The Economic Strengthening to Keep and Reintegrate Children in Family Care (ESFAM) project was funded by USAID’s Displaced Children and Orphans Fund and managed by FHI 360 through the Accelerating Strategies for Practical Innovation and Research in Economic Strengthening (ASPIRES) Family Care Project. ESFAM was developed to help build the evidence base on how to appropriately match economic strengthening (ES) activities with families at risk of family-child separation and with families in the process of reintegrating a previously separated child. It was implemented in three districts in Uganda from November 2015 through June 2018. ESFAM was based on a theory of change that a combination of case management, social support and household economic and livelihood strengthening would stabilize highly vulnerable households to facilitate the return of separated children to family care and prevent future family disintegration. The project offered a range of ES and family strengthening services to increase family stability and reduce the likelihood of future separation/reseparation. In addition to supporting families, ESFAM offered an opportunity for learning about how to provide these services and how well they worked. This report focuses on the latter and summarizes changes in key indicators related to family-child separation over the course of the project.
The longitudinal quantitative data on which this report is based were collected from ESFAM project households before ES activities began (baseline, n=611 at-risk and n=89 reintegrating households) and again at the conclusion of the project, after 12-18 months of activity implementation, dependent on when a household joined ESFAM and baseline was conducted (endline, n=580 at-risk and n=88 reintegrating households). Descriptive statistics were generated for more than 20 outcome variables that were selected from across the domains of child protection, economic well-being, and social/family well-being, at both time points. Changes in the average or distribution of responses were calculated and tests of statistical significance were performed, as appropriate. The data are disaggregated according to separation status (at risk or reintegrating) and the primary economic strengthening activity(ies) the household participated in: cash transfer (CT only) or cash transfer plus savings group (CT + VSLA) available to destitute households; matched savings accounts (MSA) for highly economically vulnerable households; savings groups (VSLA only) available to economically vulnerable households; financial literacy or business skills training only (Other ES) for those households that did not participate in the primary ES activity offered; and nothing (No ES) for those households that did not receive/participate in any economic strengthening activities. In addition to these ES activities, all ESFAM households received social support services from a project para-social worker that included discussion of child protection issues, prevention, and response; positive parenting skills training for caregivers; and psycho-social support to strengthen coping skills and hope for families struggling with a range of social and emotional challenges.
The households selected for enrollment in ESFAM were extremely economically vulnerable at baseline, with an estimated poverty rate of 58% (reintegrating) to 71% (at-risk) at the USD 2.00/day poverty threshold. At endline, over two-thirds of the beneficiary households were still likely to be living below the USD 2.00/day poverty threshold. The median monthly income at endline was about 55,000-60,000 UGX (USD 15-17), with more than 80% of families reporting an income less than 100,000 UGX (USD 28), despite increases in median monthly income recorded from baseline for most sub-groups in the sample.
Yet, however modest the gains in family income, they translated, nearly across the board, to improved indicators of family well-being, including:
- Reduced economic vulnerability, as indicated by increases in the proportion of households able to consistently pay for basic needs, provide two meals per day, and secure adequate shelter for their families;
- Improved child and family well-being, as indicated by increases in the proportion of households with all children attending school regularly, an increased percentage of caregivers who reported two or more sources of emotional and material support, and improved scores on indices of child and caregiver integration; and
- Improvements in child protection, as indicated for at-risk households by an overall reduction in the percentage of households with a child living outside of family care, and for both at-risk and reintegrating households, by an increase in the proportion of families where no child protection issues were suspected or observed.
The observed rate of child separations at endline among all at-risk households was 7% (37 separations recorded across 569 households at endline), compared to a baseline rate of 13%. The endline rate of family-child separation among reintegrating households was also 7% (6 separations reported across 88 families). Differences in sample sizes across sub-groups make comparison of separation rates tenuous, but the highest rate of separation for at-risk households was recorded among those in the VSLA-only group (14%), while the highest rate among reintegrating households was for the MSA group (15%). A comparison of the baseline characteristics of households that did and did not experience a separation at endline yielded a few statistically significant differences (at p ≤.05). Among at-risk households, baseline values for shelter status and ability to pay for food in the past three months were statistically significantly different for households that recorded a child separation. Generally, separated households recorded lower levels of ability to pay for food, but, counterintuitively, higher proportions of families with adequate shelter than households that did not report a child separation. Across the reintegration sample, households that experienced a separation had statistically significantly higher rates of maleheaded households.
Limitations of the research design preclude us from assigning attribution of specific outcomes to specific activities, but generally, the experience of the households that participated in ESFAM lends credence to the theory that reducing economic stress in the household may contribute to better general family wellbeing, thus reducing drivers of family-child separation. The general improvement for most categories of participants across indicators of child protection, economic status, and child and caregiver well-being suggests that economic strengthening activities do have a role to play in keeping children in family care, particularly for households living in extreme poverty in more rural areas.
The relatively higher rate of child separation and lower overall improvement among VSLA-only households, along with a high rate of declining to participate among that group of at-risk households, may suggest that savings-only interventions for the very poor – even if less economically vulnerable on some measures than their destitute neighbors – provide limited relief for families. Yet the successes of destitute households that received a limited cash transfer followed by VSLA (CT+VSLA) indicate the value of consumption support for setting up very poor households for greater success. Households that participated in the MSA activity also managed to find funds to save for educational expenses and saw improvements on most indicators. Overall, small improvements in economic vulnerability were possible for the ESFAM households and were observed in combination with reductions in other drivers of familychild separation. This suggests that practitioners working to reduce family-child separation can incorporate economic strengthening activities with case management and other family strengthening measures to augment their programming and improve the living situation for families and children, without taking on complete elimination of poverty as their aim.