The Oak Life Journal
May | Jun 2023
Should We Cancel Orphanages?
"The Complexity of Alternative Care Solutions"
Analysis by Cameron Talbot
14 minute read
There is a popular statement currently being made within the conversation of orphan care—“An orphanage is not a replacement for a family.” This, of course, is very true. Even a brief study into the psychological and physiological impact that deep connection with paternal figures has on a child’s developing mind leaves no argument.
It is because of this fact that the orphan care community, orphanage directors and nonprofits are working together to create better homes, familial settings and trauma-informed practices that protect the development of abandoned children. Healthy orphanages know that the current and unfortunate necessity of their own existence requires them to work double-time and in conjunction with evolving research.
However, that non-controversial statement, “an orphanage is not a replacement for a family” is now being used to support a variety of questionable humanitarian methods and “us vs. them” mentalities against orphanages. To many, the solution to the world’s orphan crisis begins with defunding and cancelling children’s homes.
One of the main voices to this end is J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. In October of 2019, J.K. Rowling gave a speech at the One Young World global forum, representing her nonprofit, Lumos. She tells a tragic story of a child who suffered abuse at an orphanage, before explaining her NGO’s purpose—“…What we’re trying to do is reveal children who are often very hidden away and isolated in these so-called orphanages around the world, and work together to release them.”
She proceeds to her practical recommendation,
“If you have money to give…put it into local businesses because that helps communities…Don’t go and visit orphanages. If you want to support charities or projects…look at poverty and building community services and so on.”
Indeed, J.K. Rowling’s nonprofit, Lumos, is proudly redirecting and “diverting” donors and sponsors of orphanages into funding “community services” instead. They admit that they attempt to, “persuade funders to shift support from orphanages to community-based care. This includes working with people, organisations and governments that are currently funding orphanages.” Why would Lumos want to defund functioning care? “Because children belong in families, not orphanages.”
Unfortunately, Lumos is not the only organization encouraging donors to indiscriminately cease support. Laurie Ahern of Disability Rights International wrote for the Washington Post, “…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.” Shannon Senefeld of Catholic Relief Services wrote for the HuffPost, “…if you really want to help children, don’t give money to orphanages. In fact, Catholic Relief Services wants to shut these orphanages down.”
Radical calls to globally cancel children’s homes sound intriguing. The general proposal is that diverted funds will be invested into alternative strategies. To their credit, these organizations are working, as many others are, towards building better community services to reunite families, pushing legislation that protects children’s rights, and developing foster care programs.
However, unlike their fellow NGO’s working on this issue, and unlike the countless orphanage caregivers and directors actively developing better structures on the frontlines, Lumos and others have missed a crucial fact—If calls-to-action against healthy orphanages’ financial resources are taken seriously, homes will soon be forced to close.
These organizations, then, have three responsibilities. First, their proposed alternatives must fulfill every aspect of the resulting lack in child care. Second, they must have these new care systems in every community around the globe where there is an orphanage. Third, they must do so before donors take their advice, orphanages close, and children are displaced.
Reality, though, is the following:
1. Change Will Take Time
Building community-based care that is sustainable and holistic is a complex evolution of society that cannot take place overnight.
2. Change Must Be Holistic
Alternative care must address every scenario that currently results in the institutionalization of a child, without exception, and in a manner that maintains the protection of the child.
3. Change Should Include Orphanages
Restructured children’s homes have certain capacities that alternative solutions do not. While they should be employed sparingly and strategically, it would be counter productive to close them all.
With this in mind, should we defund most orphanages? The short answer is a resounding, ‘no’. The long answer, in many cases, is ‘yes’. Healthy children’s homes would actually agree. But it will be an organic and positive journey that leaves no child behind in the process.
1. Change Will Take Time
J.K. Rowling is standing on a global stage, advising the world to defund orphanages today. But 90% of Americans still believe that donating funds to a children’s home is a valuable idea. This is good, because while no one wants children living in residential care, the alternative will take considerable time to build.
A 2003 report by The UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre documents the processes that five countries in Western Europe and South America underwent to achieve their current state of functioning alternative care. In varying levels and methods, each has prioritized the deinstitutionalization of abandoned children.
The analysis demonstrates several characteristics seen across every nation’s process toward this goal. First, effective change is not accomplished by singular means. This is especially true when your desired outcome is dependent upon “community”, which implicates a social framework that must first anticipate and prepare for the new model. Sustainability means laying the groundwork across every layer of functioning society.
