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J.K. Rowling in conversation with Whoopi Goldberg

Children belong in families,
not orphanages
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J.K. Rowling in conversation with Whoopi Goldberg

Lumos Foundation USA was delighted to welcome more than 350 guests to a special fundraising event held in New York City on 22 and 23 September 2018. The highlight of Saturday’s gala dinner was a conversation between Lumos Founder and President J.K. Rowling and Emmy, Oscar and Tony-award winning star Whoopi Goldberg. During the conversation, J.K. Rowling described the trauma faced by the millions of children around the world who are separated from their families and the importance of raising awareness of the 8 million children trapped in orphanages.

“There is a vast humanitarian crisis that affects children overwhelmingly, which most of us are totally unaware of,” J.K.Rowling said. They went on to discuss how Lumos works to reunite families and help some of the most disadvantaged children around the world, highlighting the organisation’s progress in ending the harmful institutionalisation of children. They were later joined on stage by Lumos CEO Georgette Mulheir, who praised the generosity of Americans but called on them not to donate to or volunteer at orphanages, and to redirect funds instead to support networks in the local community to help families stay together. Rounding out the night was a preview of an upcoming HBO documentary on the issue, due to premiere in late 2019, and a special musical performance by Jamie Parker, star of the Tony-Award winning play on Broadway, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, accompanied on piano by the most prolific and honoured female theatrical composer in history, Jeanine Tesori.

Watch the conversation


The gala weekend continued on the Sunday when guests were treated to a benefit performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway, with a surprise introduction by J.K. Rowling. Delighted fans in the audience heard our Founder and President talk about the importance of family, how this is a central theme of the play, and the inspiration behind her founding Lumos – the story of a young boy, trapped in an institution in the Czech Republic, whose image she first saw in a newspaper in 2004.

Lumos is grateful to all our supporters who joined us throughout the weekend, and particularly to Sonia Friedman Productions and the cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway, whose generosity to our cause made this weekend possible. The money raised over the weekend will give much-needed support to our global projects and help ensure we reach our goal of ending the institutionalisation of children worldwide by 2050.

Whoopi Goldberg (WG): What was the defining moment where you said 'I need to wrap my arms around this, and try to make a big change?' What happened?

J.K. Rowling (JKR): I think it is relevant that I was pregnant with my youngest child at the time. So I was probably a little more sensitive than usual about things to do with small children - and I was reading a newspaper in the UK. So this cause for me is as old as my youngest child, so I've been 13 years working in this area. And so I was reading a newspaper, and I saw an incredibly disturbing photograph of a very small child, maybe five years old, screaming through chicken wire. And he was clearly in a cage. And my immediate impulse - and I have just been speaking to Max Joseph about this at my table, we were talking about and the things that make you feel guilty and afraid, and the things that you flinch away from, and I don't think that's an ignoble impulse because life is hard, and we don't necessarily want, in our down time, to have to look at certain things - so my impulse in that moment was 'I can't. I can't look at this now.' I picked up the page, I went to turn it over, and I felt terrible.

I think part of what went through my mind at the moment was, I used to work for Amnesty International when I was young, and I had been in meetings where they discussed which photographs you could show the public. Because Amnesty was in possession of certain photographs that were too shocking, too appalling to show people, because they would do exactly what I had just felt compelled to do: "I just don't want to look at this." So I thought: you have to read the story, and if it's as bad as it looks, you have to do something about it. So I put the page back down and I read the story, and I learned that this child was living in an institution, in a country I won't name actually, but it's in Eastern Europe - and he was kept in this cage for 23 hours out of 24, and he had learning difficulties, but of a type that in the US or in the UK would have meant that he would 100% have been in a family; would have been given support; might even have been in mainstream schooling.

It was a terrible story. He was having human contact only when they changed his nappy and he was five years old. So I began writing letters, and that was the beginning of it, and I got put in touch with people who were working in the area, and that led to the creation of Lumos. And by the time I created Lumos I realised that there is a vast global humanitarian crisis that affects children overwhelmingly that most of us are totally ignorant about - and that's the eight million children that we know are institutionalised globally.

WG: Well, we have a short film about Lumos that you narrated, so - take a look.

