Craig Greenfield

Craig Greenfield is the author of The Urban Halo, story of one family's experience in a Cambodian slum and establishing an innovative ministry caring for over a thousand orphans. Based in Cambodia, he is the International Director of Alongsiders International (www.alongsiders.org), a movement to reach the world’s most vulnerable children.

The boy by the side of the road

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

He saw a boy lying in the middle of the road. What he did next will surprise you and might even change the way you act next time you see a child in need.


Racing round the corner on my way to the meeting a little faster than usual, I thought of all the things I had to do that day. I was showing a visitor around town and I also had my own errands that needed completing. Not far to go, I thought to myself. We’re only a couple of minutes late and we’re nearly there. I’m sure they’ll wait. As we slowed to negotiate a pothole, I looked up ahead and saw that there in the middle of the road lay a little boy, about eleven years old. A car had slowed to edge past him and the boy seemed oblivious – either asleep or unconscious. It was your typical Good Samaritan situation, but I was certainly not in the mood for interruptions. After all, living in Cambodia I came across this type of situation reasonably often. He was probably just a glue-sniffer – wasted and sleeping it off. I sighed, pulled over and stopped. We shook the boy and quickly realised that he was intellectually disabled and didn’t seem able to speak. My friend, knowing we were late, suggested we give him some money and be on our way. But I knew that cash would not really help this boy. No one seemed to know who he was or where he had come from.

boy3

I propped him up on the front of my bike and we took off for the meeting. On reaching our destination he seemed to come alive. Someone at the meeting gave him some fruit, which he accepted with a grunt and then proceeded to munch voraciously, most of the juice ending up on the upholstery. I apologised with embarrassment and tried in vain to keep him under control. After the meeting we returned to the spot where we had found the boy and asked again if anyone knew who he was. An old man with a cigarette balanced on his bottom lip informed me with a pout that the boy was just a crazy street kid — mentally deficient and not worth the trouble I was going to. My heart sank as I realised this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away. I spent the afternoon making calls to every orphanage I could think of. None would take a mentally disabled child. It remained unspoken, but I knew they reserved their places for children who were easy to look after. In fact, in Cambodia, most orphanages are full of children who are not even orphans, merely poor. Cambodians shrewdly treat these well-meaning (often church-run) orphanages as a boarding school, where they can drop their kids off for a good education then reap the rewards when they leave as fully educated adults. I cursed the system as I slammed down the phone after yet another rejection. I knew that particular mission orphanage was only a third full, and yet they were unwilling to take him! Why didn’t they focus on the kids who really needed a place rather than the cute ones who looked good in the fundraising photos, or the lucrative babies who were easy to adopt out to rich Westerners? Finally, I found a drop-in centre for street kids that had a residential facility. The only problem was the kids were free to come and go if they wished. I knew he would run away if given half a chance as he had already tried to run away from me a couple of times. But what choice did I have? With my heart full of misgivings, I took him over to the centre and the staff there welcomed him kindly. “Give me a call if there are any problems,” I said as I left, feeling sure it wouldn’t be long before I heard from them. Sure enough, the next day they called, saying that at first light that morning he had taken off all his clothes and run away. They apologised profusely and I told them not to worry, spending the next couple of hours driving the streets looking for him in vain. Two weeks later a Cambodian friend called, “Craig, do you remember that boy you were with a couple of weeks ago?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well I think he’s in front of my house — and Craig…he’s not wearing any clothes!” This time I took him home and my wife gamely agreed to put him up till we could find a more permanent place for him to live. Over the next few days, we found out that he had been living on the streets for years, surviving without language by pointing at food and throwing a head-banging tantrum if the shopkeepers didn’t give it to him. We witnessed this ritual a couple of times when he accompanied us to the market and marvelled at how he survived using this cunning method despite his difficulty with speech. Soon we were able to arrange for him to go and live with a kind-hearted Cambodian foster family. He needed twenty-four-hour care and supervision. He couldn’t go to the toilet by himself or even dress or wash himself. Within weeks, he had learnt a handful of words, was looking much healthier and had begun to settle down.

My reward came every time I went to visit. He would see me coming from the street and come rushing out, shouting excitedly one of the few words he had learnt: “Papa, Papa” I look back now to the day I found him lying in the middle of the road and think about what I would have missed out on had I kept to my busy agenda and ‘important’ timetable. I would have missed out on helping this little boy who had no-one to call “Papa”.

