Is there such a thing as a 'good orphanage'?

Bethany, a WDR volunteer, recently attended a conference run by Lumos, an organisation committed to seeing children brought up in families rather than orphanages. In this blog, Bethany shares some of the thoughts and discussions from the event.

Recently, a group of leaders representing various agencies from across Ireland, gathered together under Comhlámh’s Orphanage Working Group (OWG). Comhlámh is an organisation which supports development workers and volunteers. The aim of the day was to discover the truths and effects of institutionalised care and discuss issues around trafficking and ‘voluntourism’. I was there representing Irish Methodist World Development & Relief (WDR). Although WDR does not support orphanages, it wishes to stimulate thought and opinion around this difficult, yet important, issue.

The morning began with each group sharing their own experiences working with institutions such as orphanages.  For years, many Irish-based agencies have been sending thousands of volunteers to meet and help with orphaned children in developing countries. In countries afflicted by conflict and violence there has been a huge rise in the number of orphaned children and orphanages may seem like a viable and quick solution, offering respite for struggling parents, food and a roof over their heads. In recent years, it has come to light the reality of what goes on in many of these institutions and the effects of some short-term volunteer schemes. Generations of children have been raised who have been deeply damaged by these experiences. 

Lumos   is an NGO founded by J.K. Rowling. Working to end the harm of institutionalisation & help children worldwide be reunited with family.

Lumos is an NGO founded by J.K. Rowling. Working to end the harm of institutionalisation & help children worldwide be reunited with family.

We had the opportunity to hear examples of these realities from Michael who works for an organisation called Lumos. Lumos was founded by the famous author J.K. Rowling when she read an alarming article about the conditions of children living in institutions. The name Lumos is derived from her well know book series Harry Potter, where it refers to a light-giving spell, in the hope that light can be brought to these children. Lumos has the goal of ending institutionalised care globally by 2050 and is paving the way for others to make this shift.

Michael openly shared some heart-breaking stories and rather shocking statistics. A study by Save the Children (2009) discovered that, while there are over eight million children living in orphanages, up to 80% of these children are not actually orphans and do have a living parent or relative. Studies on children who spend their lives in orphanages have shown that they are more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking. Even with the best-intentioned staff, orphanages are environments where children grow up without a parental figure Research shows that they are more likely to have cognitive and developmental delays, attachment and mental health issues and a lack of social skills. They are less prepared to integrate as full members of society and 1 in 5 become involved in crime, 1 in 7 in prostitution and with 1 in 10 committing suicide.  At first, when Lumos said “There is no such thing as a good orphanage”, we were quick to query such an extreme generalisation but quickly the orphanages myths of social good and being cost-effective solutions were destroyed, bringing us to consider a new and better solution.

I felt compelled by these findings to think about those thousands of volunteers who travel to all corners of the world seeking an experience of working in an orphanage. Such teams, short-term visits and gap years seem like the perfect way to experience other cultures and serve God by looking after his children, but do travellers know what really happens behind closed doors? Can they see ahead to the long-term effects and what might happen to those children as they become adults?

Unfortunately, everything is not always as it seems. ‘Voluntourism’ is giving incentive to many orphanages to treat their children as a business opportunity (attracting paying foreigners) and is driving family break up in poor countries (as parents pass their children over to institutions in order to cope with poverty).

These realities can be disheartening but there is hope. Hope that, despite these circumstances, there are other and better solutions. As a church invested in world development, we cannot just abandon children without appropriate and equipped carers. Rather we need to be part of developing better alternatives. There are so many other ways children can be supported through family-based care including reuniting them with families, adoption, foster care or kinship support. WDR would favour such approaches, seeking justice for these children and their families and placing them in safe and loving environments. 

Leaving the conference, I felt enlightened and challenged to share what I had learned. Each of these children is known and loved by God. As a people who strive to make his love known to them, I hope that our pursuit of justice leads us to abandon notions of ‘voluntourism’ and to support long-term family-based solutions sharing the light of God with each one of these eight million children around the world.

WDR volunteer Bethany

WDR volunteer Bethany