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Let’s Keep the Keepers

“We are our brother’s keeper,” says Mohammed Adamu Adangba. Many of us have uttered that phrase. Adangba, a social service worker in Nigeria, means it.

“I grew up in a typical Nigerian community—a communal setting,” he says. “And that was a common expression for us.”That philosophy led Adangba to study sociology. Two years in, a professor approached him about helping children who had lost parents to HIV/AIDS.

“That was 2002 and stigma of HIV and AIDS was very, very high,” he says. “The prevalence rate was over 5% and a lot of people were in denial, not going for testing. And the children that had lost their mothers and fathers were neglected and treated terribly.”

At the time there wasn’t a lot of funding for child protection at the local level in Nigeria. But Adangba signed up immediately as a community volunteer. He worked with community members to identify children in need, report cases of abuse and neglect, help children access care, and initiate a local response.

A shortage of social service workers to provide services for children

Today, there are 17.5 million orphans and vulnerable children in Nigeria. There’s also a shortage of skilled social service workers like Adangba, who help these children receive the services they need. In Nigeria, 95% of orphans and vulnerable children do not receive any type of medical, emotional, social, material, or school-related assistance.According to the most recent Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, HIV/AIDS is still a major reason for the high number of orphans and vulnerable children. These children’s basic needs like health care and education often go unmet. Many are abused and neglected, affected by violence or trafficking, and struggle with mental, emotional, and physical health challenges.  And while the roles of doctors, for instance, are understood across countries, the roles of social service workers are often misunderstood and under-recognized. Social service workers often do not receive the support they need to carry out their jobs well and grow professionally, including appropriate and ongoing training.

Adangba has experienced all this firsthand. “It’s overwhelming when you go to communities and the resources are not there to help as many people as you want,” he says. “The government ministries responsible for taking care of orphans and vulnerable children are grossly short of social workers, and those that are there lack capacity and need additional training.”  “Social service workers are often transferred whether they have competencies or not,” he says. “They can be moved from one department or job to another without the proper background.”  The Nigerian government is trying to change this. It established the Orphans and Vulnerable Children Division in the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development to oversee integrated services for vulnerable children.

An important part of health teams 

At IntraHealth International, where I work, we see social service workers like Adangba as an important part of health teams and vital to improving the population’s health.

They provide a vital safety net for vulnerable children and families and can connect them to an array of services, including health services. Together, frontline health workers and social service workers can identify and provide holistic care to more families in need. We’ve even worked with Adangba.  Adangba worked with us—as well as Nigeria's Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, UNICEF, and other partners—to coordinate the mapping of the state child protection system in Federal Capital Territory State (where Abuja, Nigeria’s capital is). The goal was to strengthen the overall child protection system at the state level, improving the case management and referral processes so that vulnerable children are identified and cared for in a timely way. Part of a larger mapping activity in six states, the process involved identifying the laws, policies, and structures for child protection that currently exist in each state, assessing the system to see what needed to be improved, and identifying and costing priority changes. As a result, Nigeria now has a clearer picture of its social service workforce, and state governments are using the findings to improve services.

Strengthen the system, so more children receive care 

While some social service workers provide direct support to vulnerable children or focus on national-level policy, Adangba continues to mobilize efforts at the community level. He’s now a protection manager with the International Rescue Committee in Nigeria.  Over the years he’s worked with traditional rulers, religious leaders, teachers, and health workers to respond to children’s needs.Through his work, Adangba learned about four children who were living with their grandmother. Amos, Christiana, Elijah, and Wei (ages 2–17) lost their mother to AIDS. They have two different fathers, one is absent and the other died of AIDS. “When I first met them, none of the children were going to school,” Adangba says.  He’s since enrolled all four children, and 300 more in similar situations, in school. He arranged for waivers for their school fees and worked with the community to provide books and uniforms. For children with HIV and other health issues, he works with local health workers to get the medical care they need.   He’s also become a mentor to the oldest child, Amos. “I visit the family almost every day,” Adangba says. “Amos wants to move to Abuja to play soccer, but I’m urging him to stay and complete his schooling. I’m offering to pay for his final exam if he does.”

We can’t all be our brothers’ keepers as directly as Adangba. But we can and should provide tools, structure, and support for social service workers like him, so they can provide care and services to more vulnerable people that need them.  

Photo above courtesy of Mohammed Adamu Adangba (Adangba meets with displaced children) Adanga’s work to map the child protection system in Nigeria was funded by CapacityPlus, a project funded by USAID and led by IntraHealth International. IntraHealth has worked in other countries and at the global level to strengthen the social service workforce. For example, we’ve helped Malawi and Tanzania implement our iHRIS open source HR software to better manage and deploy social service workers; documented the composition of the social service workforce to move toward a common understanding of the functions and training typically associated with different types of workers; and refined a framework for professionalizing the social service workforce. In Tanzania we also trained and helped professionalize a new cadre of volunteer para-social workers to offer support services as well as referrals for the country’s most vulnerable children. IntraHealth is also the fiscal sponsor and host of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, a platform for members from over 70 countries to share information, develop tools and resources, and advocate for the social service workforce.