Skip to page content

Research brings hope to eight million children unnecessarily placed in the world’s orphanages


Research brings hope to eight million children unnecessarily placed in the world’s orphanages

A new research partnership between J.K. Rowling’s international children’s organisation Lumos and a world-renowned Irish university will increase global momentum to transform the lives of children living separated from their families in orphanages.

An estimated eight million children worldwide live in institutions and so-called orphanages, though at least 80% have living parents, most of who could look after them with some support. Research by the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at the National University of Ireland Galway, with Lumos, will aim to increase global understanding of why so many children are separated from families and placed in orphanages in different regions of the world, evaluate methods of deinstitutionalisation, and investigate the best ways to support families to stay together.

Eighty years of scientific research has shown that children are best raised in families and that growing up in institutional care – deprived of the close, sustained adult engagement they receive in a family - has a negative impact on children’s physical, intellectual and emotional development. The European Union, the US Government and a number of international aid donors are committed to ending institutionalisation.

While the science is consistent, further research is needed to gain a fuller understanding of the causes of institutionalisation and long-term solutions. Lumos and National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) share common goals including finding practical, cost-effective and sustainable ways to support families and children - particularly those who are very poor, disabled or from minorities - to stay together in the community; and empowering children and families to play a meaningful role in changing attitudes and practices.

Lumos – which was recently selected as the winner of the 2015 UK Charity Awards - is dedicated to ending the institutionalisation of children worldwide by 2050. The non-profit organisation has a track record in demonstrating that most children can be reunited with families given the right support. Lumos is helping Moldova, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic to replace models of care based on institutions with education, health and social services to support vulnerable families to stay together in the community. It is also working in Ukraine, Serbia and Haiti. Meanwhile, the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway is at the forefront of research, education and training in family support and youth development. It is the hub of an international network of universities, centres of excellence and agencies in the children and youth field.

The research partnership will:

Monitor the impact of moving from institutions to family based care on children and young people as they grow up in terms of health, quality to life and future chances;

Evaluate ten years of Lumos’ work in its programme countries;

Identify best practice for achieving the deinstitutionalisation of children across different regions of the world;

Explore the cost-benefit in different regions of the world of replacing institutions with community based services;

Develop models for advancing the work of Lumos in new regions around the world such as South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Thanks to a generous grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies, the partnership will start its activities by establishing links and learning opportunities between Irish examples of best practice, much of it also supported by Atlantic, and governments and practitioners in countries in the process of reforming systems of care and protection of children.

Lumos CEO Georgette Mulheir – a pioneer over 20 years of a deinstitutionalisation model adopted by many governments, and named last year as one of the world’s most influential social workers – said: “Our mission is to help eight million children in institutions by promoting large-scale reform through our influence on governments and major international aid donors. We need compelling evidence to achieve the greatest impact. We are delighted to work with NUI Galway, which will bring world-leading independent academic rigour to our programmes – as well as an understanding of what works in practice to gain the best outcomes for children.”

The UNESCO Chair Professor Pat Dolan, NUI Galway, will work with UNESCO Chair Professor Mark Brennan at Pennsylvania State University in the US on the Lumos project.

Professor Dolan said: “The prospect of completing usable real-world research that helps to end the institutionalisation of children and youth globally, will be particularly fitting not only for UNESCO, and our research centre in NUI Galway, but for Ireland as a country given its sad and horrific past track record in relation to children in large orphanages."

For further information contact:

Vicky Gillings, Head of Communications, Lumos - +44 (0) 7881 816599

John Steele, PR Manager, Lumos - +44 (0) 7768 660953

Ruth Hynes, Press Executive, NUI Galway +353 91 495695

Notes to editors:

About Lumos

In six years, Lumos has:

Supported 14,280 children to move from institutions to families or supported independent living;

Prevented 11,000 babies and infants from serious harm or admission to institutions;

Saved the lives of 935 children suffering malnutrition, severe neglect or a lack of medical treatment;

Trained 23,000 social workers, medical professionals, teachers, carers, civil servants, and policy makers;

Helped redirect €367million/US$500 million that was planned to be spent on orphanages and institutions and ensured that it was spent on community-based services instead.

Since Lumos began working in Moldova in 2007, there has been a 70% reduction in the number of children in institutions. In the Czech Republic, whilst the numbers of children being admitted into institutions has dropped by 16% nationally in the past year, in Lumos’s demonstration area they have achieved a 75% fall in admissions. Since Lumos began working in Bulgaria, the number of children in institutions has reduced by 54%.

For over 20 years Georgette Mulheir has worked around the world on large-scale programmes to transform the lives of thousands of vulnerable children and their families. She has pioneered a model of deinstitutionalisation now followed in many countries and has advised governments and the European Commission on the reform of services for children and families.

Useful links:

Facts sheets on the risks and global picture of institutionalisation

Harvard University work on the ‘science of early adversity’ here

J.K. Rowling - Isn’t it time we left orphanages to fairy tales? Opinion piece from The Guardian newspaper

Films about Lumos’ work

Follow us on Twitter or join us on Facebook.

About the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway

The UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway undertakes research, education and training in the area of Family Support and Youth Development, with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention for children and young people experiencing adversity. It is equally focused on knowledge creation around ‘what works' in the real world of practice and on utilising community based approaches to working with and for young people. With the support of UNESCO it works on a range of international collaborations on education programmes and policy initiatives.

Professor Pat Dolan is joint founder and Director of the Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway and the Chairholder of the Republic of Ireland's first UNESCO Chair in Children, Youth and Civic Engagement. For over 20 years Pat has had an active interest at front-line worker, service manager, academic and research levels in Family Support and community-based interventions in helping adolescents. He has completed longitudinal research on adolescents, their perceived mental health and social support networks. His additional research interests include Family Support; Reflective Practice and Service Development; and Youth Mentoring Models. More detail at and @UNESCO_CFRC @nuigalway

About the UNESCO Chair at Penn State University

Professor Mark Brennan - In 2013 Penn State was selected by UNESCO to establish the Welcome to the UNESCO Chair in Community, Leadership and Youth Development program at the Pennsylvania State University to address the specific needs of youth and communities. Professor Mark Brennan serves as Chair and leads the program. The UNESCO Chair at Penn State aspires to be the leading source of high-impact research, educational programs, policy and partnerships that improve the lives of youth and communities worldwide.


More info at