“Why do you support orphanages?”

December 30, 2021

In 2019, our Executive Director, Kent White, met with Nikolai Kuleba, the Ombudsman for Children with the President of Ukraine. As an  Ombudsman, he was responsible for promoting changes to their systems in caring for children, especially orphaned and abandoned children. Kent and Nikolai were discussing Ukraine’s work in trying to get children the individualized attention they deserved and what resources A Child’s Hope could share to help.

The Ombudsman was astonished to learn that our partner orphanages in Mexico and Haiti don’t receive any government funding. He wondered how they could possibly function on private donations alone, but he also realized the importance of the training and resources we offer these orphanage directors and caregivers.

Kent asked, “Why do you need our resources for orphanages when you’re already providing foster care?”

The Ombudsman replied that while their goal is a happy family for every Ukranian child, reality dictates that there wouldn’t be enough foster families, social workers, or funding to complete the transition from orphanage to foster care for at least a decade. Even with a working foster care infrastructure in place, he noted there would likely be a need for orphanages to house children while they wait to be placed in foster homes.

How Do Children End Up in Orphanages?

When we think of an orphan, we think of a child who has lost both her parents. However, the majority of children in orphanages have living family members. Children in orphanages who still have immediate or extended family members, fall into two groups: those whose families placed them into orphanages because they couldn’t afford to care for them, and those who were removed from their families because they were being mistreated.

For many children in orphanages whose families love them and still want them, poverty has driven their parents to ask orphanage directors for help. These impoverished parents know that orphanages can at least provide physical safety, so they make private arrangements with the orphanage directors for their children’s care. In other cases, refugee children may become accidentally separated from their parents and end up in an orphanage. While the children’s basic needs for food, warmth, shelter, and medical care may be nominally met in an orphanage, some of their most important needs often go unaddressed. When this happens, institutionalized care can be damaging to children. The main failings of the worst orphanages are that they offer little one-on-one interaction, rotate through staff who do not create predictable attachments with them, and fail to prepare children to succeed as adults once they leave the orphanage. Some states in Mexico, including Baja California, have eliminated this practice of private placement of children between parents and orphanage directors, so there is now government oversight of all children entering orphanages. However, in many developing countries, government officials are unaware of the names and circumstances of the children living in official and unofficial orphanages. 

In many countries, sometimes the kids who are shown as living in orphanages are not orphans at all. Corrupt orphanage directors simply recruit kids from the neighborhood to pose for pictures so they can solicit funds from donors! This poses a significant problem for donors who want to ensure their contributions are going to places where they can truly make a difference.

Seeing children placed into orphanages due to poverty is heartbreaking, and there are many wonderful organizations whose mission is to reunify children with their families. Whether this means tracking down relatives that didn’t know where the children ended up, providing government workers with additional resources, or helping parents out of poverty so they can support their family, these organizations are doing an important work in helping children return to their families who love them.

At the same time, while we would like to see all children raised in stable and happy families, there are many kids in this world who should not be immediately reunited with their families. When children are abandoned, neglected, or otherwise not safe with their parents or relatives, being placed into the foster or orphanage system is a better option for children who would continue being abused or have run away from home and end up in harsh and dangerous circumstances on the streets. Living homeless with no way of making money, no medicine or means for personal hygiene, and no opportunities for education, these children are often victims to terrible situations, including starvation, human trafficking, and exploitation by gangs and other criminals. Even the police may mistreat them.

In countries where the government seeks to protect children from dangerous parents, police will take children from abusive homes and place them into orphanages or foster care group homes. This may be temporary care while the parents work things out with the judicial system, and is the main option for keeping the child safe. Orphanages serve communities by trying to avoid terrible outcomes for abused, abandoned, or homeless children.

If a child ends up in an orphanage that is not well run, he may survive, but he is also predisposed to a variety of negative outcomes, not unlike the mental, social and emotional difficulties he may have faced on the streets or in at-risk family situations. Even where there isn’t corruption, one of the primary concerns about orphanages is that they seldom provide the personalized, one-on-one attention kids need to thrive. 

In contrast, more positively structured orphan care can help compensate for many of the developmental delays and challenges the children face, and they’re certainly a better alternative than homelessness or exploitation. In many regions of the world, organizations are promoting that the most ideal setting for children (in and outside of orphanages) is an environment that mirrors family life as closely as possible.

