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Pioneering a Child Protection System in Uganda

Lucy Buck founded Child’s i Foundation in 2008 after volunteering in a baby orphanage left her heartbroken, seeing some children not survive. She shares with us how she pivoted from her initial “terrible plan” to open a better baby orphanage, to now leading a 70-strong team pioneering a child protection system in Uganda.

Lucy Buck, founder of Child's i Foundation

As a TV producer, Lucy Buck believed that the media had a role to play in changing hearts and minds. She used her time between producing reality TV shows to volunteer for international development agencies and a baby orphanage in Uganda.

Following the harrowing experience of seeing babies not survive in the orphanage, Lucy founded Child’s i Foundation in January 2008. “I thought the only solution was to build a new, really good one”, she recalls.

Fortunately, Lucy’s background as a producer led to her using her connections for support. “I had no clue how to set up an orphanage so I spoke to a child development expert, someone who’d run the social services here in the UK, in Leicestershire. I told him my brilliant idea of building a 50-bed orphanage and he told me it was a terrible idea,” she laughs. “It was quite a difficult pill to swallow because I’d basically quit my career, told everyone and spent a year raising a lot of money to build a good one and now I’m being told it’s a terrible idea!”

Despite the setback, Lucy remained committed to helping Uganda’s orphaned children. She worked with the expert for a further year, conducting field research and producing films for 21 nights to help her supporters understand and discuss the change in direction that was needed.

What they realised was just how complex the situation was, with stakeholders including families, orphanages, the government, other organisations and donors. Uganda had 50,000 children in 800 orphanages that the government knew about, and 80% of these children had families.

Lucy doesn’t dramatise what she knows and refuses to demonise orphanages. She only states the facts, she says, because she previously didn’t realise the unintended consequences herself. She cites UNICEF’s research that found that 63% of children in orphanages will experience exploitation, abuse and neglect. “And at best they’ll suffer developmental delays,” she says. “Children under three lose one month for every three months of development.”

The new solution needed to support everyone to safely return children to their families or find alternative families for them.

Lucy explains: “We set up a transitional centre, Malaika Babies’ Home, and developed a strong social work team. Over the years we worked hand-in-hand with the government to show how you could safely trace the families of children in orphanages and resettle them back into their families.”

At the same time, Child’s i Foundation worked with 168 orphanages to help them improve their standards of care and provide technical support to support more than 2,000 children back into families. This had to be done slowly and sensitively, Lucy explains, “because the family has to be prepared and supported to receive their child back and it takes time for the child to get to know their family and bond with them.”

However, Lucy says that one of their biggest lessons was that as fast as they were placing children into families, the empty beds were filled as other children got sucked into the system, “like a revolving door.” The challenge was that orphanages receive funding to look after children and families still believed that their children would be better off in an orphanage. “We weren’t actually making any systemic change”, Lucy explains.

She continues: “We also worked to promote and set up domestic adoption in Uganda with the government. We needed to find an alternative to orphanages because children were being abandoned and we needed a place to put them temporarily until we could find them a permanent family. So we persuaded our carers in the centre to look after the children in their own homes. We trained them to become professional foster carers. As a result, we had an alternative and closed the centre after five years in 2015.”

Hope and Homes for Children, described by Lucy as being “like our big brother or sister”, partnered with Child’s i Foundation, bringing their learnings from their ongoing work with the Rwandan government to close all orphanages in the country. Together, the organisations are now working with the government to demonstrate one district free of orphanages in Uganda, where the scale of the problem is larger. The work now, as Lucy describes it, is to set up a child protection system to replace orphanages.

“Our social workers are working directly with the government and we are training and equipping social workers and community volunteers to identify children at risk to prevent families being separated in the first place, known as gatekeeping”, Lucy enthuses. “That is not only better for the children and the families, but a lot less money.”

She continues: “We’re also working with the orphanages and reintegrating children into families or finding new adoptive or foster families. Now instead of the revolving door, we’re re-purposing the infrastructure. So the orphanage we’re working with in the first district is going to be a community hub. Instead of looking after 60 children in an orphanage, they will be able to support up to 2,000 children and families, for a lot less.”

