What is the problem with orphanages?

More than 8 million children live in institutions globally, despite the fact that over 80% of these children have parents or family. Children who grow up in orphanages experience attachment disorders, developmental delays, and have difficultly forming relationships in adulthood. The effects of institutionalisation can last a lifetime and even impact upon following generations.

Unfortunately, the institutionalisation of children is, in many cases driven by the well-meaning but uninformed support of foreign donors, orphanage voluntourism, and the supply chain of people, money and resources that drive the orphanage industry. 

What happens to children who grow up in orphanages?

Over 60 years of international research has shown us that children who grow up in institutions, even the very best institutions, are at serious risk of:

  • Developing mental illnesses
  • Developing attachment disorders, which may result in indiscriminate affection, trust issues, anger problems, difficulty expressing affection and having difficulty forming healthy relationships as adults
  • Developing growth and speech delays
  • Struggling to reintegrate into society later in life
  • Struggling to be parents themselves because they haven’t grown up with any model of a family or of what good parenting looks like, therefore affecting not only this generation, but also future generations
  • Young adults raised in institutions are 10 times more likely to fall into sex work than their peers, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record, and 500 times more likely to take their own lives

What is residential care?

Residential care refers to children being cared for by an organisation (institution), and not living with a family. It is meant to provide full-time care that meets children's basic needs including shelter, food, clothing and education. Often there will be many children, generally not related, all living under the same roof. Children are cared for by rotating caregivers, who are paid staff of the organisation. There is generally no primary caregiver in the role of a parent, providing individual love and care.

Is residential care the same as an orphanage?

Yes. Orphanages are residential care institutions (RCIs). Residential care institutions can be known as: orphanages, shelters, safe houses, children's homes, children's villages, boarding schools, rehabilitation centres, transitional homes etc.

I support an orphanage or residential care institution. What should i do?

It's great that you are interested in supporting vulnerable children. Donors have a great opportunity to engage organisations who operate residential care in discussions around transitioning to a family-based care model for vulnerable children. ReThink Orphanages has in-depth experience in assisting organisation to transition from residential care to family-based care. Contact us for support.

What is family-based care?

Family-based care is the alternative care of children in a family environment, who are unable to live with their biological family. Alternative family-based care should be the first option after all options to keep a child living with, or returned to their biological family have been exhausted. Family-based care includes:

  • Kinship care (living with relatives)
  • Short term or long term foster care (living in a home with a foster parent, who provides round-the-clock care – in the same capacity as a biological parent – and who is compensated for expenses, but is not paid a salary)
  • Local/domestic adoption

What is driving the boom in the institutionalisation of children?

The main driver in the boom in residential care institutions is money, in the form of donations. Donations are sourced through a number of avenues:

Voluntourism: Volunteering in orphanages has become a popular way for well-meaning tourists to “give back” while travelling. What they don’t realise is that they’re actually doing more harm than good. When we talk about voluntourism we are talking about short-term, unskilled volunteering. Often, voluntourists are required to make a 'donation' for their volunteer role.

Orphanage Tourism: This is when tourists visit children who are living in residential care while on holiday. Often tourists give a donation on visiting, then follow up with regular donations once they return home.

Why is it harmful for me to visit or volunteer at an orphanage or residential care institution?

  • The primary aim of orphanages or residential care institutions that offer visits or volunteer placements is not a need for an ‘extra pair of hands’ – it’s eliciting an emotional connection from visitors/volunteers, who are then moved to donate. This fuels the RCI boom.
  • Child protection risks – allowing strangers intimate access to vulnerable children
  • Creates attachment disorders – caused by the constant rotation of adults coming in and out of children’s lives.
  • Invades a child’s right to privacy – according to the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.
  • It takes away jobs from local people who need them the most

Remember - children are NOT tourist attractions.

I want to support a children's organisation - how do i know they are not a residential care institution?

It can be very difficult to work out if an organisation is providing residential care for children, as many organisations actively conceal this part of their programming in their marketing and communication materials. Some questions to ask before providing support (volunteering, or donating) include:

1. Do you have residential care?

Best answer is NO

If the answer is YES, then ask the following questions:

1. Why are the children living in residential care rather than with their family? TIP: Poverty or providing access to education is not a good answer

2. Have you conducted family tracing and family assessments to find out if the children have family or relatives who could be caring for them?

3. Do you have a plan in place for all the children in your care to be reintegrated into family-based care, i.e. back to their immediate or extended family, into foster care or local adoption?

4. Have you successfully completed reintegration? Do you provide follow up assistance to the family after the children have returned to family-based care?

5. Are you registered and licensed with the appropriate government ministries? (Remember, many unregistered residential care institutions are operating and being funded by overseas donors)

2. Do you allow visits to places where children live? (i.e. dormitories, family homes etc. Remember, all people have a right to privacy at home and should never be made to feel like they are tourist attractions)

Best answer is NO

3. Do you allow visitors to interact with children?

Best answer is NO

If the answer is YES, then ask the following questions:

1. How are these visitors vetted? How can you be 100% sure the visitors interacting with children have their best intentions at heart and are not seeking to abuse children? TIP: Ask yourself if you would feel okay about a stranger having the same access to your children.

2. Is the interaction for the benefit of the child, or the visitor? (Remember, Child Protection Policies should always be in the best interests of the child, even if the interaction with children does help with fundraising - it doesn't make it right. It is worth noting, that it may sometimes be necessary for some organisations to allow visitors to observe operations for monitoring, evaluations, and transparency purposes. However, such visits should be kept to a minimum, respect the privacy and dignity of the beneficiaries, create minimal disruption to activities, and adhere to a strictly professional agenda.

3. Do you have volunteers working for the organisation in roles that have direct contact with children?

Best answer is NO

If the answer is YES, ask the following questions:

1. Do these volunteers have relevant, professional qualification and adequate training for the role? (Remember, unskilled volunteers with inadequate training place children at risk of unprofessional and neglectful care practices. A rotation of adults coming in and out of a child's life contributes to attachment disorders and has negative impacts on a child's development. Therefore, unskilled volunteers should not be working, playing, or interacting with vulnerable children.)

2. Are volunteers adequately screened? (Remember, skilled volunteering for the purposes of capacity building and training of local staff can be a great way to help, but even skilled volunteers should have to provide a criminal background check.)

3. Where do volunteers / visitors reside? (Remember, even skilled volunteers should never stay on site where vulnerable children reside.)

4. Do you have a Child Protection Policy?

Best answer is YES

But make sure you ask the following questions:

1. Have all staff been trained on how to implement and abide by the policy?

2. Are local and international staff adequately screened before commencing their roles?

3. Is there a system in place that allows children to safely and confidentially report complaints and concerns?