Inter-Agency Research on Strengthening Community Based Child Protection for Vulnerable Children in Sierra Leone

Lead Research Organisation: Columbia University
Department Name: Mailman School of Public Health

Abstract

In many parts of the world, widespread abuse of children's rights to care and protection is hindering progress in alleviating poverty and ensuring the poorest and most vulnerable children are able to gain their basic rights. Across contexts, children face widespread protection risks including family separation, displacement, attack, sexual exploitation and abuse, recruitment into or use by armed forces and armed groups, trafficking, child labour, neglect and lack of care among many others. These violations have significant and lasting harmful effects on children's well-being and long term success. How to respond to prevent and mitigate these risks on a wide scale is a profound yet unanswered problem that is being explored in new interagency research in Sierra Leone.

Alongside government and the family, the community is a crucial source of potential support for children vulnerable to child protection risks. A significant gap is that community protection for children are often not backed by effective support from aspects of the government system such as social workers and police. This research will for the first time systematically evaluate the effect of community-led interventions to better link communties with government services and systems to support vulnerable children. Importantly the research will develop and measure children's protection and well-being outcomes, that is the real changes that children experience in their health, safety and happiness. The research will provide a unique opportunity to tell us if and how these community-led interventions are effective, how they can be sustainable and also how they can be taken to scale to impact on larger numbers of vulnerable and marginalised children.

Using a public health approach this research will develop population-based measures of children's protection and well-being outcomes. This inter-agency evaluation brings together in collaboration for the first time, key international organisations who are implementing and funding child protection programmes. It is therefore an extraordinary opportunity to fill some of the significant evidence gaps and inform deep changes in policy and practice across these organisations and more widely.

Through this inter-agency evaluation initiative, the following critical questions for child protection policy will begin to be answered:
1. Do community-led interventions to strengthen linkages with formal systems improve children's protection and well-being outcomes?
2. How can changes in the effectiveness of child protection mechanisms be measured using population based measures of children's protection and well-being be that reflect a mixture of local understandings and also international child protection standards?

The research will run from 2012 to 2014 in two Districts in Sierra Leone - Moyamba and Bombali Districts. The research is led by the Columbia Group for Children in Adversity in partnership with Save the Children.

Planned Impact

The proposed research results could have significant impact in Sierra Leone and across the global child protection sector therefore the beneficiaries of the research will be at national and global level. In Sierra Leone, the beneficiaries will be:
1. Children and adult community members who are part of, or affected by child protection issues, including children affected by HIV and those living without appropriate care. The research findings and the participatory process of the programmatic intervention, will improve community level practice to prevent and respond to child protection violations. The ethnographic phase of the research has already demonstated the impact the research can have. In the process of feeding back the ethnographic findings to communities, and in response to a key finding about high levels of teengage pregnancy and associated risks, one of the research site communities decided to pass a new by-law to ensure that all teengage pregnancies which occur as a result of sexual abuse are reported and dealt with through the proper channels. It is expected that the research will also contribute to increased awareness of child protection issues and potentially decrease stigma associated with such issues in communities.
2. Chiefs and decision makers in non-formal components of the child protection system. In Sierra Leone, government services for child protection do not extend operationally into rural areas therefore Chiefs and other community leaders are a critically important group to engage in the research.
3. Local government staff in the research sites including social workers, police, family support unit staff, health workers and teachers. The research will provide evidence and generate information about how such workers can reach out and engage communities to better protect children.
4. The government of Sierra Leone, in particular policy makers responsible for social welfare and resource allocation for child protection. The Ministry for Social Welfare, which is the primary government department responsible for child protection, is the least funded government department. Policy-makers in this Ministry desperately require robust evidence of the cost-effectiveness of protection interventions to advocate for increased resource allocation from the national budget. The results of the ethnographic phase were received with keen interest by the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs, signalling the future impact the research can have on government policy.
5. UNICEF and non-governmental organisations in Sierra Leone which are supporting protection programmes for the most vulnerable children, in particular Save the Children, World Vision, Plan International, War Child Holland, Defence for Children International and the International Rescue Committee. These organisations require robust evidence to help them support more effective interventions, including improving the effectiveness of, and scaling-up, current interventions.

At global level the beneficiaries will be:
1. Governments in the many other countries and regions which are implementing community-based child protection, who require examples of what works in strengthening and measuring the effectiveness of national child protection systems.
2. Donors for child protection programmes such as DFID, USAID, UNICEF and the European Commission which require evidence of what works and examples of indicators to measure child protection outcomes.
3. UN Agencies and International NGOs (including those listed above) who are supporting large child protection programmes globally. It is expected that in other countries agencies will use similar outcome measures and processes to strengthen the evidence base, building on this model of good practice.
4. Inter-agency technical working groups in the global child protection community such as the Child Protection Working Group who design standards and guidance for the sector.
 
Description We discovered that community-driven action on behalf of vulnerable children is an effective, sustainable means on supporting children who suffer significant vulnerability, in this case due to teenage pregnancy. Previously, it had been thought that the best way to support vulnerable children was through programs driven by child protection specialists. Also, this study highlighted the value of using population based measures of children's well-being. This helped to move beyond the project specific approach typically used in the field of child protection.
Exploitation Route Other agencies and countries are using the community-driven, bottom-up approach pioneered here. These include India, Uganda, and Tanzania, among others. Private donors have asked me to conduct trainings needed to build the relevant skills of workers for other agencies.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy

