Laurie Ahern is president of Disability Rights International.
An estimated 8 million to 10 million infants and children live in orphanages around the world, and aid agencies, churches and governments provide hundreds of millions of dollars in the hope that they can help vulnerable children find sanctuary in these institutions. This hope is badly misplaced. Orphanages are not safe places for children.
My organization, Disability Rights International, is working to dispel the widespread myth that building and filling an orphanage is a compassionate way to use charity or government money. In work in dozens of countries over two decades, we have witnessed thousands of children who live in disabling conditions, with heartbreaking consequences. We have seen neglected babies who rock back and forth, bite their hands and gouge their eyes as the result of mind-numbing boredom and neglect. We have seen infants and children, unable to feed themselves, left to starve because there is no one to feed them. In Romania and Turkey we found teens who weighed less than 30 pounds.
The examples of cruelty and neglect are almost endless: Babies tied to their cribs. Children with disabilities who go without medical care and are left to die. Infants who don’t cry when they wake because they learn there is no point in crying because no one will come. Over and over, the world’s orphanages become dumping grounds for poor children and those with disabilities.
In many countries, owning and running an orphanage has become a profitable business, with foreign donations serving as “revenue.” Many orphanages are unlicensed, with government subjecting them to little or no oversight. Babies and children can be subject to sexual abuse , organ harvesting and illegal adoptions. In Ghana, a government study found that 90 percent of orphans had living parents and that 140 out of the 148 orphanages in the country were unregistered. According to a UNICEF child-protection worker, “Running an orphanage in Ghana has become a business enterprise, a highly lucrative and profitable venture.”
Western involvement itself can pose a danger. The uptick in companies offering “voluntourism” — vacations to orphanages where volunteers pay to have unfettered access to these children — exposes already-vulnerable and traumatized children to traffickers and pedophiles.
Even in facilities with the best of intentions, damage is done. The custodial setting itself, no matter how humanely or responsibly run, causes lasting psychological and physical damage. In many cases, for every three months a baby or toddler is institutionalized, that child loses one month of development. Even in clean, well-managed, “good” orphanages, children can never get the direct care that a parent, family or caring guardian can provide.
For many children who enter these facilities, there is little realistic hope for a fulfilling life. Institutionalized children with disabilities are rarely, if ever, adopted or put in foster care; if they manage to survive childhood, they spend the rest of their lives languishing in adult institutions. Those children without disabilities who “graduate” from orphanages, usually around the age of 16, have few skills and minimal support to face the world. They commit suicide, are trafficked for sex, become drug addicts and commit crimes at exceedingly high rates.
It is a tragedy on a massive scale, and it demands a response. Rather than throwing money at orphanages, groups can and should do the more-complicated work of helping to find ways to keep children with their families.
Up to 95 percent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent and an extended family. Poverty, disability and social exclusion push most children into orphanages, state institutions and other so-called children’s homes. In many countries, the families of children with disabilities have few resources. Parents unable to afford the therapy a child requires can feel they have no choice but to give up their child. Others, mired in poverty, hope their children will have a better life in an orphanage — a warmer home, more food or an education.
We need a paradigm shift in how we help vulnerable children. Several international and faith-based charitable organizations already are changing their approach from investing in orphanages to investing in families, which require less money to support a child than an institution does. Some of these organizations, for instance, provide mechanisms for donors to provide monthly stipends to families so they can raise a child at home.
But many misguided donors continue to fund the construction, renovation, furnishing and staffing of orphanages around the world. The evidence is vast and overwhelming: Orphanages are dangerous for children. In fact, they can be deadly. Donors need to support families – the less expensive, safer and more humane solution.