Last week, we shared an important need on behalf of the Child and Family Protection Unit of police forces located in Kampala. If you haven’t read this yet, please do. In this post, we share a very special conversation with Commissioner of Child and Family Protection, Ms. Christine Alalo. As chief of all 520 protection officers in Uganda, she graciously shares valuable insight into the challenges of child and family protection in Uganda.
A special conversation with Christine Alalo, Commissioner of Child and Family Protection
What is the #1 biggest issue facing Child and Family Protection?
Absolutely, the answer is a lack of resources to protect witnesses and victims of abuse after a crime is uncovered. When a child is abused or someone is a key witness of abuse, their testimony is vital to the effective prosecution of a perpetrator. If these vulnerable minors are released back into custody of their community and families while awaiting the trial of the perpetrator, the case against the perpetrator might as well be closed. The witness will be coerced into denying abuse, their parent(s) will be paid off by alliances of the perpetrator as “hush money,” and the child is at very great risk of disappearing. It is imperative that victims and critical witnesses of abuse are protected in a safe location where their needs can be attended to at least until they can testify in court and a verdict is handed down on the perpetrator. Usually this critical period lasts 1-2 years until sentencing of the perpetrator is handed down.
What options does your office have now, regarding accommodations for victim protection?
When we receive a new case, we calling around to children’s villages, orphanages, schools & other NGO’s for assistance. Unlike agencies and services provided in other countries to wrap around children, we do not have a social service department to which we can refer victims while we handle the criminal investigation. Our department must deal with both the law enforcement and the social services sides of a case. When we call around to request safe shelter for victims, sometimes an organization will help us with a placement and take the child on while investigations continue. However, we regularly face the barriers of strict parameters regarding age, gender and degree of emotional/mental/physical stability of the child. These parameters that non-profits have in place are very strict, and even the non-profits who are willing cannot help us due to being overcrowded. Certain child protection divisions throughout Uganda do have very good working and supportive relationships with neighboring organizations in their area. However, speaking as the central division of Child and Family Protection in Kampala, we are especially challenged by this issue.
Just last week, we had a sibling set of three children who needed immediate care. One orphanage would take the baby, but not the older children. In another case, a children’s village would take the children but not their battered mother. We are constantly faced with splitting families and siblings up due to limited placement availability. As you can imagine, this is very problematic.
What happens when you fail to connect victims with the appropriate resources they need, during the waiting time for trial and sentencing to take place?
It is a proven fact that some of the ways abusers & pimps exert control over their victims is through providing for school fees, clothing and food – For the victims, and also for victims’ family members. When someone is rescued from abuse, but the police fail to provide for even their basic needs like food, clothing, housing, medical care and school fees, the police become the “bad guys.” Victims soon realize their social needs were better provided for when they were being abused, and so they go back to the abusers, traffickers, pimps. When family members cease to benefit from the financial benefits they received during a victim’s abuse, the family becomes a major coercive factor in a victim refusing to testify and escaping back to the abusive lifestyle. When Child and Family Protection is unable to provide for the practical needs of victims, justice fails to be served when the victims ‘escape’ protection and go back to their abusers.
Where does the Child and Family Protection Unit rank on a list of priorities for the Government of Uganda?
With the increase of “urgent” matters in our world and in the country of Uganda today – such as the threat of terrorism – Child and family protection is seen as less critical. As the budget in government grows for defense, technology and counter-terrorism, the CFPU budget continues to shrink. There is nothing in the budget for CFPU to attend to basic needs of families and children served. That is why officers pay for food and clothing out of their own pockets. The CFPU team must raise their own funds, dig into their own pockets, or petition their own contacts outside government and in the private sector to assist with needs. Also, the people we serve are some of society’s most lowly subject. Crying women, half naked and starving children – These are messy situations, not considered of high importance.
What are social norms that contribute to the challenges faced by your unit?
Times have changed in Uganda regarding the reporting of trafficking and abuse of minors and women. Until 20 years ago, domestic violence was not ‘an issue’ in Uganda – Domestic violence was culturally acceptable and therefore not reported. As awareness grows about abuse, trafficking and violence, the workload of Child and Family Protection increases. It is wonderful that there is more sensitization and awareness about these issues throughout Uganda than ever before, yet we cannot keep up with the needs that come along with cases reported to us.
What socioeconomic dynamics in Kampala make this job of CFPU so incredibly challenging here? It is the largest city and capital of Uganda, and there is lots of aid money represented in this city. Why such a struggle?
In the more rural areas of Uganda, family members live in close proximity to one another. It is common for a man from one village to marry a woman from a neighboring village. If the husband abuses the wife, she knows she can run to her parents and her family nearby for protection. It is the tribe and clan protection that is very helpful in resolving abuse issues and caring for the victims.
However, here in the city of Kampala, ties to family are loose or nonexistent. People do not know each other; their families of origin are often very far away. This is one of the ways a perpetrator will retain control over a victim. By bringing them to the city, the victim is trapped because they do not know anyone to run to for help. This means that when abuse is uncovered, it is very challenging for the Kampala CFPU to track families.
The city is also a magnet for lost children. When a mother or father leaves the village to try and find work in “Kampala,” children will often set out on their own to go find their parents. They think Kampala is a house, a small place – it never occurs to them that it is a huge city in which no one can just find one’s parents easily. So there are many lost children wandering aimlessly for a family member whom they cannot find. They end up here at Child and Family Protection as well.
But, there are so many different orphanages and NGO’s in Kampala…What is the disconnect?
The reality is, all these organizations are busy doing their own good things and meeting their own targets. Each organization has their own agendas and objectives to fulfill. For instance, one NGO may be working solely on preventing maternal mortality. If we call about a placement need, they will not assist. Another may be striving toward initiatives in childhood education. There simply is not any organization working here who is able to help us with any/all referrals as needed. It is true that although there are lots of people doing good things in Uganda, and specifically in Kampala, it is hard for Child & Family Protection to access timely, adequate resources to meet the true need.
How do you handle these working conditions, these despondent cases and the stress?
“To be in this office, you have to be a parent to everyone who walks in this door and needs our help. We need all the prayers and help we can get.” If you are not working with a love and heart for these people, you will not survive it.