Video narration: "A child's life is so much more than the sum of its parts, and the love a family brings holds everything together. From the very beginning, a child thrives on individual care and attention. A baby quickly forges a bond with loving parents, and because of this bond, the brain develops with remarkable speed and complexity. Within a safe, secure, and stimulating environment, a child gets the most out of life. In play, education, and friendship, their personalities develop freely within safe bounds. But this picture of childhood can be a fragile one. Conflict and disaster can destroy the foundations of family life. When countries suffer the effects of extreme poverty, the bond which holds families together can easily be broken apart. In these circumstances, families can feel they have no choice but to place their child into a so-called orphanage, especially if the child is disabled and needs care the family cannot afford. Community support alternatives may not even exist. That orphanages do exist locally may convince desperate parents that there is no alternative. But once the child enters an orphanage, a very different picture of childhood can emerge.

A child must now compete for the unique attention they crave. A lack of individual care harms babies, and affects their infant brains at a critical stage. Any schooling they receive is no compensation for the parental love they are denied, and children can become cut off from the world. Ill-prepared for life outside, they have very poor life chances, and they are much more likely to fall victim to abuse and crime once they leave an orphanage. And we know there are at least 8 million of these children worldwide. But there is hope, and it lies at the very heart of the problem. 80% of children in orphanages are not in fact orphans, but have parents or extended families who could care for them, given some support. And by better channelling existing donations, we can support these vulnerable children at home. By directing funds away from so-called orphanages, we can transform systems of care. We can establish community-based services and prevent these places from ever taking root. Community-based services are a better investment for donors: they are more cost efficient than residential care, and reward children and communities in the long run. Placing children into orphanages is a choice and not a necessity. It is preventable and reversible. And by giving communities options in how they support families, we can change the lives of millions of children, and give them strong beginnings and the futures they deserve.

WG: So millions of families all over the world have lost children to institutions - explain for us so we know what that exactly means?

JKR: So you've just heard the figure - it is probably a conservative estimate to say 8 million children globally, because record-keeping - as we have recently and tragically seen in the US - is key to making sure that children are not simply lost. And because record-keeping is often poor, particularly in the developing world, we have reason to believe that 8 million may be a conservative estimate. And as the film's just shown, 80% of these children have a living parent - at least one living parent. So why are they in the institution? Overwhelmingly: poverty. Natural disasters. Disabled children are wildly over-represented in institutions, because many countries don't have inclusive education, or the parents can't access medical support. But the other reason that children are in institutions, and there's hard research backing this up and it's something that no-one enjoys looking at - is trafficking. We know that orphanages are money magnets, and we know that this is why some orphanages, not all orphanages, are actually set up. And there's often very entrenched resistance - even though there's a vast body of research, there's actually 80 years worth of hard research showing that institutions do serious harm to children - but there's often very entrenched resistance to dismantling an orphanage. Firstly, it's often a major employer in the area and that means that politicians are often quite resistant to closing the orphanage down because they know how unpopular that will be, because people are invested in that institution, staff are feeding their own families by working there.

WG: But here in the states orphanages don't exist anymore, and yet we still are facing an insane number of children who have been separated from their parents.

JKR: Well the US and the UK are identical in this. Both countries stopped using the orphanage model for their own citizens. They knew it was harmful. However, this is a man-made problem - donor countries are effectively propping up a huge proliferation of institutions across the developing world. So in Asia, South America and Africa, we are seeing a lot of institutions. We in the West, in the developed world, we prioritise systems that keep families together. So you have good social services, you have great medical care... we do things like tackle substance abuse, which can support families to stay together, and we have inclusive education. These are the kind of things that are lacking in the developed world, and that's why warehousing children has become an easy and unfortunately sometimes very lucrative model.

WG: So giving money to charities - you have to do a little more homework, is what you're sort of asking people to do?

JKR: You definitely need to do more homework. So to give you a very concrete idea of what institutionalisation means, the body of research which has been done across many countries - and is all available on the Lumos website, you don't have to take my word for it - we know that institutionalisation means developmental delays. It can actually cause disability. We know that it means physical stunting and psychological trauma. Worst case scenario, you're looking at abuse, early death, or trafficking in and out of institutions.

