Orphanages: Addressing and Fixing a Broken System through Child Community Sponsorship
Orphanages as institutional care systems have a long history of academic criticism. There is an exhaustive list of research papers, institutional position statements and investigative reports saturating the charity research space. Evidencing a near sectoral consensus, the future of aid involves the transformation of the orphanage system. Today, the FCDO (formerly DFID) does not fund any orphanage projects as a matter of policy. Instead, they actively fund projects specifically designed to transition and end the use of orphanages – a process of “deinstitutionalisation”. This policy is shared across many funders and NGOs. Even among large Muslim charities several have, and for quite some time, terminated any funding or association with orphanage-based interventions.
But why are orphanages a problem?
Institutional care models such as orphanages are inordinately expensive to operate. The better quality of care an institution provides, the greater the resources needed; hence, we find so many poorly managed, and representing exceptionally poor value for money. But the heart of the problem is the life outcomes of children raised in such contexts. Research into the life outcomes of institutionalised children shows that orphanages are ill equipped to meet a child’s basic needs. Institutionalised care can have substantial negative impacts, stunting a child’s cognitive, emotional, social, and even physical development. Not surprisingly, these impacts are magnified the younger a child is, increasing in effects with the time spent in care.Studies show maternal deprivation coupled with the very nature of being placed in an institution can lead to mental health issues and developmental delays even when the orphanages provide good nutrition. These delays manifest in cognitive, language, gross and fine motor, personal and social skills. Longitudinal research shows that children who grow up in institutions are 6x more likely to have been abused; 10x more likely to enter into prostitution; 40x more likely to have a criminal record; and 500x more likely to commit suicide. The results of care are corrosive and affect children and young people long into adulthood.
Adults with a history of institutionalised care are more likely to experience mental health problems and are more likely to be involved in criminal, illegal and ultimately harmful behaviour. Last year, the international children’s charity Lumos published a detailed report identifying global patterns of institution related trafficking, abuse and exploitation, taking into account evidence from 84 organisations in 45 countries worldwide. They found across all countries, communities and contexts covered, many orphanages were engaged in trafficking abuse and the very ‘production’ of orphans.
Well-intentioned charities, volunteer projects, and programmes have created a global demand for orphans, incentivised to be placed in a profit-making orphanage. These projects are based on what “sells” over what actually works and relies heavily on archaic, outdated practices fuelled by a saviour complex. In the modern age of social media, this has only worsened. Children are openly commodified to foreign donor communities, an approach mirrored at the orphanage level.
Globally, there are numerous reports of children forced and trafficked into orphanages for profit and exploitation. In many cases, children with parents are literally manufactured into orphans (paper orphans). This can include “the falsification of parental death certificates, the production of new birth certificates, creation of paperwork attesting to abandonment or relinquishment, or children being coached to pose as orphans in the presence of volunteers and visitors”. Moreover, we are seeing growing reporting of horrifying child abuse, harm, and even sexual exploitation that children are experiencing in such institutions. This highlights a direct outcome of the global demand and the failures of charities and volunteer programmes to meet their basic responsibilities in safeguarding, child protection, “do no harm” and other commitments. Once written as a solution, orphanages have rapidly mutated into a destructive and harmful practice that needs to change. In 2019, the UN General Assembly adopted the “Resolution on the Rights of The Child”, targeting and tackling many of the harmful practices around orphanages whilst promoting alternative and community-care models
What’s the solution?
Over 80% of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. Even where parents have passed, relatives and the extended community almost always exists. The Islamic tradition has always advocated for the centrality of the family unit alongside neighbour and community obligations as the building blocks of society. A mass of sociological, psychological and biological studies evidences an intuitive reality: the family unit is the greatest child-rearing system ever created. It is the natural environment for the growth, well-being, and protection of children. It is time for Muslim charities to re-engage with our tradition and commit to a future of:
Prevention is better than cure. Strengthening families should be the first priority, always and everywhere. Supporting impoverished and at-risk families who are struggling to provide care will involve strengthening existing community-focused work, such as cash-transfer programmes, healthcare, livelihoods, and education projects. This helps keep families together, and ensures vulnerable children remain with their parents and family during risk and adversity. Where families have separated, every effort should primarily be directed to enabling the child to remain in or return to the care of their parents or other close family members when appropriate. Multiple studies demonstrate that children placed into family care can experience developmental recovery across a number of domains following their removal from orphanages.
Where a parent is not an option, engage; advocate and support formalised ‘family-based’ alternative care systems, such as kinship, fostering and adoptive care. The United Nations Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children provides a number of considerations that charities can utilise. Charities can offer parents, guardians and foster families a wide range of needs-based support. From regular cash grants, in-kind aid, and emotional and social support (such as social workers and peer groups). Supporting struggling families with social service interventions can be 10x more cost-effective, while supporting foster care can be 5x more cost-effective than funding an orphanage. The numbers speak for themselves.
Any institutionalised care system should only be used in the last resort circumstances where children have no other option or are in-between options. Whenever possible, it should be temporary and for the shortest possible duration. Overall, charities need to ensure that children do not unnecessarily find themselves in out-of-home care. Where it is genuinely required, the type and quality of out-of-home care provided needs to be appropriate to the rights and specific needs of the child concerned. As Muslim development and humanitarian practitioners, our resources are better directed towards strengthening all forms of family care. Let us commit to deinstitutionalisation; to preventing unnecessary family separation, to reuniting institutionalised children and expanding quality community-care models.
Written by Sahedul Islam - Programmes Partnership Manager