Australians love to support orphanages in poor countries, or one of the more recent adaptations of the idea, orphan villages. Orphanages push all our emotional buttons. On the one hand who can’t be moved by the plight of children who are alone and vulnerable? On the other hand institutional care is so tangible – we can see and touch the buildings, visit the children. For many Christians orphanages are a wonderful way to share God’s love with needy children and hold out the hope that they will be exposed to and embrace the good news about Jesus.

Why then are orphanages viewed so negatively by most development workers? Here are five facts I’ve taken from Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions (2009) by Save the Children.

1. There are very few orphans in orphanages. Four out of five children in orphanages have either one or both parents still alive. Surveys showed that up to 90% children in institutional care in Ghana had one or both parents alive; 88% in Liberia; 59% in Zimbabwe; 90% in Indonesia; 80% in Sri Lanka; 45-70% in Afghanistan; over 80% in Brazil; and 98% in Central and Eastern Europe;

2. Poverty, marginalisation and discrimination are the main reasons children are placed in orphanages. Parents who are very poor often see institutional care as the only way to ensure their child receives an education, while some children are abandoned due to their being disabled, girls or from an ethnic minority;

3. Institutional care, particularly large-scale institutional care, is damaging to the physical, emotional and social development of children. This has been demonstrated by a large number of studies across a wide range of countries. Inadequate living conditions and low staff to child ratios are often the norm. Children in institutional care commonly have lower IQs, experience violence and fear, are more likely to end up in crime, have lower educational attainments, are poorly equipped for non-institutionalised life, have no community to which they belong once they leave the institution;

4. There are far better options than institutional care. The best option is to support families so they can stay together. Where this is not possible, the next best option is for children to be cared for in a family structure, such as the family of a relative or an adoptive or foster family;

5. There are some cases where family based care may not be not possible – eg children with severe disabilities. Where this is the case children should be cared for in residential homes that have no more than 6-8 children, with as family-like a setting as possible. This type of care should only be temporary until in community family care is viable.

One of the difficulties with information like this is that it cuts across our emotional impulses. Once a charity has shown me pictures of smiling children “rescued” off the streets by placement in their orphanage, or once I have visited the orphanage and met the kids, all rational discussion seems to go out the window. But the facts are clear. No matter how loving it feels to support that orphanage, by electing to support a system that breaks up families and harms healthy child development, rather than family-care alternatives, could it be we are sacrificing children for our own emotional gratification?

Post Script – added Sept 22
Just as there are children who have been damaged by institutional care, so there are children who point to the profound and positive impact such care had on their lives. My blog piece should be read with this in mind. The aim is not to argue that every child is harmed by institutional care nor to demonise those who have devoted their lives to loving and caring for children. Rather my point is that institutional care is a system that is demonstrably problematic and that we should question why we get so invested in it when demonstrably better options for children are possible.

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