raise community awareness on child rights and engage leaders on prevailing social norms and practices that expose children to harm, especially female genital mutilation and child marriage. Staff are also trained to manage individual cases of children at risk of abuse and violence. The ‘one-stop-shop’ ethos of the centres reflects the needs of children, families and communities for more inter-connected health and education services, social protection measures and legal support.
In Kenya, the Department of Children’s Services is commonly known in Swahili as baba watoto (literally meaning the father of children, or by extension someone who cares for children). Despite this familiar term, children officers were typically only seen in the community when a case of violence against a child was reported, or when accompanying an NGO project. Instead, parents would travel to the district-level children’s office when they had a problem, most frequently concerning issues of child maintenance. It was, therefore, exciting for our evaluation team to witness children’s officers, now housed at the county-level CPC, being able to travel to the communities they serve, talking with and encouraging community members to take up services.
Our interviews revealed that parents and families were surprised by and pleased with the new outreach services being delivered in their communities. Likewise, centre staff said that they were able to offer the same services and defined their outreach service as merely “moving the office into the community.” The ability to reach out to child beneficiaries and their families has strengthened community protection systems and personalised the relationship between the service provider and beneficiary. This approach has changed the long-held negative view that the children’s office was primarily the place where mothers would report fathers who failed to pay child support. As a result of this improved relationship, the centres have seen a surge in their caseloads, an indicator of the increased demand for and access to child protection services.
In the current national child protection system, there is no government mandate to provide outreach services, even though children’s officers are required to “strengthen the capacities of families taking care of vulnerable children, separated children and children at risk.” As a Kenyan researcher, I wanted to know if this new outreach service was the first time that government officers were bringing services into the community. Although I had never heard of baba watoto going into the community in Kenya, I was aware of the perception that government intervention has typically sought to enforce the law and punish those who violate child rights. As our discussions with communities confirmed, this approach had created a sense of mistrust and fear among communities about the role of the children’s office. However, after many years of working in the child welfare sector, I now sense that the establishment of the CPC has provided an opportunity to reframe the perceptions of and relationship between children’s officers and the families they support. The fieldwork showed us that the interaction between the community and baba watoto was more personal and trusting.
Embarking on this evaluation, I was well aware of the barriers that families face in accessing child protection services, not least the considerable distance between the community and the children’s office, usually located in large towns. The CPC now create proximity between officers and families and promote better access to a range of psychological, social, educational and legal services. Furthermore, we found that government officers were working more closely with local institutions (such as schools), as well as engaging with chiefs, assistant chiefs and village elders. Together, they are strengthening the working partnership and capacities of both the formal and informal layers of the child protection system.
During this evaluation we learned that establishing trust is the most vital ingredient, often missing, in the Kenyan child protection system. Before the centres were established, people generally did not trust the child protection system to find solutions to their urgent and complex cases. As a consequence, the incidence of reporting child abuse and violence is low. However, in the counties with CPC, we found an exponential increase in the number of reported cases. As a testament of the success of the new approach, community members are concerned that CPC might be closed, leaving them without the support to manage cases. The community’s feelings of trust and ownership of the centres are attributable mainly to the establishment of community outreach services.