Three Different Types of Orphanages

When a child is displaced from their family, she needs a place to live until a more permanent care arrangement is found. In situations and areas of the world where widespread foster care isn’t available, children are placed in orphanages–group settings where children grow up with other orphaned children.

While orphanages in more developed countries may receive some government funding, most orphanages outside of Europe and China don’t receive significant government funding. There are still some orphanages worldwide that are owned and operated by the state, but most orphanages in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe were phased out during the 20th century. That said, most U.S. states continue to operate group homes, similar to orphanages, for children whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for them.

Orphanages vary quite a bit in their quality of care. “Wealthy” orphanages are often created in partnership with churches or private organizations that provide sufficient funds to offer a higher quality experience for the kids. With qualified and capable leaders, they often have the infrastructure needed to inspire the confidence of donors. Sadly, there are few such orphanages in the world.

Sometimes orphanages spring up because local individuals offer to provide a home for needy children. Many have started out because a child was abandoned to a neighbor and that person accepts more children over time. “Poor” orphanages are the ones in dire condition. While sometimes the director may not be there for the right reasons, usually they are just too overwhelmed to give adequate care and the children are often starved for love and attention. While these types of orphanages desperately need help, donors have few assurances that their funds will help the children succeed into adulthood. Even with ongoing donations, circumstances for children don’t tend to improve much due to poor leadership.

Then there are “aspiring” orphanages. These orphanages have directors who desire to create a positive, sustaining and loving home for their kids. They demonstrate leadership, but these orphanages can lack the resources to raise the children to be successful adults. They rely on faith and determination and will benefit the most from receiving new donations because they can demonstrate results for their kids.

Are Orphanages Needed Today?

While orphanages may not be the ideal setting for orphaned children to grow up, the reality is that in many countries worldwide, because there aren’t even sufficient orphanages for these children, many still end up living on the streets. Even in countries with more advanced foster care systems, there are still group homes of various sizes simply because of the need for greater capacity as well as the need to accommodate children with special needs. Until quality foster care, reunification programs, and measures to ameliorate the effects of poverty exist in a given community, orphanages will continue to be used to address child homelessness because it is the most economical way of caring for large numbers of children while simultaneously providing oversight and accountability for their care.

For some, the word “orphanage” conjures an image of something like one might have seen in Romania at the end of the Cold War– a rundown hospital where abandoned children were warehoused and neglected. There are sadly still many orphanages like this in communist and former communist countries, as well as in many other developing countries. Policy change organizations like Lumos are working to eliminate these types of orphanages and work with governments to redirect funds into community programs and welfare systems like foster care.

Unfortunately, it’s seldom as simple as shutting down orphanages and assuming families will step in to take care of the kids, even with new government welfare programs in place. For example, a few years ago Bulgaria decided to shut down their larger orphanages but they did not have sufficient families or other resources to implement a foster care system, so they instead opened a greater number of smaller homes that strive to house no more than 15 children. They no longer call these smaller homes “orphanages,” but they are administered in a similar manner. The hope is that by creating group homes with fewer children they may be able to give more individualized attention. 

In many areas of the world, the foster care model is scarce or nonexistent. While it would be ideal to place kids into loving families who would care for them regardless of financial incentives, many governments currently lack the infrastructure, the public trust, the culture of caring for orphans, and the funding necessary to implement foster care programs.

As orphanages get smaller and governments become more effective at getting kids into families, the children who are left often have experienced greater levels of trauma, are more defiant or violent, have handicaps, or have chronic diseases. As a result, the more successful the foster programs become, the more difficult the challenges are that orphanages face.

Besides logistical constraints, one of the biggest concerns about placing children into families through foster care is that there is often inadequate vetting, oversight, and advocacy for those children once placed. The US foster care system struggles to deliver results for many children, as evidenced by one study that showed only 44 to 66 percent of children graduate from high school– a rate that was at least 10 points lower than students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds (Conger, D. & Rebeck, 2001). 