WG: So how do we bring these families back together? Despite the fact that you know, maybe they have a child that they can't afford to take care of medically, or [that is] developmentally challenged and unable to communicate - what do you do?

JKR: So all of that's very bleak. The good news is - and it is genuinely good news - this is entirely solvable. It's not something that can be done overnight, but part of what will make it solvable is changing the mindset of donors. Americans are phenomenally generous. We know that, after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Americans sent 100 million dollars to orphanages. People like sending money to orphanages - these are vulnerable looking children, they are vulnerable children, it's done with the best possible intentions. But that money redirected into the kind of services I'm talking about - proper medical services, community-based services, education, schools - that would include everyone. You can help ten times as many children with the same money. You're not even giving more money, you're redirecting it, you're giving in a more informed way. I mean I know, full disclosure, that going back 20 years, I made donations to organisations that were giving to orphanages. I know I did. I couldn't tell you specifically which, but I think when you know better, you do better. I know better now, and one of the first things I do when, aside from Lumos, when I'm giving from my Charitable Trust, I would always check: am I giving to an institution? If it's a disaster relief effort, what provision is there to make sure families aren't broken up?

So what we do at Lumos is we work really closely with governments to show them how to do it better, to show them it can be far more cost effective to keep a child in their family. It's far better for the child. And we set up projects and so on... Lumos has also provided life-saving care, because sometimes you go into these institutions and what you find there is truly shocking. This is just what happens, this is what happens when you institutionalise kids. We're going to hear terrible stories of abuse because it happens every time. But I think the most heartbreaking thing to see is the children who were very young... and then something just breaks psychically when they're taken from their families. You saw that even though they've been physically cared for, when they return to their families something's gone wrong.

WG: Well because, when they're really young it's just huge... it's not even like a break, it's like a chop, you know? It's brutal when you take a child from its parent, it's a really awful thing to do. And unfortunately, we're having trouble finding out how to reunite everybody, because some of the parents are afraid... so I'm really glad you're doing the work you're doing because we didn't used to be this country. This is not how we used to do things. And I have to say that, you know, having this conversation with you allows us and the audience to go back to people we know and say 'this doesn't work for kids, this is really dangerous for children.'

JKR: That's exactly right: we need to change the mindset. You say this isn't the country we want to be, and I absolutely hear you. But I would go back to the fact that America has been extraordinarily generous to the rest of the world. And you know, I never lose sight of that. And in fact, you will lead the way on this issue, because where the money goes, developing countries will change. So if American philanthropists and donors say 'no, we give differently now, you're going to have to show us a different model. What are you doing to support communities? How are you keeping families together?' - they will pay attention. And the other big part of the puzzle is: we need to stop kids volunteering in orphanages. Because the orphanage experience that some of these institutions offer is very lucrative for them, and we have documented evidence of parents being coerced, or even children being kidnapped. And these [orphanages] being set up as businesses. It lures foreign money in terms of donors, but also brings in young people who want to volunteer, and they are bringing foreign currency into the country too... and again, it is a catastrophe for the children who develop attachment disorders. They're constantly seeing strangers. We absolutely don't want to stop young people volunteering, but volunteer differently.Teach, go build a community centre, there's tons of things you can do that support children in their families.

WG: So I'm looking at you, and I realise - you're very confident that we can do this.

JKR: I am totally confident we can do this. It's going to take a lot of work, it will take money. I will say - which I think is important for you to know if I'm ever asking for donations, or when I'm asking for you to lend your voice, or your influence - I cover all administrative and operational costs for Lumos. So anything that you or your friends give to Lumos will go directly to children. It will go directly to removin them from institutions, safely, always safely - we don't just close the institution and then say 'now, what do we do with the kids?', it's always meticulously and properly done. Led by a social worker, George, and her team who have been doing this for decades. Or it [your donation] will put in place preventative measures that mean families stay together and the children never enter the institution in the first place. Or sometimes it will provide life-saving equipment, because occasionally we are looking at children in dire straits.

WG: Right. And the program that we're talking about also gives educational help to parents, and whatever their needs may be?