Update: Craig adds that he contacted at least 20 residential facilities at the time without success. Today Vundy is still living with the family that took him in. He is 21 years old, a grown man, and very much part of the family.

Photo by Nearday

Touch-starved: The hunger of children in orphanages

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

Why do children in orphanages often run and hug visitors as soon as they arrive?  Why did Western nations stop putting abandoned children in orphanages? For answers to both of these questions look at the work of a genius named John Bowlby.


Dr-John-BowlbyJohn Bowlby (1907-1990) has been described as a genius and one of the three or four most important psychiatrists of the twentieth century. Every student of psychology or psychiatry, and many of a number of other disciplines would have heard of his watershed work on separation, loss and mourning. Perhaps more than any other figure in recent decades, Bowlby has had profound influence over the treatment of bereaved and separated children in the Western world.

Anyone who has visited an orphanage will have experienced the effects of what Bowlby described as “Indiscriminate Attachment”. As soon as you arrive, the children crowd around, hungry for attention, the attention of a complete stranger. Younger ones cling to your legs and look up endearingly, silently imploring you to give them the nurture and love they desperately needed.

Most of us think their indiscriminate friendliness, clinging and attention seeking conduct is cute. But anyone familiar with John Bowlby’s work realise the situation is much sadder. These orphanage children are desperately undernourished, not necessarily for food, but starving for an adult’s love and attention. The idea of forty or more kids competing for the affections of a handful of staff is deeply disturbing.

John Bowlby’s lifelong work and passion about children separated from their mothers was greatly informed by the trauma he suffered as a child growing up in England. The fourth of six children, John was raised by a nanny in traditional English fashion. He would see his mother for just an hour each day after tea, during which time she would read to him. When John was just four years old, his beloved nanny, who he described as his primary caregiver, left the family. He later wrote that, “for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny and then for her to leave when he is two or three, or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother”(1).

Bowlby said that his mother, “held the view that it was dangerous to spoil children so her responses to bids for attention and affection were the opposite of what was required”. Finally, in another traumatic shock, his father went off to war and John aged seven, was sent off to boarding school, supposedly for his own safety. He later told his wife that he “would not send even a dog away from home at that age.”

In later life, John Bowlby became a celebrated psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist. He authored more than 150 publications including his famous trilogy: Separation (1969), Attachment (1973) and Loss (1980) which had so much influence on the treatment of orphans and eventually contributed to the widespread abandonment of orphanages in the West.

In 1951, the World Health Organization asked Bowlby to review the impact on children of separation from their parents and caregivers during the Second World War. The resulting study has been translated into 14 languages and has had an enormous impact on our understanding of care for orphans today.

mother-childBowlby was convinced that an ongoing nurturing relationship between an adult and a young child is as crucial to the child’s survival and healthy development as the provision of food, shelter, stimulation and discipline(2). He came to recognize that the lack of nurture from a mother or mother substitute during childhood could have a devastating effect on the child’s health, growth, personality adjustment and cognitive capacity.

Subsequent research has strengthened Bowlby’s original thesis. For example, researchers from the Yale University Child Study Centre conducted a five year study comparing 75 infants in an orphanage with 75 infants brought up in foster families. The orphanage was a three storey building, clean and in good condition. The children were provided with nutritious meals and excellent medical care.

The researchers, Provence & Lipton, noticed that the institutionalised children did not play with toys as spontaneously as the foster children and were relatively slower to develop speech. Other areas of development were also delayed in the orphanage children, especially social maturity.

After being placed with foster families, these same children made dramatic gains, though there were some residual effects on their ability to form appropriate emotional relationships, particularly with men(3). What was the difference? Simply the amount of attention and touch from adults. The kids were touch-starved.

[Excerpted from The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor by Craig Greenfield]

(1) Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
(2) Bowlby 1951: p13
(3) Provence, S., and Lipton, R. (1962). Infants in institutions: a comparison of their development with family-reared infants during the first year of their life. New York: International University Press.

