Tackling the Great Debate: Are All Orphanages Universally Bad and is there a Better Way?

Often, when we think about orphan care, we think about working with children whose biological parents have both passed away. However, there are many children who live just like orphans even though in most situations, at least one parent is still very much alive. These children are defined as “social orphans” and are left without the care and protection of their parents due to factors such as extreme poverty, abuse, physical and mental illness, unwanted pregnancies and more.

It is reported that the vast majority (between 80-90%) of children living in orphanages are social orphans with at least one living parent. Unfortunately, there is a strong stigma that has been placed on institutionalized care because of these statistics. It is commonly argued that instead of funding children’s homes, resources should be directed toward prevention and tackling the underlying issues that contribute to the plight of social orphans, particularly in developing countries. The belief is that with the right support and services, parents wouldn’t have to make the difficult decision to abandon their children to begin with. For those who can’t be reunited with family, the preferred option is for the child to be placed in an alternative family-based setting.

Over the years, many studies have reinforced the idea that children raised in institutions will always have far worse outcomes compared with children raised in family settings. As a result, many international policy makers have advocated for the closures of orphanages around the world, calling for a shift toward developing systems to address these underlying issues.

This seems like an ideal response to the orphan crisis, the plan A in every situation. But what is the current reality? Are orphanages really that bad for these children? Is there a better way to care for orphans? Are we doing a disservice to orphans by supporting children’s homes around the world?

As an organization with a desire and mission to care for those closest to God’s heart, we must ask these tough questions to ensure we are always engaging in best practices and not doing more harm, despite our good intentions.

At Serving Orphans Worldwide, we know that orphan care is costly, sometimes corrupt and is always complicated. There are an estimated 153 million children without a forever family. A large fraction of these children are living in institutions like orphanages around the world.

Many children living at our partner homes have in fact lost both parents. It is also true that a vast number of children served are social orphans and may still have living parents. The caregivers at our partner homes have often shared about the challenges of family reunification, stating that is extremely difficult, and in some cases, impossible. In many cases, children who have been completely abandoned are without any identifying paperwork. Some do not know their names or their birthdays.

“So much of the work is just getting these children recognized as a person,” one director said. “Without papers, there is no way to locate the parents, especially if they do not want to be found.”

Just this year, one of our partner homes rescued a baby who was about to be killed because her parents believed she was cursed and born out of witchcraft. Another young girl had living parents who married her off to a 60-year-old man, and consequently, she gave birth to her first child at only 12 years old. Another young boy was found hungry and alone. His mother was ill and could not physically or mentally care for him. His father abandoned the family when he was a baby and has not seen him since. All of these children live in communities with little to no services or systems for alternative family-based placement.

While these systems are necessary to develop, tackling the complex underlying issues that contribute to abandonment requires a long enough timeline and social, financial and political capacity. For example, to undertake the core issues that relate to poverty such as unemployment may be as simple as providing access to better education and training. Or, it could be a result of the country’s government and economic policies, in which case may have a longer timeline to resolve. Social attitudes and beliefs that contribute to a parent’s decision to abandon their child can take decades of education to change, especially if those beliefs are deeply engrained into their culture. These issues are complex and ever evolving and while we should make progress in these areas, one question still remains: What is the immediate option for children who have nowhere to go, no services to access and no relatives willing to take them in?

When the country or community that the child lives in does not have the infrastructure to provide immediate services, these children may not have any other option but to live in a children’s home. This is why in the ever-evolving landscape of orphan care; we have chosen to empower children’s homes to provide the highest level of care possible as our mission. These children deserve to live in safety and dignity, with every opportunity to have a bright future. Therefore, we must come face to face with this question: Is it truly possible for these children to achieve these outcomes when they are living in a children’s home?

Kathryn Whetten, a Duke University Public Policy professor and director of the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research (CHPIR) set out to determine the answer to this age-old question. The study’s findings suggest that there may be a place for orphanages, after all.

This comprehensive study tracked the outcomes of children living in both orphanages and in family care in Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Tanzania. This study revealed that positive or negative outcomes of a child over time could not be determined solely based on a residential care facility vs family/ foster care. More crucial indicators for healthy development include protective factors such personal resilience, support, opportunities, and the type of community and neighborhood they live in.

This study concluded that not only is there a place for institutions such as children’s homes, but closing them entirely could be detrimental to the outcomes of children who are doing relatively well in these group settings.

Our deepest prayer is that every single child living in our partner homes can find their forever family, to feel connected and to fulfill their God-given potential. While our mission is to support existing children’s homes with resources, training and sustainability options for the immediate relief for orphans around the globe, we also do not want to negate the diligent work of organizations who are targeting the more complex underlying issues through services, systems and social policies. Perhaps if we work together, we can look forward to a future where no orphan will ever be left behind.