JKR: Exactly right, yes. You were talking about a disabled child who can't access medical care or education - we have been able to make it possible for parents to receive that child at home with support. And to the problem I mentioned earlier, where the orphanage is the major local employer, we can retrain people. A community needs the social worker and the district nurse, it may need a daycare centre, so even the building can be repurposed. So parents can work, these are poor parents, so that then becomes the daycare facility but the children can go home at night, they're with their parents again. So there are solutions, and, believe it or not, all of this tends to be more cost-effective. This broken system is draining money into it, having appalling outcomes. But giving differently, you will help many more children. It's even more cost effective for governments to do what we're suggesting.

WG: How many countries have you gone into?

JKR: This is why I've got notes! Because these figures at the end, they're changing all the time because we genuinely are doing pretty well now. So this is good. We are proud to say that in Eastern Europe, we really feel we've now reached a tipping point. Eastern Europe was a particularly interesting place because Communist ideology really did say the State should be looking after children, so that was a very particular set of problems we were dealing with there. But now that we've definitely reached a tipping point, they know this is not the right thing to be doing for their young people, and they are closing institutions. And in fact, Lumos has been invited in to help deinstitutionalisation by a few governments, so that's been great. Lumos has managed to take 1 billion pounds away from institutions to community services, and that's partly through the EU that we've managed to do that. In Haiti, deinstitutionalisation is now a number one goal for the Government's new child protection strategy, which is great, because Haiti was a place where orphanages, so-called, were springing up like mushrooms. And we are working in 50 other countries at the moment, offering advice and technical support and so on. To date, we think we've helped around 50,000 children.

I've told you what the scale of the problem is - that is rapidly increasing because, as I say, we have definitely reached a tipping point in Europe, and we're working in other continents. So that sounds great, but I have told you what the scale of the problem is, so I'm thrilled to think that's 50,000 children who won't go through this. But there are many more we need to reach, and changing donor behaviour is going to be absolutely key to that.

WG: Well, I think probably we should bring Georgette up.

[Georgette arrives onstage]

WG: So you're the CEO of Lumos? And the force behind Lumos, this global effort to right this insanity. George, let me ask you - what are the biggest challenges moving children from orphanages to family care?

Georgette Mulheir (GM): So the first one really is, as Jo was saying, awareness. And it's part of why we're here tonight. Many people in the room probably didn't even know that there are at least 8 million children in orphanages, and certainly didn't know they were harmful. I'm sure there are people in the room who know people who volunteered or donated to orphanages and so on, and we're not criticising you. We hope you understand that, because people don't know. You think, "Gosh, there's all these orphans, they need somewhere to be looked after, and once you put them in this place, that's a good thing." There's 80 years of evidence, as Jo said, that proves it's severely harmful. But people don't know about it, so that's the first challenge. And once we convince people and show them the evidence, then the next thing they say is "Yeah but surely they're all orphans." And then we show them - actually 80% have got parents. "Ah, well they must be bad parents, because only bad parents would give their children away." And so then we have to show that, no, in the vast majority of cases these parents are poor, and they've been given no access to services. They've asked for help - and I've seen it happen so often - a parent coming to a social services department and saying "I'm about to be evicted, I've got four children, please help me." And they say "Sure! We can put your four children in four different orphanages, because they're different ages and genders." So the parents are not to blame, and once people can see that that is true, and that most of these parents want and love their children, and that if you support them, the kids can go home.

The next thing people will say is "Yeah, but you know, in poor countries it's too expensive - I mean, how can you expect a poor country like Haiti to set up a program that provides that community-based support? It's simply not possible." And so we prove, and we demonstrate, and we work in these different countries to show that in different environments, and with different children, with different needs, it is possible. And in Haiti, as Jo said, we found a hundred million dollars a year going into orphanages - for 30,000 kids. And the conditions in these places are utterly horrific. In at least 50% of them we found physical and sexual abuse, and nearly all of them have been trafficking children and just doing this to make money. And that hundred million dollars would actually put 700,000 children through school, and most of the parents tell us that the reason they put their kid in the orphanage was because they thought they would get an education.

