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25 years after the fall of the berlin wall


25 years after the fall of the berlin wall

25 years after the fall of the berlin wall, J.K. Rowling’s charity lumos explodes myth that orphanages are full of orphans.

  • Haunting new film exposes horrors of so-called ‘orphanages’
  • New report shows over 80% of children in ‘orphanages’ worldwide are not orphans[i]
  • Disabled children in institutions still at risk of malnutrition and death

Toddlers tethered to filthy cots, lying in their own waste. Children rocking backwards and forwards, unfed, unclothed, unloved and incarcerated in buildings with no heating or sanitation. Silent babies, aware from their earliest days that no-one would come if they cried.

The jubilant scenes of the Berlin Wall being ripped down in 1989 were followed by a different set of images showing the horrific reality of life for babies and children in hundreds of grim ‘orphanages’ in Central and Eastern Europe. These images provoked international outrage, which was intensified when the disturbing truth emerged: these children were NOT orphans.

Twenty-five years have passed since we saw those images but – unlike the Berlin Wall – harmful institutions have not been consigned to history, and most of the children who live in them are still NOT orphans but separated from their families as a result of grinding poverty, disability and discrimination.

Today, in the European region, up to one million children live in institutions, denied their rights to a family life, locked away from their communities. A further seven million children are estimated to live in institutions – also known as orphanages - around the world.

A new film by Lumos, Behind the Walls, which reminds us of the desolation of life in institutions and orphanages, can be viewed here. In the film, J.K. Rowling says: “This is a massive global problem – eight million children trapped in institutions around the globe. But it’s a problem we can solve. I think all of us want to think that we’ve helped give the next generation the best possible start in life.”

A short new report called The Global Picture of Children in Institutions, shows that institutionalisation of children is not just an Eastern European issue but a serious global problem. Data from a wide array of sources demonstrates strikingly the high rates of children living in orphanages who are not orphans.

  • 95-98% of children living in so-called orphanages in the European region have living parents[ii]
  • 80% of the 30,000 children in institutions in Haiti[iii] have a living parent or close relative[iv]
  • 77% of the 12,000 children in institutions in Cambodia are not orphans[v]
  • 90% of the 21,000 children in Sri Lankan institutions are not orphans[vi]
  • Up to 94% of an estimated 500,000 children in institutions in Indonesia have a living parent[vii]
  • Up to 90% of the 4,500 institutionalised children in Ghana have a living parent[viii]

Research has consistently shown the negative impact of institutionalisation on children’s health, development and life chances[ix]. Children’s charity Lumos was founded by J.K. Rowling to help countries prevent further institutionalisation of children; to close institutions; to reunite institutionalised children with birth families or close relatives, or place them in foster or adoption families; and to run community services to support them. These reformed systems support birth families foremost, as well as kinship care (with relatives), foster care and a minority of small group homes giving specialised care.

Lumos CEO Georgette Mulheir – recently listed in the top 30 Most Influential Social Workers Alive Today - explains that because institutions run to routines, the needs of the children come second: “Children growing up in institutions demonstrate delays in all areas of development,” she said. “They struggle to form healthy attachments to their over-stretched, shift-working carers. In poor-standard institutions children may even fail to sit, stand, walk and talk by the age of four. The resulting lack of emotional and physical contact, regular stimulation and interaction leads to significant impairment of brain development among infants raised in institutions. Those who remain longer than six months recover only partially and demonstrate continued developmental and emotional difficulties throughout their childhood and adolescence.”

Malnutrition and death are a high risk for young children and children with disabilities living in institutions, who need extra time and support to eat. For this reason malnutrition occurs even when there is plenty of food.[x] In one institution for children with disabilities, Lumos found that of the children that had ever left, 78% had in fact died. Those who survived to adulthood were moved to another institution.[xi] Other consequences of institutionalised care for children include poor self-confidence, lack of empathy, aggression, tendency to self-harm and delayed language development. [xii],[xiii]

As institutionalised children grow into adults they suffer severely reduced life chances. According to one study, children in institutions are ten times more likely to be involved in prostitution, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record and 500 times more likely to commit suicide.[xiv]

Despite this, children with living families continue to be housed in institutions across the world. One estimate suggests there are 6-8 million children living in institutions worldwide[xv],but this figure could be much higher[xvi].

