Strengthening Armenia’s child care and child protection system: Collaboration makes a difference
By Zola Allen, PhD, and Hasmik Ghukasyan, MS, Data for Impact (D4I)
Prevention of family separation. Care of disabled or orphaned children. Kinship care, foster care, adoption. State support to families at risk or reunified. These are some of the issues that Armenia is dealing with as it seeks to ensure appropriate care of children separated from or without parents―that they grow up in a protective environment, free from deprivation, exploitation, danger, and insecurity.
Armenia has passed through several stages of reforming its child care and protection system, moving from efforts to improve the quality of care and services for children in residential institutions to the fundamental steps of transforming all residential care institutions into family-type or community-based services. Armenia’s care reform initiative is based on the United Nations Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children, which finds that family-type and community settings are better for most children and their long-term educational, health, and socio-economic well-being when compared to care in residential institutions. The country’s reform efforts have resulted in a significant decline of number of children in residential care―from 3,457 in 2016 to 1,160 in 2020. The government of Armenia views the establishment and expansion of daycare centers as the main means for supporting family reunification and the reintegration of deinstitutionalized children. It views the promotion of foster care as the primary alternative care arrangement for children following deinstitutionalization, if family reunification is not possible.
To support monitoring of the reform of the child care and protection system, in 2017 the MEASURE Evaluation project, funded by the Center on Children in Adversity of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), began providing technical assistance to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA) in its efforts to lead and monitor care reform. The Data for Impact (D4I) project took over this work in 2020.
The key principles guiding D4I’s work in Armenia are a commitment to promoting country ownership, sustainability, and collaboration. Our activities are characterized by use of participatory capacity-strengthening approaches, attention to emerging local needs, and respect for the challenging environment posed by political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic. For both of us, it has been both challenging and gratifying to work with the government of Armenia in the last four years.
Cultivating country ownership
We started our collaboration by supporting the government in facilitating the 2017 participatory assessment workshop to ensure local ownership. Sixty-six participants from various government ministries and organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations gathered to assess care reform system components―leadership and governance, service delivery, workforce, monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and information systems, social norms and practices, and financing. The stakeholders assessed each care reform component in the Alternative Care Assessment Framework and provided recommendations for improvement. They identified the M&E and information systems component and the provision of services to prevent family separation component as particularly weak.
Two years after the workshop, MOLSA staff reviewed all 54 workshop recommendations to inform its new four-year Comprehensive Program for 2020‒2023 to Promote the Rights of a Child to Live and Develop in the Family. The comprehensive program addresses the workshop recommendations that remain to be implemented and emphasizes the role of M&E for data-driven decision making.
As follow-up to the 2018 workshop, D4I facilitated a series of meetings among stakeholders to develop a road map for the establishment of a child protection information system and an accompanying implementation plan to ensure quality data collection and reporting in the system (see Figure 1). Importantly, MOLSA is in the driver’s seat—it is the lead coordinating body for implementing the plan, while various other ministries and organizations, including D4I, have a role in its implementation.
Figure 1. Roadmap for the establishment of Armenia’s child protection information system to collect, monitor, and report data on the situation of children in adversity
Shifts in M&E skills and data use for decision making
To strengthen M&E capacity of country stakeholders, we conducted seven rounds of training and capacity-strengthening events between 2017 and 2020. In total, 140 representatives from all key ministries involved in care reforms and from civil society organizations that contribute to and participate in care reform implementation took part in these events.
Upon request from the deputy minister of MOLSA, we developed an M&E self-training guide based on the training materials, which is now publicly available on the MOLSA website. Drawing on their newly sharpened M&E skills and with our technical support, the MOLSA team initiated and developed an M&E plan for Armenia’s national four-year strategy document, the Comprehensive Program for 2020‒2023. This comprises the first M&E plan in the country for any government strategy document.
We also supported participatory development of 24 routine monitoring indicators for the care reform. These indicators will allow the MOLSA to monitor routine developments in all aspects of the care system. The list of indicators, their reference sheets, and related summary tables were approved by the Minister on April 1, 2020․ To support the regular generation of relevant data for the summary tables of the routine monitoring indicators, D4I also supported modifications in the national information system for registration of children in adversity called the MANUK Information System (translates to “Child” in Armenian).
These combined activities have engendered a shift among actors working on child reform toward a culture of using data for decision making. Now key stakeholders in this field rely on quality data for their planning and budgeting. This shift is reflected in the recent MOLSA order requiring service providers to work on quality data entry into MANUK on a regular schedule so that users at various levels have data available for decision making.
Flexible strategies, open communication, collaboration are key
Political instability in the country has resulted in multiple changes in the leadership of key ministries and continues to be disruptive. The first shift in MOLSA’s leadership occurred in 2018. We faced a second wave of changes in the ministry’s leadership in 2019, along with the replacement of key staff who had previously worked with us. Then in 2020, Armenia faced twin crises―the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-down and the renewed conflict on Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which resulted in yet another round of changes in ministry leadership and staff.
To respond, D4I had to implement innovative, flexible strategies for collaboration. Each time governmental shifts occurred, we had to re-introduce our initiatives and the purpose of our support, as well as learn to work with the new ministry leadership. We learned to engage as many staff members as we could in our work so that if some left, we would be able to continue our work in partnership with the remaining staff.
Advocating for children’s rights
The bottom line? The broad stakeholder support that we created across the country beginning with the 2017 assessment workshop has helped us to continue despite the challenges faced. We share the government’s goal of promoting the rights of a child to live in family. We respect that the various ministries and other local stakeholders with whom we work have tremendous insight into what they need, what efforts will be effective in Armenia, and what steps are needed to make progress. We are proud to be able to share insights on child reform from our experiences in other countries and look forward to continuing this collaboration to improve child protection―efforts anchored in a commitment to children’s rights and sustainability by design.
 Source: Statistical Committee publication on the social situation in Armenia, 2020. Data include the number of children in orphanages, night-care institutions, temporary-short-term emergency care centers, and special schools.
 Cannon, M. & Hickmann, M. (2017). Alternative Care Assessment Framework. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: MEASURE Evaluation, University of North Carolina. Available at https://www.measureevaluation.org/our-work/youth-and-adolescents/alternative-care
 The Government of Armenia adopted the comprehensive program in April 2020, covering detailed list of actions to expand more family type alternative care options for children in residential care, especially those with disabilities and prevention of separation or re-institutionalization.