Five years ago, my father died. I was a grown-up. I had spent my entire career working with children who were grief-stricken and bereaved in one way or another. I understood ‘loss’. I was certainly better-placed to cope with his death than most vulnerable children would be. But the experience of losing a parent is almost indescribable. The pain does heal a little with time, becomes less raw, less ever-present; but you are forever changed, diminished – part of you dies with them.
So it is difficult to imagine the impact of losing both parents and becoming a true orphan. What could be more devastating? Children who go through it and survive are incredibly strong and resilient. Thankfully true orphanhood, where both parents have died, is less common than might be thought.i And what usually happens - the ingredients that help the child to survive, to mourn and eventually to flourish - are the extended family and community that gather around the child. Like a friend I met many years ago, who lost her sister and brother-in-law in a terrible car accident; she was grieving herself, but her main focus was on ensuring her 18-month old nephew was cared for and could become part of her family. By age four, he was able to tell us simply that his first mummy had died and that his aunty became his new mummy. His older cousins, now sisters, were as close to him as any siblings could be. I knew instantly this little boy would be ok.
I was reminded of him when working in Sudan. We were battling an extremely high mortality rate of ‘abandoned’ babies in an institution. They had been left on the streets of Khartoum, predominantly born outside marriage to young women afraid of the response from their families, their communities and from the police. We worked with local Imams on the interpretation of the law, to try to change attitudes and approaches towards ‘abandoned’ babies. According to Islam, orphans have a special status and those who protect them will be rewarded greatly by God. Abandoned babies, on the other hand, were seen as ‘illegal’, stained by the ‘sin’ of their parents.
The religious scholars we worked with redefined the status of these babies, asserting that they should be given even greater support than orphans and that the person who supports them will receive an even greater reward in heaven. The justification for this was that an orphan is vulnerable, but usually has extended family members to support them. The abandoned child has no-one and therefore needs even greater support from the State and from society as a whole.
Anyone who has spent time with orphans – and other children separated from their families and living in ‘orphanages’ – will know that there is something more devastating for a child than losing their parents. That is never having been parented at all. In spite of the best intentions, personnel in ‘orphanages’ are always too few to respond fully to the individual needs of children. They work shifts and thus the child is cared for by many different people. The regimen of the orphanage takes precedence over the child’s wishes, needs and fears. The result is a severe impact on early brain development, exacerbated disabilities, developmental delays and a propensity to behavioural difficulties that make it hard for the child, once grown up, to adapt to life outside the institution. Children simply do not thrive outside families.
Yet in many circumstances, ‘orphanages’ are still the default response to vulnerable children. Around the world, even in countries devastated by natural disaster, war or HIV/AIDS, most children in orphanages are not truly orphans. They have usually been separated from their families because of poverty or a lack of access to services. In some countries, such as Russia and Ukraine, the term ‘social orphan’ is used to define these children. Considerable efforts are made by social workers to ensure children in institutions have this status, because they then have access to a broader range of services. But the minute we label a child an ‘orphan’, we make the parents, families and communities they come from invisible. We dramatically reduce the chances they will return to their family and community. We give them little chance of growing up with an understanding of their identity, their heritage, the elements that make them unique and special. To the outside world, these children are parentless, rootless and the orphanage is the logical response, even though the evidence continuously demonstrates the harm caused by institutionalising children.
Around the world many people and organisations are involved in supporting ‘orphans’ and there is a growing recognition that orphanages are not the answer. At Lumos, we work to end the institutionalisation of children globally and we are heartened to see the work of others towards the same end. In particular, Faith to Action and the Christian Alliance for Orphans are helping many communities to rethink the way they provide support for orphans and other children separated from their families. First and foremost, they show us that working to get children home to their birth or extended families, is the best solution for most so-called ‘orphans’.
I would urge anyone involved in supporting an orphanage to learn from the examples of change. If they are supporting an orphanage, perhaps they could consider whether they might be able to support basic community services that help keep children in families, where they have the best chance to thrive.
i The UN defines an “orphan” as a child who has lost one or both parents. According to this definition, there are 153 million orphans worldwide, of which 17.8 million have lost both parents. More than 88 percent of “orphans” have a living parent. Approximately 10 percent of the 153 million orphans worldwide have lost one or both parents due to AIDS. (UNICEF, et al. (2010). Children and AIDS: Fifth stocktaking report.)