Even in many states in the U.S., foster homes end up becoming crowded group homes because there are not enough willing or qualified individuals who become foster parents, nor are there often sufficient social workers to help. As a result, many social workers and judges have to make the difficult decision of putting a child into a less-than-ideal foster family, placing them into an inadequate orphanage, or returning them to their abusive families. Until enough families are capable and willing to care for children, and government agencies are providing adequate funding, vetting and support to ensure children are being treated well, there will be a need for group settings where those children can live and benefit from economies of scale and special expertise provided by therapists and other trained professionals. 

For some children, group care settings may be better than some foster families. For example, even in the United States siblings are often separated in foster care, where they could have stayed together in a group home or orphanage. And where the natural human assumption may be that children are better off in family settings, that’s not always the case. In the few international studies that compare the rates of abuse between orphanages and foster care, it’s found that both carry risks, some of which are even higher in foster care. One Duke Global Health Institute article stated:

“We found that the incidence of traumatic events is high in both institutions and families,” Gray said. “The most commonly experienced trauma was physical or sexual abuse—and that was higher among children placed in families.”

Annual incidence of physical or sexual abuse was 13 percent among orphans in institutional care, and 19 percent among orphans in families.

The new study provides a counterpoint to a recent review published in The Lancet, which strongly advocated against institutional care for orphans and vulnerable children. 

In contrast, Gray and her colleagues recommend a nuanced approach, which is in line with other recent research indicating that institutions may, in fact, play an essential role in providing care to the world’s orphaned and vulnerable children.

Our findings suggest that eliminating institutional care may be removing a viable—and in some cases protective—placement option for vulnerable children,” Whetten said. “We need to use all of the available evidence to identify support services and appropriate care for children, rather than applying sweeping policies that may have unintended consequences, including a rise in street children and child-headed households.”

While placing orphaned and abandoned children into healthy families is the ideal, due to a variety of reasons, orphanages will continue to be one of the solutions to caring for orphans in many countries for decades to come. Most orphanages aren’t good places for kids to grow up. Our goal at A Child’s Hope Foundation is not to turn around those orphanages. Many are corrupt and unsalvageable and they should be shut down. However, in the past when governments have reactively just shut down orphanages due to some scandal or from other pressures without a plan for their children, these kids have been left to live on the streets in an even more precarious situation.

A Nuanced Approach to Helping Vulnerable Children

In order to overcome the many challenges surrounding the orphan crisis in the world, many organizations, individuals, and perspectives are needed. We deeply respect and appreciate those individuals who are working at all levels of the problem. Policy advocates like Lumos, charities organizing grassroots foster care, groups that seek to prevent family separation by addressing poverty, and other organizations are working to reduce the time kids spend in orphanages so they can connect with families that want them. One of our partner organizations, Both Ends Believing, is addressing the logistical challenges of matching good adoptive/foster parents with children in need of families, mainly through free child and parent databases and training the bureaucracies of various countries.

Because there are also many orphanages delivering quality care to children, the effort should be to continue to support those orphanages until all of their children have transitioned into families, and that will take time. At A Child’s Hope, we have the unique opportunity to certify those which are truly effective at helping children receive the personalized attention they need to succeed into adulthood. There are many orphanages that group children into family-style homes run by dedicated caregivers who are able to deliver an environment similar to foster parents. In these settings, where caregivers are trained and children receive therapy from trauma and help with education, even the most difficult children have a chance to become healthy and happy adults. These are the orphanages we’re excited to work with!

Every child deserves the chance to thrive. At A Child’s Hope Foundation, we believe we can impact many more children through our Certification Program than if we were to take similar resources and apply them to other aspects of orphan care. Many good orphanages could become great homes if they could demonstrate results to donors. Our goal is to find those homes and help them and their kids succeed and demonstrate that success. With certification and regular assessments, donor and volunteer trust increases, and their resources flow to where they can make the greatest impact. Millions of dollars are donated to private orphanages by caring individuals and churches each year, but how many of those donations are sent to fake or ineffective orphanages? Through our certification program, we can help redirect those ineffective donations to orphanages which have good leadership and loving caregivers, and where children are most likely to become successful adults.

Eventually, along with other organizations that are aimed at providing opportunities for these kids, we hope for a day when orphanages are no longer needed. However, we are likely decades away from that reality. In the meantime, if orphaned children are to have hopeful futures, we must continue helping them get dedicated caregivers, healing, and an education so they can one day break the cycle of abandonment and poverty to raise happy families of their own.