Current Status of Child Care Institutions and Institutionalized Children in Sri Lanka: A Situational Analysis

Department of Probation and Child Care Services, Ministry of Women and Child Affairs

Executive Summary

The study on the current status of the Child Care Institutions and the institutionalised children in Sri Lanka was undertaken by the National Institute of Social Development (NISD) for the Department of Probation and Child Care Services, sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The objective of the study was to provide basic information on the current situation of children under institutional care in the entire country, in order to identify the issues affecting those institutionalized children and to recommend plausible solutions. 

To achieve research objectives, a mixed methodology was adopted using both quantitative and qualitative data, with greater flexibility in adopting the techniques that were best suited for the study. As the study was a situational analysis, every possible attempt was made to enumerate and assess all the characteristics of the Child Care Institutions (CCIs).

According to the survey findings, currently there are 14,179 children in 414 institutions located in all nine provinces in Sri Lanka. Out of the total number of children residing in institutions at the time of the survey, 8,538 were females (60.2 per cent) and 5,641 were males (39.8 per cent) indicating an overall sex ratio of 153.4 girls for every 100 boys. This sex ratio however varied among the districts. The majority of CCIs were run by non-governmental organizations, registered under the Department of Probation and Child Care Services. The types of CCIs that existed within the Government and Non Government sectors varied widely. The CCIs run by the government mainly serve children in contact with the law. The INGOs and NGOs mainly have CCIs called voluntary homes. Out of the total number of CCIs surveyed ninety five per cent were registered. The remaining institutions were unregistered, contrary to the Orphanage Ordinance.

Although the children are referred to CCIs for a maximum period of three years, the majority of the children, both boys (40 per cent) and girls (37 per cent), have stayed on an average of 2-5 years in the CCIs. It is also required to make arrangements to send the child back to his or her family within three years. Nevertheless, more girls than boys have stayed longer periods of up to 10-15 years in institutions. The reason for longer period of stay by girls was due to risk of early marriages and vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse.

It was revealed from the family situation of the children in the CCIs that 50 per cent of the children had a single parent whilst 32 per cent of them had both parents. However, 18 per cent (2,562 children) of children in CCIs had no parents and therefore were orphans.The number of girls among the orphans were higher in the age group of 14-18 years implying that CCIs were considered as safe places for teenagers. The district-wise distribution of orphans in CCIs showed that larger percentages of them were found in Colombo district (14.2 per cent or 45 orphans) followed by Gampaha (13.9 per cent or 44 orphans) district whilst the least percentage was found in Monaragala district (3 orphans). The survey revealed that 89.3 percent of the total number of children had their birth certificates. Out of them there were more female children (91.8 per cent) than male children (85.4 per cent).

Based on the ethnicity, the majority of the children in the CCIs were Sinhala and Tamils comprising 38.5 per cent. Based on religion, 45 per cent of the children were Buddhist whilst 25 per cent were Hindu.

Based on the survey findings 98 per cent of the children reported that their parents did not pay for admission to CCIs run by the Department of Probation and Child Care Services. Only 2 per cent of the children who mainly live in the boarding houses reported that they paid money for admission to CCIs. Admissions of majority of the male children to the CCIs were due to disability or illnesses and/or in contact with the law. The female children have been admitted due to contact with the law and poverty. It is also noticeable that the female children have been sent to CCIs due to dysfunctional families which option may have been taken in the hope of obtaining full protection, security and care from the institutions. In addition to identified reasons, many other factors such as unregistered marriages, insecurity due to conflict, displacement, homelessness, street children and other family disputes have also led to the institutionalization of children. Considering the admissions of children to CCIs pursuant to Court orders, the percentage of abandoned children and abused children are 22 per cent and 14 per cent respectively which were the main two types identified in this category. 

