Natural disasters, disease and wars can have a devastating impact on families, often separating children from parents. Orphanages and residential child institutions are widely used in crisis-hit areas but they are often full of non-orphans.
In Haiti, for instance, five years on from the 2010 earthquake, around 80% of the estimated 30,000 children in orphanages have at least one living parent.(1) An assessment of children’s homes in Aceh, in Indonesia, found that 97.5% of the children placed in residential care in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had been placed by their families so they could receive an education.(2)
Much of the money that floods into such areas from the international community goes to build new orphanages, or support existing ones. Amidst often chaotic conditions, it is thought that the most visible, straightforward and effective way of keeping children safe is to place them in an orphanage. A report by Save the Children stated that “substantial new funding has been injected into institutional care responses in Aceh as a result of the tsunami both from the Government and from non-governmental organisations, local and international.”(3)
However, orphanages set up as a short-term measure tend in many areas to become long-term fixtures. Children who have been separated from their families stay there, with inadequate efforts to trace their parents or relatives and reunite them with families. Sometimes, children may find themselves in orphanages far from home; at others, orphanage staff may even discourage parents from contacting children. These factors can break family bonds, making the process of reuniting them more difficult.
Such areas often lack even basic health, education or social services to support families in communities. So very poor parents, struggling to care for children in traumatic conditions, believe orphanages and institutions offer their only hope for services – such as the desire for schooling in Aceh - though, in very many cases, orphanages simply cannot meet individual children’s needs.
Furthermore, orphanages tend to have an economic ‘pull factor’. Children in families in adversity and crisis end up there because there are no alternative services to help them stay together in communities. When orphanages are full of children, they attract funding, increasing further the pull on families.
(1) UNICEF statement, quoted in ‘Haiti - Social : 80% of children in orphanages are not orphans’ Haiti Libre, 2013.
(2) Save the Children, 'Indonesian "orphans" on the increase as Tsunami pushes parents into poverty and children in institutions,' F Martin and T Sudraja (2006), A Rapid Assessment of Children’s Home in Post-Tsunami Aceh, Save the Children UK and Indonesia Ministry of Social Affairs.
(3) F Martin and T Sudraja (2006).