Sri Lankan society should help change attitudes surrounding youth leaving care

SOS Children’s Village says


by Jesse Neill

It’s a small village, situated on the outskirts of Piliyandala, about 20 kilometres south of Colombo. The architecture is decorated with bright colours, walls adorned with child-like paintings and messages of hope. There is a distinct warmth and vitality to the environment, as a familiar sense of belonging hangs in the air. It feels like walking into a family home. To these children, it is home indeed. 

I am visiting the SOS Children’s Village in Piliyandala — one of six SOS villages in Sri Lanka — to discuss their most recent advocacy campaign surrounding the development of support systems for youth leaving alternative care.

The non-government international development organisation is dedicated to providing quality care, education, medical services and vocational training opportunities for children without parental care or whose families live in difficult conditions.

Due to existing laws in Sri Lanka, youth in childcare are forced to leave once they reach eighteen years of age, no matter their physical and emotional readiness. As most of these individuals have been living in institutional or residential care their entire lives, they are not prepared for the difficulties faced when transitioning to an independent life. 

Currently there is also no state mechanism or institutional commitment — legal or policy framework — to support ‘care leavers’ (youth who age out of care rather than choose to leave). This leads many care leavers to face a variety of psycho-emotional and socio-economic challenges that often ends in unemployment, abuse, delinquency, substance dependency, homelessness and mental health issues. SOS Children’s Village place emphasis on continuing to support youth after they leave the village and their care leavers have seen much success as a result of this approach. 

Last month, SOS held a ‘Speak Out’ session at Water’s Edge, calling upon industry leaders and politicians to provide additional funding for preparation services and aftercare support, to better equip youth in childcare for independent living. The event also provided a public platform for past youth of alternative care to share their experiences of leaving care, as well as opening up the room for discussion.

These care leavers shared their harrowing yet inspirational stories, illustrating that when given the right support both during and after care, they can go on to live successful, independent lives.

Speaking at the event was Iresha Dilhani, who was taken in by SOS after losing her parents when she was two years old. 

"We all have a moral and social responsibility to ensure our children are cared for and have access to a safe environment to grow," Iresha appealed. 

"We need to respect, promote, and stand up for children’s rights. We need to prepare young people to live independently with confidence. We need more support from both the public and private sectors. We don’t want people’s sympathy, we want the right to live."

Overcoming many hardships during and after her time at SOS, Iresha has established her own design and printing venture called Print Forest. She designs for a range of social and commercial enterprises and hopes to help care leavers like herself in the future, by providing them with job opportunities in her company as it expands.

She is now building her own house with plans of getting married in the near future, living a completely independent life with a significant amount of financial success.

This is one of the many success stories SOS has seen by providing a transition period to independent living. SOS engages youth in a range of programs that prepare them for the realities of adulthood. Children are first moved to a semi-independent living program upon reaching adolescence.

When attending vocational training or higher education, they live in one of the shared houses at the village, which is guided and supervised by a SOS counsellor. This helps them develop realistic perspectives about the future and teaches them to take responsibility, make their own decisions, and ultimately learn to live independently. Additionally, they are given career guidance, as well as provided opportunities to follow higher education or undertake vocational training in IT and electronics, welding, agriculture, mechanic, baking, woodwork, and metalwork.

SOS Director of Youth Care, Kapila Gunawardanal explains this gradual adaptation process. "This preparation involves strategic objectives and long term action plans that ensure our children have the essential life skills, training and qualifications necessary to integrate into society and lead an independent life. After they leave we have a range of aftercare services including finding adequate housing, providing employment or further education, financial guidance and psychosocial support"

"We do not end our support until they are set on their feet…even then our doors are always open if they ever need our support. Overall, we identify their strengths to provide them with the skills necessary to take on the world", he added.

In order to provide these significant opportunities for more children in alternative care, National Advocacy Advisor, Chathuri Jayasooriya wants support from all sectors. 

"This is not something that can be achieved by the state or corporations in isolation,  rather we need a multi-sector response to build an efficient and effective support system for youth leaving care. We have approached various stakeholders and created a partnership across all sectors to work cohesively and collectively", she noted.

 Jayasooriya also stressed the importance of incorporating the perspective of the care leavers and children in care in the decision making process, to not only understand how these issues truly affect them, but provide autonomy to those who will be impacted the most by policy changes. 

"Right now it’s a top down process, policy makers create laws and policies without consulting those their decisions affect. We want to invert the decision making process so that the ground level gets reflected… to create a bridge for effective two-way communication. However, it’s not enough to just change policies, we need to change attitudes too… these are the two biggest factors that can help to reduce the institutionalisation and separation of families", she said.

Ultimately, this is just one part of SOS Children’s Village five-year advocacy strategy that Jayasooriya describes as a process rather than a project. SOS Children’s Village would like to see further development from youth services to prepare for independent living. They would also like financial and networking support to implement a monitoring process that will contribute to establish effective aftercare support.

Expanding the capacity of staff and carer capacity is important to help this transition. Finally, SOS seeks support for organising a database and collection system to manage and track care leavers in Sri Lanka. This is all about maintaining a successful balance between independence during care and maintaining support after care. 

Deputy National Director of SOS Children’s Village, Divakar Rathnadurai reinforces the self-worth and equal opportunities these youth deserve. 

"We want to show that there are plenty of successful care leavers that go on to be functioning members of society that contribute to their community and give back to those that raised them. Too often they are seen as a burden, rather than what they are: people."

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