The UNICEF analysis summarizes,
“…deinstitutionalization escapes the confines of simply being a goal in the management of special child protection policies and becomes the natural consequence of a local dynamic developed in tune with the needs of children and families.”
Organic development that permeates local culture can begin by writing legislation. But community impact necessitates involvement from local government, grass-roots advocacy groups, volunteers, family responsibility, schools, the judicial system, and so on. As such, it will require a collective shift in thinking, planning and collaboration.
Because of this, the second characteristic seen across international analysis is that cultural change takes time. The models presented through Italy and Spain, while imperfect, are encouraging. Their community services with a focus on family union and foster care are the primary recourse when addressing child abandonment. But this developed organically and in stages. Their institutions were either restructured, or decreased incrementally and strategically.
Spain began implementing authoritarian welfare policies in the 1940’s. This evolved into more modern forms of financial aid, education and a focus on protecting children in vulnerable situations by the late 1970’s. The first legislature to initiate the growth of the foster care system was in 1987. Children’s homes still exist in Spain today, but are structured to be family-based, with around six children per family.
Similarly, Italy’s Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into Poverty first noted the need to reconsider their overwhelming reliance on orphanages in 1951, and summarily began working on alternative legislation. They began placing a heavier focus on their foster care programs, and worked to decrease unnecessary child institutionalization due to poverty and lack of communal resources. Almost 70 years later, their system is still a work in progress, but they’ve come a long way to protect the rights of their children.
Collective change is important and needed, but it is not immediate. And again, while few people would argue that alternative care is preferred over institutions, you must have evident, holistic function before homes are closed and children are displaced.
2. Change Must Be Holistic
If you want to begin closing orphanages, all the interconnected pieces must first be firmly in place. Two categories of interconnected aid discussed here will be social aid programs and foster care placement.
Social aid and community programs are not enough
In the United States, federal spending took a significant turn towards child welfare and families with the 1935 Social Security Act. This aid came at a time when policies were already shifting to consider foster care as the primary answer to child displacement. By the year 1960, a large majority of children in special care had been placed in a foster family. In addition, federal spending on community development and child welfare increased to total $76.04 billion (in 2018 dollars).
The United States is a prime example of what Lumos and others wish to accomplish with the funds that would have gone to orphanages. Typical child welfare programs currently include investments into education, food stamps, social services, childcare, family income, etc.
The global move towards building community resources is, without a doubt, a positive change. This is especially true when you consider the high percentage of abandoned children that are institutionalized due to poverty. Parents who have little or no access to critical education and health resources will place their children in an orphanage to afford them better opportunities.
However, as previously stated, a mass shutdown of children’s homes would require substitute solutions for every child’s case, without exception. While developing social programs and reuniting families would solve a great deal of the orphan crisis, this alone is overwhelmingly insufficient.
The U.S. federal budget for child welfare programs in 2018 was $485 billion, a 637% increase from 1960. Unfortunately, despite all of the nation’s attempts to decrease child abandonment through targeting poverty, 437,000 children were part of the foster care system that same year. This number, as a percentage of the under-age population, is an increase since 1960, from 0.38% to 0.59%.
Programs and services are useful. No matter how much funding they receive, though, they are only one piece that works as a solution when placed in tandem with some form of alternative housing. Fortunately, the United States has been working to build its foster care system since 1909, otherwise there would be no recourse for these children today. A holistic approach that addresses every case of displacement, without exception, must simultaneously include a well-founded, functioning foster care program.
Developing the foster care system is complex.
Rex Head, founder of Orphanage Support Services Organization has said, “Good foster care is better than a good orphanage, but bad foster care isn’t.” This isn’t a statement to discourage investing into international foster care programs. On the contrary, the global community has a responsibility to pursue foster care systems in light of research showing its greater effectiveness.
However, Head’s statement is an important reminder that developing family-based and kinship care structures is not an easy fix to the orphan crisis. It must be implemented with foundational and protective legislation, detailed policies, highly educated social workers, trauma-informed child care training for potential foster parents, and structured monitoring. Without these elements firmly in place, it has proven to be an inappropriate and dangerous alternative.
As such, the multi-leveled and cultural nature of this family-based care means that setting all of the necessary parts into motion will take time. Moving forward means first addressing the underlying problems that currently prohibit the foster care system from being implemented on a country-to-country basis. Dr. John DeGarmo of The Foster Care Institute reflected on a 2017 international conference that addressed child welfare in developing countries, “Lack of available health care, adoption organizations, and governmental aid for families and children are the reality. As a result, foster care agencies are not in place…in these parts of the world [it] is much more informal and often unregulated by a State agency.”
