Voices from the Field

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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