Progress is being made towards Lumos’ goal of bringing the institution of children to an end by 2030 in Europe and by 2050 in the rest of the world. In the last four years, the charity has helped to support 12,000 children to move from institutions to safe, caring family environments; it has saved the lives of 459 children suffering from malnutrition and neglect; it has trained over 15,000 social workers, health professionals, teachers and policy makers; and it has helped change rules, that came into force this year, which re-directs EU funds for Member States away from investing in institutions towards family-based services that support vulnerable families to stay together.

“As far as orphanages are concerned, we recognise that Lumos is challenging a decades-old belief that ‘orphanages are good for children’ and that this may be a difficult message for staff who work, often voluntarily, in orphanages, as well as the millions of concerned citizens who donate to charities supporting them,” said Georgette Mulheir. “However, our case, simply, is that there is a better way.”

For more information we have prepared two short fact sheets:

The Global Picture of Children in Institutions

How Institutions are Harmful to Children

Notes to editors

Lumos is an international non-governmental organisation, set up by the author J.K. Rowling, which works to end the institutionalisation of children around the world. It helps countries to transform education, health and social care systems so children can be moved from institutions and supported in the families and the community.

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Contact: Vicky Gillings, Head of Communications - +44 (0) 7881 816599; John Steele, Senior PR & Communications Executive - +44 (0) 7768 660953; Miriam Rich - +44 (0) 7810 395490


i Csáky, C., Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care, Save the Children, London, 2009, p vii.
ii Save the Children, Keeping Children out of Harmful Institutions( 2009), citing 36 K D Browne, C E Hamilton-Giachritis, R Johnson and M Ostergren,‘Overuse of institutional care for children in Europe’, British Medical Journal, 332, 485–487, 2006; R Carter, 2005 – see note 21;D Tobis, Moving from Residential Institutions to Community Based Social Services in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union,World Bank, 2000
iii UNICEF Annual Report 2012 for Haiti, TACRO, 2012, p3.
iv UNICEF statement, quoted in ‘Haiti - Social : 80% of children in orphanages are not orphans’ Haiti Libre, 2013.[accessed 30 October 2014]
v Exact figures: 11,945, 23% orphans, from: UNICEF, Residential Care in Cambodia. [accessed 30 October 2014]
vi UNICEF estimates from 2007: 19,000 children had living parents out of approximately 21,100 children in institutions. UNICEF, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Report on Voluntary Residential Institutions for Children in Sri Lanka: Statistical Analysis, 2007, p17. [accessed 31 October 2014]
vii Numbers are not known, but estimated between 225,750 and 516,600. Only 5.6% of a sample of 2,248 children had both parents deceased, but an additional 4.8% were unknown.
DEPSOS, Save the Children and UNICEF, ‘Someone that Matters’: The quality of care in childcare institutions in Indonesia, Save theChildren UK: Jakarta, Indonesia, 2007, p19, p83.
viii 2009 study by the Social Welfare Department of Ghana, cited in: IRIN News, ‘West Africa:Protecting children from orphan-dealers’ 27 May 2009. [accessed 30 October 2014]
ix See Lumos Harm factsheet for evidence, with source references
x Lumos research,
xii See above Mulheir 2007 (p30)
xiii The Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care 2009 Kevin Browne (gives summary of studies p14)
xiv Pashkina (2011)..Sotsial’noe obespechenie, 11:42-45. Cited in Hansen J, Kristofersen LB, Myrvold TM eds. Orphans in Russia. Oslo, Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR-rapport 2003:1).
xv Defence for Children International, 1985, "Children in Institutions", DCI, Geneva.
xvi Save the Children 2009