How have the orphanages responded to this? “If we’d not had Pastor Ruth believing in our partnership and trusting us to safely transition her children back into their families, then others would not have followed suit,” Lucy responds.

“Others know they need to change but want to see how it’s done before they make the decision to repurpose”, continues Lucy. “And then you have the orphanages that will not change. Those are the orphanages that the government will work with because it’s now government policy, the Alternative Care Framework.”

The community-based child protection system is important at every stage; as well as preventing children going into care, it provides the safety net for children who have been placed with families to ensure they thrive.

“When children have been identified as being at risk, instead of placing them in an orphanage we place them in foster care”, Lucy says. The team are running a programme of identifying, recruiting, assessing, approving and training the foster carers.

There’s a huge education piece that surrounds this work, for all stakeholders. The 70-strong team in Uganda work with families every day to help them understand the importance of their child growing up in a family and why placing children in orphanages is not a better option.

“They’re utterly inspirational”, Lucy says. “Their drivers and motivations are all about children. And they really are the future because they’re the ones who are changing their country. They’re working with the team in Rwanda and they’re the ones who are pioneering this work and learning.”

Lucy’s humility shines through when she talks about convincing donors and her own reaction when Hope and Homes for Children approached her about a partnership. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And then when we did the foster care programme I realised that placing children into orphanages wasn’t necessary at all”, she recalls.

The charity secured funding with Hope and Homes for Children from the Department for International Development in the UK for a two-country project pioneering family and community care for all children, including children with disabilities. They also introduced Child’s i Foundation to UBS Optimus Foundation, which invests funds into children’s programmes from private investors. The rest comes from private donors.

It’s the intangible nature of a child protection system that Lucy says makes it challenging to sell, as well as donors’ preference for funding individual children. “It’s much easier to say to a donor ‘will you help me build an orphanage’, rather than ‘will you help me build a child protection system’”, she laughs.

Lucy continues: “I know a lot of people like funding specific children, but you can get so much more impact by funding a social worker who can impact hundreds of children and families. If the child protection system works then children are safe in families, they have access to education, their families are strengthened. Ultimately it will ensure thousands of children’s lives are changed.”

Now three years into a five-year strategy, Lucy’s ultimate measure of success, she says, is “doing yourself out of a job. It’s not going to happen overnight, but once the system is built you shouldn’t be needed any more.”

The team are still working to prove the system in its first district of Tororo, and looking for funding to begin working in a second district.

The future looks exciting. Lucy enthuses that if the child protection system can work in Uganda then it could work across the continent. Child’s i Foundation and Hope and Homes for Children are one of the founding members of Transform Alliance Africa, an alliance of organisations working on the ground in Africa.

She explains: “We meet every year and we share expertise and knowledge and together we’re stronger. None of us as organisations are interested in going and setting up our projects in different countries because we’d rather support other organisations in the countries to grow.”

Lucy is modest about her achievements. “It’s very much about the team on the ground who make this happen every day. I do the relatively easy bit raising the money, which is really hard”, she laughs. “But they’re the ones who do all the work with the children, making life and death decisions every day.”

What keeps Lucy going? “It’s the children and the one child whose life has been changed. When you see that picture of that family and you hear that this child’s life has been inextricably changed; their story from being thrown in a pit latrine to ‘I’m going to be the most loved child in the world’.

“And then when you go into the orphanages, they’re all running up to you trying to get your attention and grabbing you; they basically beg for attention and love. And then you go into the family homes where the children have been reintegrated and they don’t even notice you. That is the greatest thing because they’re adjusted. They don’t need you; they don’t need to hug strangers. They’ve got love. And I think that for me is my why. It’s what keeps me going.”

Drawing on her wealth of experience, Lucy’s advice to other social entrepreneurs is: “Do your research. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Collaboration is really critical. Not just for the sake of collaboration or ‘it sounds good’, but because you can make more of an impact on this earth. And don’t quit. Because you will be tested. And you’ve got to find your why as well. If your why is strong enough then you’ll overcome countless knockbacks and rejections. Don’t give up because this world needs social entrepreneurs more than ever.”

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