 
Description The findings from this study, together with those of other studies, led the Government of Sierra Leone to develop a new Child and Family Welfare Policy that emphasizes the importance of community action on behalf of vulnerable children. More recently, the Government has decided to use our community-driven approach in rolling out the new policy, first to two districts and then country-wide. The research approach and findings are also being used in other regions to guide more community driven approaches to supporting vulnerable children. In Uganda and Tanzania, partner of two major private funders are working over the next two years to develop greater community ownership and power sharing in their programming, incorporating the lessons from the Sierra Leone research. In India, multiple agencies are using a similar action research and population based measurement approach to strengthen a community driven, bottom up approach that complements the Government's top-down approach to child protection. In many respects, this approach is an assertion of 'people's power' that helps to strengthen good governance as well as community action on behalf of vulnerable children. In writing and publication, too, the results of the Sierra Leone action research are being used to boost research impact. the PI and six co-authors (including Sierra Leoneans) wrote an invited chapter entitled "How Collaboration, Early Engagement and Collective Ownership Increase Research Impact: Strengthening Community-Based Child Protection Mechanisms in Sierra Leone" which will be included in an edited collection from the ESRC DFID Impact Initiative and the Institute of Development Studies. The volume will be published in Fall, 2016 and will spur discussions with policy leaders via a symposium planned for mid-February, 2017. In the educational sector, efforts are under way at Columbia University and also via the AfriChild Centre in Uganda to help graduate students learn how to use more community driven approaches. Through these and related efforts, the lessons and approaches of the action research will be brought forward to wider public and private audiences.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Impact on practice
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact In the child protection sector, few agency conduct systematic evaluations using robust designs on a regular basis. We have convened multiple workshops to help practitioner agencies and child protection specialists learn from the model we have been using in our funded research. Also, we have been training the technical partners who will be implementing the new Child and Family Welfare Policy on how to use and document the effectiveness of the intervention model we have developed and tested in our action research. In early November, 2014, the findings and implications for practitioners will be shared with the global Child Protection Working Group in Geneva.
 
Description Policy impact
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The ethnographic phase of work that lay the foundation for and preceded the action research supported by this grant helped to change the national Child and Family Welfare Policy in Sierra Leone away from the creation of new, seldom used structures such as Child Welfare Committees toward supporting action by communities and families to protect vulnerable children. This ethnographic findings were one of the dominant sources cited in the new policy document. The funded action research tests the effectiveness of community driven action to support children who are vulnerable due to teenage pregnancy, which leads girls to drop out of school and in many cases to engage in transactional sex in order to support themselves and their families. The preliminary findings of our measurement of children's risk and well-being outcomes (and the use of a quasi-experimental design) have helped to create a viable model for implementing the community aspects of the new policy. Indeed, they have inspired the leaders, the managers, and the UN (UNICEF) and NGO technical implementing partners of the Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children's Affairs to use the community-driven intervention process as the main community-level approach in implementing the new policy. A technical group consisting of UNICEF and four NGOs has been established to scale the tested model up to other provinces. Sierra Leonean members of our research team advise and help provide trainings when needed on the methodology, including measurement aspects of the work.
 
Title Outcomes survey in public health approach 
Description This work has developed a survey of children's risk and well-being outcomes that follows a public health approach to enabling child protection and well-being. It is applied on a population basis, though in limited geographic areas. Before now, most research has not measured actual outcomes for children or has not used a public health approach, which provides critical information on risk and protective factors that one must address in order to protect children. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Other groups and, equally important, agencies involved in child protection work have expressed interest in using this approach. 
 
Description Global Reference Group 
Organisation Save the Children
Country United States 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The Columbia University team contributes technical expertise on methodology, design, analysis, interpretation, and scientific writing.
Collaborator Contribution Save the Children coordinates a global reference group of practitioner agencies (e.g. Plan International, World Vision, Goal, and others), UNICEF, and donors such as USAID/PEPFAR that help to guide the research and to enable various child protection stakeholders to use the findings, principles, methods and approaches in ongoing work to protect vulnerable children and strengthen child protection systems.
Impact The main outputs have been reports issued by the Interagency Learning Initiative on Community-Based Child Protection Mechanisms and Child Protection Systems.
Start Year 2010
 
Description Sierra Leone Reference Group 
Organisation UNICEF
Country Global 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have modeled a public health approach to child protection in which we monitor over time children's risk and well-being outcomes on a limited but population basis in two rural districts. We have also conducted trainings for workers in other agencies on how to use this methodology.
Collaborator Contribution UNICEF has provided significant staff time of one of its key Sierra Leonean child protection specialists who works with our team. He serves as a team leader in one district and helps to bring the methodology and lessons learned back to UNICEF. He also helps to organize the inter-agency trainings and to open doors for influencing the Government.
Impact This collaboration is multidisciplinary and involves child protection, health, and HIV and AIDS sectors.
Start Year 2011
 
Description Child Protection Working Group discussion 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact My talk on the research and the systematic measurement of outcomes and the data on the 'new approach' to community-based child protection mechanisms sparked much discussion about how to apply the approaches and lessons to work on community-based child protection in humanitarian emergency settings.

After my talk, numerous practitioner organizations--IOM, Save the Children, World Vision, Plan International, and Terre des hommes asked to form a working group to develop more systematic advice and applications for emergency settings worldwide. The CPWG is the best forum for this since they coordinate child protection work in emergencies worldwide.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Child Protection Working Group discussion 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact My talk on the research and the systematic measurement of outcomes and the data on the 'new approach' to community-based child protection mechanisms sparked much discussion about how to apply the approaches and lessons to work on community-based child protection in humanitarian emergency settings.

After my talk, numerous practitioner organizations--IOM, Save the Children, World Vision, Plan International, and Terre des hommes asked to form a working group to develop more systematic advice and applications for emergency settings worldwide. The CPWG is the best forum for this since they coordinate child protection work in emergencies worldwide.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014