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Where Children Belong

  • June 21, 2018
  • Africa and Middle East
Michael J Nyenhuis

Michael J Nyenhuis

Michael J. Nyenhuis, Americares President and CEO, has worked for more than 20 years to provide pathways to health for people who face formidable obstacles – everything from massive earthquakes to crushing poverty. He offers an informed and personal perspective on where we have been, who we are now and what the future might look like for the critical health issues and emerging crises that we confront everyday around the world.

In 1994, the nations of the world formally recognized the central role of the family in community, culture and development when the United Nations declared the “International Year of the Family.” Families were held up as the foundational institution in human society.

Interestingly, the designation was not without controversy. Some argued that such a focus might overlook the value of individuals and those who live outside family structures.

While that is a point well taken, I think it would be fair to say that on all sides of politics, religion or any other divide, there is broad consensus about the central role of the family to heathy individuals, communities and society. In my own sector — global relief and development — there was a time when the nonprofit organizations that offered donors the chance to “sponsor a child” really did focus solely on individual children, sometimes to the exclusion of siblings and other youngsters in the community. Today, most of these agencies pool sponsorship money to benefit entire families and the communities where they live.

Abel and Family

The lesson learned over time is that you cannot (or should not) take the child out of the family. As much as is possible, the child belongs within the context of family. It is there that they have the best chance to develop into healthy adults.

We have seen in the past few weeks here in the United States efforts to take children from their families — the result of a new policy directed at migrant families crossing the southern border — that have been met with outcry and protest. The voices opposed to actions that separated children and parents were strong enough that the president signed an executive order on June 20 directing the government to keep detained families together.

The order is an important step, but does not go far enough and is too late for thousands of children and their families already separated. Separating and detaining parents and children goes against everything we know about the importance of family bonds.

I did a lot of work in the early 2000s on the AIDS crisis in Africa, which left millions of children orphaned when their parents succumbed to the disease. It was encouraging to witness the evolution of thought about care for these orphans: Many were moved from larger institutions to smaller group and foster homes comprised of a few children and a caring adult — imitating family life as much as possible.

Families and family-like structures are not always safe. We know that. Children should not be exposed to unstable environments. A detention center is certainly one of those. We should do everything we can to strengthen “the smallest democracy at the heart of society,” as the International Year of the Family’s motto so aptly describes this most basic human group.