Three little girls, recently lost their single mother and the sight of seeing them endlessly wandering around, have many concerned citizens asking; “What will happen for these children who became orphans as a result of the Ebola epidemic?”
Most of these children, who have had a parent or both succumb to Ebola while they themselves survived the disease, are being rejected by their communities.
In the case of the three little girls, community members are afraid to help, console and guide them during their time of need. Not because of heartlessness, but because of their mother’s death, which no one knows what actually killed her.
“Our mother didn’t die from Ebola; she was sick for two weeks and didn’t have any money to get help and ended up dying,” the children have always said whenever they are asked about their mother’s death.
The oldest, who constantly hangs her head low, is afraid to look anyone in the eyes. She said she’s terrified to see the worried look in the eyes of those who remember her mother’s death.
“No one wants us around, but we don’t have Ebola! I take care of my small sister, who is eight and my four-year-old niece. My people are there, but they don’t help us, they say we should wait for 40 days before they can decide what to do with us.”
Crying uncontrollably, she adds, “We just want someone to help us because since our Ma died, we’re just passing around hoping to see her again,” she said, recounting how their days are spent since their mother died.
What has gradually surfaced in this deadly Ebola fight is the fact that children, well over 600 so far, are living under the same stigma as these girls.
According to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MOHSW), as of October 14, 2014, there are 668 abandoned and neglected children in 10 different counties; Montserrado and Lofa having the highest number. The MOHSW official in charge of the psychosocial aspect of the
Ebola task force, Madam Victoria W. Saway, expressed the Ministry’s concern and how they are dealing with these orphaned children.
According to Mrs. Saway, the Ministry is in the process of handling “two groups of children” those coming out of communities, and those who have been traced by UNICEF/MOH.
“We come into contact with children who are coming out of communities by social workers. MOHSW has its social workers that are contact tracers, while there are social workers in the communities that have been trained and are being paid by UNICEF,”
According to her, these trained social workers are working with a community structure that enables them in identify children who are infected or affected one way or another by the Ebola outbreak.
“These social workers go into communities and look for cases of children whose parents are sick and have been left alone. These children are not considered abandoned. Sometimes they’re left in the home by themselves because their parents had to be taken to the ETU.”
According to Mrs. Saway, everyday social workers bring cases of children being left alone in their homes, and want to know what can be done about it.
“Sometimes community members call us when these kids’ parents are taken to the ETUs, or their parents die in the house and are left by themselves. Sometimes contact tracers run into these cases when they go into homes and alert us.”
She also added, “We do have children who are abandoned, and our social workers are trained to be able to tell the difference between an abandoned child or an orphan whose parents were taken to the ETU.”
While MOHSW has acknowledged knowing that children such as the three girls in this story exist, they have a way in finding them and knowing their statuses.
“What we do when calls come in to us is, we send a team. Most of the children that we take are contacts, which mean they are one way or the other affected or infected by the Ebola. If they’re contacts, we take them to an isolation care center because we don’t want the communities to be afraid of them. Most feel that if the child is a contact and gets closer to them, the child will infect them as well with the virus.”
She also said, “Because of the public fear, we immediately take them to a place that was given to us by Child Fund called KeleKule, an interim care center (ICC). It’s being sponsored by UNICEF, and is a 21-day withholding ICC for these children. Child Fund helps; they have done renovations at the facility and when there are gaps, they fill them in. MOH as a whole provides supervision to make sure all necessary things take place for these children there.
“The care givers who are at KeleKule are survivors of Ebola and have been certified; they care for the children who are taken in. When we were looking at these children’s cases and why they’re being left in communities, we didn’t want to put people at risk. What we did, we contacted these survivors and asked them if they were willing to work; and some applied. UNICEF in turn partnered with us and in fact, most of our functions at child protection at MOH and MOHSW are sponsored by UNICEF,”
The Health Ministry statistics show that at least 435 persons have survived between March 22 and October 16.
A research states that a survivor is not likely to contract the virus again for up to 10 years.
According to Mrs. Saway, UNICEF decided to identify these survivors, train them and place them at Kelekule.
“Kelekule, which, in the Kpelle language means ‘willing heart’, is the right name for these workers who are willing to help these children; and for the children who are willing to be helped. When these children are placed there, there’s no fear of infection, because the care givers have already been infected once.”
She also added, “they can provide care for these kids if they come down until they can get an ambulance that will come for the kids and take them to an ETU. Most children are negative, but when they are sent to these ETUs, they get infected there, and that’s what we want to stop from happening. That’s why we send them to KeleKule, and in there, the care takers work to make sure none of the children infect another if they come down with the virus,”
The Ministry has said that KeleKule is just a temporary place that houses the children for 21 days. And once each child has completed those days, they are free to go. But in some instances where the children have nowhere to go, they are then placed at Hawa Massaquoi, another placement center.
“If they don’t have relatives, we send them to Hawa Massaquoi. It’s a place for children who are survivors but are abandoned. The ETUs have called us to inform us about children who lost their entire families but survived. They have nowhere to send them, so we send them to Hawa.”
According to MOHSW, the center takes care of children as it once used to be a daycare. But due to the crisis, it has been transformed into a shelter for these kids.
“The maximum stay there is two weeks, unless we can’t find their families. If we can’t find a relative, the possibility is we go into the foster care program.
The MOHSW has a form that those interested in becoming foster parents for these children have to fill in. According to Mrs. Saway, when a child is in need of parents, those who fill out the form are then inspected and interviewed.
“We do it for the survivors; it’s a new system that we’ve started. Once the child goes through the proper channel, social workers and so on, the child is documented and profiled to make sure they don’t come up missing,
“Once we have found them a family, we don’t keep these children. At MOHSW, we want to see these children with their families. Family care is the best option,” she added.