So once we've then proven to people that yes, poor countries, developing countries, all sorts of environments, this can be done, then people will say "Yeah but there's certain children - you know, kids with disabilities, refugee kids, HIV-positive kids - where it's just a little bit too complicated. And surely for those children you have to have institutions." And I think that it really has been so shocking, hasn't it? Here, to see what it means for a child to be separated from their family, and how much they suffer. And then also seeing some of those shocking institutional environments that even in the United States were being used for refugee kids. And then once we convince people, and show people... we've got a program in Ethiopia, just started now, and we're working in partnership with many organisations now here in the US to help the kids who have been separated, to help them get back to their families. I'm very proud to say we've been working with the Cities for Action and that we have the Immigration Commissioner for New York City here tonight who is on the front line, making amazing things happen for these kids. Once we prove that and people say "OK, yes, even refugee kids, maybe they can be at home," then the next and the biggest problem is the vested interests in the system. There is so much money in these orphanages, and so much of it that's misguided, as Jo was saying. And we have seen in so many countries around the world a specific type of trafficking, which is now increasingly becoming recognised as orphanage trafficking.

What does that mean? It means you set up an orphanage just to make money. You pay people called child-finders $50 a child, they go out and they aggressively recruit children. They trick parents - they say "Give us your child and we'll make sure they have a good education and all the things that you can never afford." They target pregnant women, poor pregnant women, and they say "We're a charity, we'll pay for your prenatal care," and then literally, when she has delivered in the hospital bed, they present her with a bill for hundreds of dollars which she can't afford. And she says "I can't afford it," so they say "You have to give us the baby in exchange."

These behaviours we are seeing across so many different countries, and these are all happening in orphanages that are fuelled largely by really, really, genuinely intended American philanthropic dollars. People who want to volunteer, people who want to give and think they're doing the right thing. But there are other vested interests as well. There certainly are circumstances where orphanages are set up just to provide access to children for paedophiles, and again we see this in lots of countries - they're smaller in number, but they are there. And when you've got countries where you've got weak governance and very stretched services, and stretched law enforcement, and corruption, it's really hard to get those perpetrators prosecuted for what they're doing. So the vested interests is a really, really big obstacle for us, and we really hope that all of you will help us to educate people. As Jo was saying, just really think very carefully about where your money is going, because you might be funding traffickers to kidnap children from their families.

So we've got a few challenges!

WG: That is exhausting! I mean how frustrated do you get?

GM: When I started in Romania, there were 200,000 kids in these places and the mortality rates were really high, and what you had to understand very quickly is that the people who were running them - they weren't bad people. They'd inherited this system, they weren't responsible for it. So we had to find ways to help them to see that they were doing the wrong thing, and to do something differently and to get over the defenses and the resistance. And today there's less than nine thousand children in institutions in Romania and a plan in place to get the rest out by 2020.

I've worked on this in 32 countries now. With Lumos, we have helped the Republic of Moldova, which is Europe's poorest country by a very long way, to reduce the number of children in institutions by more than 80%. And again, they have a plan to get the rest of the kids out by 2020, and this is in a period of 10 years. And during that time there have been nine changes of government AND one revolution, so it's even possible in these politically unstable environments. and the changes that we're making on the ground in Haiti, and the work we're doing now in Colombia and in Jordan and in Ethiopia and in Kenya and so on, and all of it is run by the most amazing people from all those countries who were the champions in their countries fighting for change for children. So I don't get frustrated, because I see the end result, and I know what's possible, and I also get this opportunity to meet with these incredible people on the ground who are just fighting so hard every day to change their countries for children. So I think that there's lots to be sad about in this world, and there's lots to be angry about - but this is a totally solvable problem and it is going to be done by 2050 at the very latest. And we can ensure that no child ever has to be separated from a family again and placed in these terrible places.

WG: So, I want to say that you all are very aware that sometimes, children have to be taken away from families because they're being abused there. But you all are aware of that, and so you work with other folks with that as well, yeah?

GM: Yes, that's absolutely right. Obviously in every country, there is a small group of children whose families are so abusive, and no matter what support is provided they simply cannot provide a safe and loving environment, and that's where foster care and where local adoptive families come in. That's where kinship care comes in. And so yeah, we help governments to develop the whole range of services to make sure that each child gets what they need.