Photo of John Bowlby by Unknown
Photo of mother and child by Andy Gray

Five reasons not to put children in orphanages

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

Why not start an orphanage? That’s a good question to ask before committing many years and untold resources to a task most experts agree is, well, questionable. Here are five answers one Christian worker in Cambodia found when he considered the question.


urban-haloOrphanages continue to be the default response of many to the challenge of caring for orphans and vulnerable children. However, mounting evidence suggests children are best cared for in their own communities and extended families. In my book, The Urban Halo, I outlined some of the reasons we decided not to build an orphanage. Here is a brief summary of the most important factors.

1. Science

For decades, researchers have found that residential care has a negative effect on the psychosocial development of children.

Children in residential care demonstrate a significantly increased level of social maladjustment, aggression, attention demanding behaviour, sleep disturbance, extremes of over-affection or repelling affection, social immaturity and tendency to depression. Attachment theory suggests that many of these difficulties result from the lack of availability of appropriate, nurturing, stable “mother substitutes” in residential care.

Dozens of contemporary studies have also documented medical and psychological abnormalities arising from institutionalization in residential care facilities such as orphanages and children’s homes. These include physical and brain growth deficiencies, cognitive problems, speech and language delays, sensory integration difficulties, social and behavioural abnormalities, difficulties with inattention/hyperactivity, disturbances of attachment, and a syndrome that mimics autism.

2. Lack of sustainability

From an economic perspective, according to Save the Children, the cost of supporting a child in residential care is about twelve times the cost of supporting a child in a community-based care program. The high costs of residential care, coupled with the fact that most residential care facilities are located in the developing world, mean that resources come from outside the country. This heavy dependency on external funding is a cause for concern.

Residential care facilities are further limited by the constraints of buildings and staff numbers. Considering the sheer numbers, residential care is not considered a viable option for caring for the majority of orphans in the developing world. The UN points out that, “orphanages for 14 million orphans simply cannot be built and sustained”.

3. Lack of Community Participation

Another shortcoming is the lack of community ownership and participation in residential care projects. The first aspect of community participation that should be considered is the participation of the children themselves. Research suggests children prefer to go where they feel they will be loved and best taken care of, but parents and other adults prioritise economic factors in decision making. Seldom do the adults consult the children.

Furthermore, residential care is a western model of care that ignores the ability of communities to solve their own problems in traditional ways. Communities are not given the dignity of caring for their own orphans. This relates to what has been called the “iron rule” of community development, “Never do for someone what they can do for themselves.”

4. Disconnectedness

When children remain within their own communities, they can stay together with their siblings (a tremendous source of solace and support) and maintain a sense of connectedness with their extended family, not to mention their neighbours, childhood friends, culture, heritage and land. Save the Children lament that, “too often admission to residential care is synonymous with children losing all contact with their family and sociocultural background”.

Children taken out of their communities are raised in environments that do not prepare them for life as an adult. Residential care does not prepare orphans for adulthood in the community.

Institutionalization stores up problems for society. In the future society will be ill-equipped to cope with an influx of young adults who have not been socialized in the community in which they must live.

The problem is children in residential care live according to the routines, procedures and administrative needs of the institution, serving the needs of the home (and director) for order, efficiency and conformity. There is an almost complete loss of independence.

This is in stark contrast to the normal patterns within a family home and causes serious problems when older youth must reintegrate into society.

Finally, in the developing world where legal protection for minors is largely nonexistent, children taken from their communities may lose their rights to their parents’ house, land and inheritance, along with their sense of belonging to a family.

5. Abuse

Clearly abuse can and does occur in any situation. Biological parents and extended family are all potential abusers.

However, is there anything inherently worse or more dangerous about abuse that occurs in residential care facilities such as orphanages and children’s homes? I believe so. Few outsiders are aware , or care enough to become aware, of what takes place in these facilities. As a result many situations of abuse in residential care go unreported.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that children abused in institutions may have greater difficulty in reporting the abuse, escaping from the situation, or getting support from outsiders. Due to the child’s utter dependence on the institution, the abuse may continue for a long time. Children with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

Children in residential care may be subject to physical, sexual or emotional abuse by staff or older children, and in the majority of developing countries there are no established child protection services to ensure a child’s safety or prevent future abuse to other children.

With decades of research and experience documenting the harmful effects of placing children in residential care, these five reasons are just to start the conversation and consider what actions and changes are in order.

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