In analysing the qualitative data it was revealed that the main reasons for institutionalization of children were unfavourable conditions at home due to divorced parents, alcoholism, mother migration and insecurity at home particularly for female children as they are the targets of sexual abuse by neighbours and even by their close relatives including their own fathers. Moreover the mental stress caused to children by feuding parents, lack of love and care at home and unacceptable life styles of parents also caused the children to be sent to CCIs.

The provision of basic facilities to the institutionalized children was assessed based on the availability of sleeping space and beds, electricity, telephone facilities, toilets/ latrines and other facilities. Considering the availability of sleeping space, majority of the CCIs comprising 68 per cent or 281institutions claimed that more than 36 square feet were available as sleeping space per child. This indicates that those institutions have succeeded in reaching the minimum quality standard of 36 square feet of space as sleeping space recommended by the Department of Probation and Child Care Services. With regard to beds 98 per cent of the institutions provided beds for each child, 99 per cent of institutions had access to electricity while 95 per cent of the CCIs reported the availability of telephone facilities. 86 per cent reported that separate toilets were available for male and female children in the CCIs. It was reported that separate toilets for the staff (92.4 per cent) were also available in those CCIs. 43 per cent and 39 per cent of CCIs had water sealed and water sealed (Commode) type latrines respectively for different categories of inmates, which were considered by the health authorities as the most hygienic type. However, a considerable number of institutions (17.4 per cent) continue to have unhygienic types of latrines the authorities were therefore requested to improve the sanitary condition in those institutions. Ninety per cent of institutions provided clothes and school uniforms, cupboards, linen, meals etc. for the children. In addition several infrastructure facilities have also been provided by the institutions.

Furthermore, 75 per cent of the CCIs have library facilities with newspapers whilst 84 per cent of the institutions provided reading and study rooms for these children. These are important for the children to improve their reading habits as well as their educational level. 59 per cent of institutions have provided computer facilities whilst only 28 per cent had access to internet facilities.

According to survey findings 90 per cent of the institutions had first aid facilities. 70 per cent of the children had health records. Over 75 per cent of the institutions monitor the nutritional level of the children in institutions. However the percentage of institutions having clinical records of children was inadequate.

Among 414 CCIs, 33 per cent had children with special needs and 67 per cent of them reported being regularly monitored by a specialist. Out of the total number of children with special needs, 144 male children and 527 female children were found to have learning disabilities while 23.9 per cent of male children and 20.7 per cent female children reported mental health and hearing difficulties.

In the survey 55 per cent of the institutions reported having administrative committee meetings once a month to decide on administrative, financial and management matters, while 28 per cent reported having such meetings only once in three months.

The total number of professional staff employed in the 414 child care institutions was 2,979.Among the professionally qualified staff members 44 per cent were trained. It was revealed in the Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), in-depth interviews and case studies that the low salaries paid to the caregivers in institutions is the main reason for the poor service provided them. Thus, the low salary scales fail to attract well trained personnel to work in such institutions. This has reportedly resulted in the recruitment of untrained personnel.

The lack of staff with counselling skills was reported as a problem by about 60 per cent of the Probation Commissioners. This may have resulted from the difficulty to recruit qualified personnel due to prevailing low salary scales.

The recommendations prescribed for adoption in resolving the issues confronted by the institutionalized children are mainly two fold. Firstly, the conditions leading to institutionalization of children should be addressed without delay. In this context, parents, relatives and neighbours play a major role. At familial or community level they should be supported and strengthened to take necessary steps to resolve problems faced by the children. The provision of additional sources of income would, to some extent, strengthen the capacity of parents to take care of children. Secondly, the responsive measures that cover actions taken after the institutionalization of children have to be developed.

Although schooling is provided by many CCIs, a more conducive environment for learning should be made available within CCIs. Moreover, opportunities for vocational training should also be provided. It is also recommended to maintain a close relationship between the school principals and the management of the institutions. Institutions must have sufficient number of care-givers to provide close supervision. To obtain the best potential of those caregivers it is highly recommended to engage them in extracurricular activities, such as outings with children.