WG: Right, so what have you learned working here in America with children from the families who have been separated at the border?

GM: So, as I said [I am] really proud to be working with the mayor's office and with Cities for Action and with Immigrant Families Together - an incredible grassroots organisation - and with lots of legal defence organisations. And I spent [some of last week] in Dilley, Texas, in what is called the South Texas Family Residential Center, which is basically a prison for families, for mothers and children. And so, as you know, once the policy was reversed, that didn't end the problem. Of course there's lots of children who still aren't reunited, and we're working on that. And we're working with a number of organisations to help children be reunited across the border. It's quite complicated but we need to make sure that every single child gets what they need. But at the same time, it's what's going to happen next, because instead of separating the families they simply detain them together. They put them in prison together. And so I was working inside this prison, and I was helping an amazing legal defence organisation called CARA. What I learned there is a number of things that I think are really important, and I hope that I'm not going to make anybody ill.

The first thing is, I think people really don't understand why these families are coming. They are not economic migrants - not that I think there's anything wrong with that, that's my family's history - but they are refugees. Every single case that we were dealing with, and we dealt in just a few days with about 70 different cases, were women and children who had suffered the most horrific sexual violence, in communities that are controlled by gangs. Where the gangs are the government, and they are in cahoots with the police, and you literally have nowhere to turn. And the stories would, I'm sure, shock everybody. They are refugees and they need to be supported. And they fight like crazy. They pick their children up, they walk 300 miles, they somehow get across the river, and then they get put in prison for that incredible bravery and that incredible courage. So I think that the first message I would say is for people to really understand who these families are. They are refugees who need your help.

The second thing that was amazing to see was that, although it was an institution - and it's really horrible, it's a prison - because the mums were protecting the children, and these kids have not been there very long, they're only there at the moment for a maximum of 20 days, they were actually not doing too badly. You know if I compared them with kids of the same age in an institutional environment, they're on their own. They really weren't doing too badly, and it was because of this extraordinary love and strength and courage and protection that was there from these mothers even in this horrendous environment. But the reason that's very important is because, as you know, the next step that some politicians are trying to push through is to make that detention indefinite. So those kids really will suffer and those families do not deserve it. They should be refugees and they should be in your community and being cared for and protected.

But to see this strength and this resilience of these wonderful women and these wonderful children, more than anything, I felt really hopeful. Because they will get asylum, and they will be your future citizens. And any country would be lucky to have people who are so, so strong and who fight for their kids.

And finally, the most important thing. I don't get upset when I see this stuff because I've been seeing it for 30 years, but what did get me emotional - and I'm gonna try to hold it together now - was the response of Americans. You have been extraordinary. The pro bono lawyers, the pro bono doctors, they're just mothers and people in the community, just finding a way to respond. Raising money, posting bond for mothers, finding ways to reunite children. The cities, the way the cities have responded, it is just extraordinary. It's such a mobilisation. As a world we are facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, but your response has been something exceptional, and it was very moving for me to be a little part of that. And we are so honoured at Lumos to be partnering with so many of those organisations to try and just fill some gaps and help some of this happen.

WG: So, really the takeaway is, it really is the grassroots that gets things done. It really happens with the people in the space that you're in. You can wait for the government to do it, you can wait for them to tell you what to do, but basically there but for the grace of God go we all, right? So if we can reach out and help, that's what we do. That's what we do. We're seeing it in New York, and in California, and all these cities all over the country, so it's a fantastic thing. You all are trying to pull it together, and we should try to work this out together so we're all doing it. And you've given us a lot to think about, and I hope that you all will keep in mind: be sure you check who you're giving money to. Just know where it's going, who the people are, who's running it - take that extra five minutes, hold off, don't go to the gym, give it the extra five minutes to check and make sure that you're not contributing to an issue that we can solve. Secondly, you know, Lumos is taking care of business, it's doing the work that a lot of us can't do or are not comfortable enough doing. They're in the frontline - give them some money! Give them some money! They're doing it.

And thirdly, I just personally thank you for what you do, thank you, because I'm glad you're doing it. So that concludes my part of this, but I just want to do this. [stands and applauds]