This is true. Currently, Western Europe, Scandinavia, North America and Australia are the areas with reliable systems in place. Most other countries use foster care minimally, if at all.
That being said, there are many incredible organizations that are working tirelessly to help build foster care systems around the world. Until these developing nations have solid alternative care in place, though, it is supremely necessary that their children’s homes stay operational and well-funded to maintain quality of care.
Community aid is insufficient without a solid foster care program. And the foster care system is likewise insufficient without solid community aid and programs in place. Once these complex, interworking pieces are evident, only then is it safe to phase out most children’s homes.
3. Change Should Include Orphanages
Even with modern systems in place, defunding orphanages is still not always the logical conclusion or best option. Orphan care workers and directors are often well-trained caregivers who are prepared to care for large numbers of children.
For this reason, organizations like Back2Back Ministries are dedicated to helping these institutions restructure themselves into connected family units. Around the world, the standard, acceptable capacity that transitioned homes typically use is 6 to 10 children per household. Even Western nations with prevalent policies of alternative care have implemented reformed orphanages.
This model works for several reasons. First, each of these families is connected and supported by the broader “orphanage” or “village” of which they are all a part. Secondly, they have the ability to house more children than the average foster home, because the resident parents have dedicated their entire lives to the work of raising abandoned children. Lastly, a centralized village with the typical directors, psychologists and other staff that orphanages often have, means easier oversight and monitoring, ensuring each child is kept safe.
When children’s homes are run well and are fully staffed, they are also ideal, temporary housing in times of crisis. It is an unfortunate fact that foster care systems in various countries, including the United States and Italy, are experiencing a massive overload. Roxy Todd of the Morehead State Public Radio reported on this very issue in West Virginia, stating,
“As many American parents struggle with opioid addiction, the number of children put into foster care in the U.S. is steadily increasing. ‘…We have had to take children and keep them in a hotel or a motel somewhere close [to home],’ said Bill Crouch, cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. This means children sometimes stay in hotels, with social workers, or even inside state offices, on cots or blow-up mattresses.”
This is clearly not better than temporary housing in a children’s home with trauma-informed, professional caregivers.
You cannot make the global statement, “…if you really want to help children, don’t give money to orphanages”, without being able to back it up first on a global scale. This is never more true than when we’re discussing the protection of children’s rights. Unfortunately, too many well-intentioned advocacy groups are making this very mistake.
Removing critical care for today’s vulnerable children in the hopes of building something better in the future is dangerous and illogical. Because, it’s true, raising funds for positive progress can be difficult. However, this isn’t an excuse to siphon money from children’s homes. The quality of care afforded to children is dependent upon those funds.
Orphanages, for all their imperfections, are bearing the heavy weight of abandoned, abused and neglected children. Orphanages welcome change, because the status quo should be improved. In the meantime, greater oversight and accountability are also necessary to ensure that residential care homes are not abusive or corrupt. We must not, however, underestimate neither the value of the current system when it’s working properly, nor the complex work that needs to happen within international communities to change culture, nor the time it will take to enact legislation and begin the foster care system.
The fact of the matter is, global change occurs organically, and effective advocates know their job is to keep movement going and in the right direction. The “us vs. them” and “one or the other” attitudes being portrayed are not consistent with how orphan care has grown in modern nations throughout history. Attempting to force an otherwise organic change, especially when society is ill-prepared for all of the many consequences, will leave millions of children from shelters to suddenly have to fend for themselves.
Instead, we recognize and hope that the need for orphanages would decline over time as the progression of child welfare takes important steps, one after the other, towards the natural ability to defund and restructure good homes.
It should go without saying—do not remove support from a children’s home unless there is clear evidence that the surrounding community is aptly prepared to sustain all of its children without this resource. Donor support is directly impacting the critical needs of today, and healthy homes could not be more grateful. In addition, it is crucial that donors “do their homework” to ensure that their gifts are not being invested into an orphanage that abuses its children or siphons money into its own pockets.
Consider ways of restructuring to better embody family-oriented care. This means, in part, maintaining no more than 6 to 10 children in family units with stable, permanent “house parents”. In this way, you can transition into a model that will encourage more positive, cognitive development and give your children the opportunity to reach their full potential.