The World Shifts Away from Large Orphanages

And how orphanages can respond

By Cameron Talbot • 7 min read


The goal of those working in orphan care has always been to provide the opportunity of life to children whose parents were unwilling or unable to do so themselves. Orphanage workers and child welfare organizations, for millions of children, are the frontliners—those standing in the gap between life and starvation, life and abuse, life and death. And so, directors, caregivers, and social workers are in a constant battle to find the best way to care for large groups of misplaced children.

Today, the way the world takes care of its enormous population of abandoned children is changing. With a better understanding of childhood traumas and their impact on the developing brain, in addition to modern psychology and therapeutic care, many of those involved in orphan care are taking a second, critical look at the traditional “orphanage” model of housing. For those of us working with and for orphanages, it is important that we understand the shift that is taking place, listen to criticisms carefully, and assess where we can be a part of this forward-motion.

Within the past several centuries, institutionalized care, or “orphanages”, have been the primary recourse to address the world orphan crisis. In developing countries, countless orphanages have been established since the beginning of the twentieth century. The structure of the orphanage is well-known—wherein hired “caregivers” are managed by directors who seek funding for the home. The ratio of caregivers to children is typically low, with only a handful of caregivers raising upwards of 60 children.

However, recent research has definitively shown that institutionalized care is not the ideal setting for a child’s developing brain and relational skills. Most significantly is the negative impact that the caregiver to child ratio has on attachment. In an assessment published by the Better Care Network, entitled “Families, Not Orphanages”, it is explained,

“A particular shortcoming of institutional care is that young children typically do not experience the continuity of care that they need to form a lasting attachment with an adult caregiver. Ongoing and meaningful contact between a child and an individual care provider is almost always impossible to maintain in a residential institution…These children have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships throughout their childhood, adolescence and adult lives.”

The understanding, then, is that children who are raised in a steady family will fare better than those in residential care. In a family structure, constant, reliable connections with caregivers are formed. Greater attention can be given to each child—attention and connection that foster healthy attachments, and eventually, relational skills and confidence for life.

And so, similarly to North America and Western Europe, the rest of the developing world is slowly transitioning its method of care towards family-based homes, and away from larger orphanages. The new model takes several structures—governmental foster care programs, and placements with extended family. Orphanages are also being restructured, and patterned after a centralized group of smaller foster homes with foster parents.

Still, the worldwide change will take decades of time, if not more. Many new organizations now exist solely to encourage this development. A country-by-country plan of action is required, involving governmental legislature, community engagement, social programs, judicial reform, and funding. In many cases, entire aspects of social culture must first be reshaped before communities will accept responsibility for their local, abandoned children.

Fortunately, teams of people around the world are dedicating their lives to making these family-based homes and foster care systems a reality—

Both Ends Believing

Significant steps are being taken for the at-risk and institutionalized children lost in the system. Both Ends Believing (BEB) is a non-profit that works to develop some of the necessary technological elements in the transition to family-based care. They have designed Children First Software, a program that keeps a detailed registrar of institutionalized children, in order to help find appropriate family placements for them.

BEB is working hard to collaborate with many countries, as an international effort to change the way abandoned children move through, and are cared for, while in institutions.

BEB is building partnerships with organizations in Guatemala, Domincan Republic, Honduras and Uganda, introducing the software into the child welfare systems there. Their recent trip to Ethiopia bolstered relationships with the government there. While the world is still a long way from a fully integrated culture of family-based care, BEB is making revolutionary steps that will have a huge impact on the lives of thousands of displaced and abandoned children.

SOS Villages

SOS Villages is another key frontrunner in the race to change. Their international organization assisted in forming the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. Regarding orphanages, the guidelines state, “The use of residential care should be limited to cases where such a setting is specifically appropriate, necessary and constructive for the individual child concerned and in his/her best interests.” They later describe exactly what constitutes a “constructive” setting, stating,

“Facilities providing residential care should be small and be organized around the rights and needs of the child, in a setting as close as possible to a family or small group situation. Their objective should generally be to provide temporary care and to contribute actively to the child’s family reintegration…”

SOS Villages exemplifies what is outlined in the written framework through their own children’s homes around the world. Structured as family units, no more than four to ten children reside in each home, accompanied by an “SOS parent.” In this way, the shift work of caregiving is eliminated. Children are given the opportunity to attach appropriately to a consistent, parental figure, even if their stay is temporary.

Many orphanages are following this lead, and finding ways to structure their homes to be family-centered. Back2Back Ministries is an organization that helps orphanages do just that. In addition, the caregivers working at Back2Back homes are trained in trauma-informed care, ensuring that each house parent is capable of interacting, connecting and communicating in a way that heals a child, instead of furthering traumatic experiences.

One of the reasons restructuring orphanages into family-centered homes is so strategic, is that it recognizes the immediate necessity of “orphanages,” while eliminating some of the aspects of institutionalization that can potentially be harmful to a child’s development.

Unfortunately, several organizations including Lumos, founded by the author J.K. Rowling, are attempting to bolster family-based care by instead working to defund orphanages. They encourage donors to indiscriminately cease support of children’s homes. This is a well-intentioned strategy, but incredibly counterproductive.

Contrarily, the UN guidelines recognize the graduality of change, stating, “where large residential care facilities (institutions) remain, alternatives should be developed in the context of an overall deinstitutionalization strategy, with precise goals and objectives, which will allow for their progressive elimination.” This is an elimination that will happen over time, and leave no child without care.

The movement forward is going to forever change the nature of orphan care. Modern understandings of child development and trauma make these progressive steps necessary. Incredible organizations are frontrunning the fundamental advancements in legislation, technology, education and social standards.

Because the change will take time, though, orphanages today are still carrying a crucial burden. And until such time that alternative care is fully implemented and available, caregivers and directors must continue to stand in the gap for abandoned children.

For those of us working in or with larger orphanages, being aware of the movement towards family-based care is wise. As we consider the constructive criticisms regarding residential care, we can consider implementing changes ourselves, focusing on a familial atmosphere, being intentional about connection, and thus bettering the lives of the children we have come to love as our own.

Cameron Talbot

Founder of Oak Life, he has been working alongside children's homes since 2015. His passion is to learn and share the tools to help heal children of abandonment. Sustainable alternative-care. TBRI® Practitioner. Proud husband and father.

Cameron Talbot

Cameron Talbot

Founder of Oak Life, he has been working alongside children's homes since 2015. His passion is to learn and share the tools to help heal children of abandonment. Sustainable alternative-care. TBRI® Practitioner. Proud husband and father.

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