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For 800 years, the problem of orphanages has been underestimated and misunderstood

Lumos voices

For 800 years, the problem of orphanages has been underestimated and misunderstood

Could a potential investment from the MacArthur Foundation finally help bring an end to this particular injustice against children?

by Georgette Mulheir

Over the past two decades, I have witnessed the devastation caused by orphanages and institutions:

  • Endless rows of cots: tiny babies staring silently into space; toddlers rocking back and forth, self-stimulating as a form of comfort, then as the distress becomes too great, self-harming, banging their heads against the bars, biting their hands, hitting themselves in the face.
  • Haunted eyes of malnourished children, whose families were tricked into giving them to the orphanage, ostensibly to receive better care and an education but in reality just so the institution could raise donations from abroad with little spent on the children
  • Older teenagers, beaten, forced to stand barefoot in the snow for hours, burned with cigarettes, all in the name of behavior control
  • Eight-year-old girls with sexually transmitted diseases
  • Children who have disappeared without trace

Most of these children had parents who loved and wanted them, but were poor and were given no option but to put their child in an orphanage.

Of course, some orphanages are provided by well-meaning people who try their best, but their efforts cannot replace the love of a family. Even here, children go to sleep alone and afraid, struggling to understand why their families sent them away. The effects last a lifetime.[1]

Globally, an estimated eight million children live in orphanages. More than 80% have at least one living parent. If the estimates are accurate, approximately 500,000 children enter institutions every year. Eighty years of scientific research prove that raising children in institutions seriously harms their health, development and life chances.[2] Even poor quality orphanage care is more expensive than caring for children in families.[3]

Many developed countries abandoned orphanages decades ago, because of the evidence of harm, the existence of better alternatives and because family care is cheaper, with better outcomes for children.

This begs the question: Why do institutions still proliferate? Why do governments choose this form of ‘care’ despite the harm? Why do donors pour billions of dollars annually into building, renovating and running institutions when their funds could help 10 times as many children live in families, with better outcomes?[4]

The reasons are complex.

Firstly, systems do not change themselves. Large bureaucracies are like complex machines: they continue turning the same wheels in the same way because of inertia. Making a large machine do something different takes determination, strategy, investment and time. And those running the machine must admit that what they have been doing for decades – many with great belief and commitment – was and is wrong.

Secondly, numerous myths abound regarding orphanage care, despite evidence to the contrary: ‘Orphanages are full of orphans and are therefore necessary, since there are not enough families’; ‘orphanages provide good care for children’; ‘children with disabilities must live in orphanages to access health services or education; ad infinitum.

Thirdly, there are vested interests in the status quo: from orphanage personnel, worried about losing their jobs, to local businesses with contracts to supply orphanages; from the opportunistic businesspeople who set up institutions because they know foreigners like to donate to orphanages, to the organized criminals who know that children once in an orphanage away from family and community are easier to exploit and traffic.

Finally, the system is ingrained in culture. The first known orphanage was founded in 1212, and 800 years of complex history cannot be reversed overnight. At times, orphanages served as an adjunct to genocide – a way of ‘breeding out’ the culture of indigenous peoples.[5] At others, they provided warehouses to hide and dispose of children with disabilities who did not fit the ideal of extremist ideologies.[6] At others, they fulfilled the purpose of empire, exporting white children to populate the colonies and counter the increase in population of darker-skinned people.[7] Today they provide organized criminals with revenue from unsuspecting gap year students who set out to help the poor, but end up facilitating trafficking.[8]

Ten years ago, J.K. Rowling founded Lumos to end the institutionalization of children. Working with many partners we have ensured that what once seemed a fantasy is now a realistic prospect. Our strategy will ensure that, by 2050, no more children will ever have to live in orphanages, and all countries will have systems to ensure all children can be raised in families, with the opportunity to develop to their full potential. To some, this goal seems impossible. But to others, it begs the question: “Why must it take so long? Surely many children will suffer before we end this terrible practice?” I have often consoled myself that it took William Wilberforce and colleagues 50 years to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But last year, I began to ask, “What would it take to reach our goal better and faster?”

And then the MacArthur Foundation issued their 100&Change challenge . The MacArthur Foundation started this competition to find and fund one proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem. Together with our partners, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Maestral International, we dared to dream what it might mean to children if MacArthur invested $100 million in our cause.

We are honored that, out of nearly 2,000 proposals, ours was selected by MacArthur as one of the top eight. There is a realistic chance our proposal might win. Investing $100 million in ending the institutionalization of children would change everything. We could accelerate our work to demonstrate change across the world and to help donors change how they spend their money. One hundred million dollars could drive $1 billion away from institutions, towards families and communities. Most importantly, it would bring forward an end to institutionalization by 10 years, meaning 5 million fewer children would ever enter institutions, would ever know the terror of being torn from their families. For them, orphanages would be nothing more than a story.

J.K. Rowling wrote about the work of Lumos: “For children in institutions, life too often resembles the darkest of Grimm’s fairy tales…. It is my dream that, within my lifetime, the very concept of taking a child away from its family and locking it away will seem to belong to a cruel, fictional world.” If MacArthur chooses our partnership, we will come a step closer to making that dream a reality.

But ours is only one of many causes. And if another is chosen, we still feel we have won. Simply to have been selected as a semi-finalist means that, finally, the world is beginning to understand orphanages are both harmful and unnecessary, that an injustice has been delivered on millions of children over the past 800 years, and that it will, eventually, end.

[1] Please see: Pashkina quoted in Holm-Hansen, J., Kristofersen, L. B and Myrvold, T. M. (eds). (2003). Orphans in Russia, NIBR –rap-port Vol 1, p 83; & Kane, J., (2005). Child Trafficking – The People Involved: A synthesis of findings from Albania, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. International Labour Office. ; International Organisation for Migration (2007) Protecting Vulnerable Children in Moldova; & Hodnocení systému péče o ohrožené děti. Ministerstvo Vnitra České republiky, 2007.

[2] Berens, A.E. & Nelson, C.A. (2015). The science of early adversity: is there a role for large institutions in the care of vulnerable children? The Lancet.

[3] Mulheir, G. (2015) Ending Institutionalisation: An analysis of the financing of the deinstitutionalisation process in Bulgaria. London, UK: Lumos.

[4] Swales, Diane. Applying the Standards: Improving quality Childcare Provision in East and Central Africa (UK: Save the Children, 2006, pg 110) & Mulheir, G et al. (2016). Orphanage Entrepreneurs: The Trafficking of Haiti’s Invisible Children. Lumos Foundation. London, England. [accessed on 21 February 2017].

[5] The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (n.d.) Findings. [webpage]. [accessed 21 February 2017]; & The Law Commission of Canada (2000) Restoring Dignity Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions. [webpage]. [accessed 21 February 2017]. Please also see: Stolen Children (Indian / Native American) Residential School survivors speak out [video file]. (19 Feb 2017).[accessed 21 Feb 2017]; and Coyhis, D. [Don Coyhis]. (28 Feb 2011). The Wellbriety Journey to Forgiveness [video file]. [accessed 21 Feb 2017].

[6] Gallego, R. (2006). White on Black (translated from Russian by M. Schwartz). New York: Harcourt Books. Please also see: Artur Hojan & Cameron Munro (2015). “Overview of Nazi ‘euthanasia’ program”. The central office at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. The Tiergartenstrasse 4 Association. Retrieved 28 August 2015 – via Nazi Ideology and Ethics By Wolfgang Bialas & Lothar Fritze, pp. 263, 281.

[7] Humphreys, M. (2011). Empty Cradles. London: Transworld Publishers.