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15 March 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:00pm

The world must wake up to the dangers of orphanages

The Guatemalan orphanage fire, UK child sexual abuse inquiry and Irish care home mass baby grave confirm orphanages do not protect children – they harm them.

By Wayne Cornish

A series of harrowing headlines about children in institutions taught us one thing last week – governments must urgently commit to a world without orphanages.

Last Wednesday’s blaze at the government-run Hogar Seguro Virgen de Asuncion children’s home, in San Jose Pinula, killed more than 40 teenage girls. Police say the fire started after young residents rioted and set mattresses ablaze in a bid to escape the overcrowded institution. It followed news headlines from the UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which heard how thousands of British children deported to Australian orphanages between 1947 and the 1970s suffered widespread physical and sexual abuse. Then, on Friday, just when it seemed headlines about child care had hit an all-time low, news spread of a mass grave for 800 infants in a former Catholic Church care home in Tuam, Ireland. Sexual and physical abuse was reported to be endemic at similar care homes across Ireland for decades.

If there is one thing these three stories clearly demonstrate, it is the alarming dangers faced by the eight million children confined to orphanages, institutions and care homes worldwide today. But the real tragedy is that they need not face these dangers. Indeed, they need not be locked away at all. Like many of the Virgen de Asuncion fire victims (and the children from our own shameful history in Irish, British and Australian institutions), most children confined to orphanages across the globe today are not actually orphans. The reality is about 80 per cent have living parents who, with the right support from the state, could love and care for them at home.

Children are usually placed in care (whether labelled orphanages, institutions or care homes) by families who are too poor to provide for them, or because of the pressures of discrimination, disabilities and conflict. You might think that impoverished parents who believe their children will be better off in an orphanage might have a point. After all, how can food, clothes and shelter be a bad thing for a child?

Sadly, it is an indisputable fact that when large numbers of children are warehoused in facilities like Virgen de Asuncion, they are put at a higher risk of abuse and neglect. Indeed, according to reports, Virgen de Asuncion had an official capacity of 500, but as many as 900 children were believed to be living there at the time of the fire. Little wonder then, just days before the tragedy there were allegations of rape at the overcrowded centre.

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UNICEF estimates that at least 240,000 children live in institutions similar to Virgen de Asuncion across Latin America and the Caribbean. They can face daily routines and dangers more akin to that of a prison, than a safe place for children to grow up.

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The fact is that orphanages are never the solution. This bold claim is not just based on what the history books tell us about British, Australian and Irish children’s institutions – it is based on more than 100 years of scientific research. Studies have clearly shown how 37 out of every 100 children locked away in orphanages may suffer violence or sexual abuse. We also know that every three months spent in an orphanage before the age of three-years-old can stunt a child’s physical and cognitive development by one month. After six months, these children are at risk of never recovering.

Getting children out of orphanages and into loving families is not just of moral importance – it also makes economic sense. It can be 10 times more cost effective to support struggling parents with social services than to fund an orphanage. Unfortunately, nothing is ever straightforward when money is concerned – particularly in the orphanage business. Many orphanages across the world use children as commodities. The more children confined to an orphanage, the more money the orphanage receives from the state and private donors. In 2009, for instance, the Ryan Report revealed how church-run, state-funded institutions in Ireland were committing widespread abuse and making money.

Children are always better off in loving, stable families. That is why for more than 20 years charities like Hope and Homes for Children have been helping willing governments to close orphanages, move children back into families (biological or foster) and training social workers to support struggling parents and prevent child abandonment.

The charity has helped to reduce the number of children living in Romanian orphanages by 90 per cent since 1998. The plan is to help the Romanian Government close the last orphanage by 2022. In Rwanda, meanwhile, the charity has helped the Government to close six orphanages and set up a national strategy to close the remaining 25. Rwanda will soon become the first orphanage-free nation in Africa. Hope and Homes for Children believes the world’s most vulnerable kids deserve the same rights as British children. Every day it is helping to give them these rights by dispelling the myth that orphanages are necessary.

A family will always be better for a child than an orphanage. And that is because children’s brains adapt to their environment. If a child grows up in an orphanage environment – no matter how good or bad it may look at face value – their chances of becoming healthy adults diminish.

A chaotic orphanage is likely to create an anxious or angry adult. An orphanage with strict routines can institutionalise a child – creating an adult unable to cope with the chaos of the outside world. Once again, a wealth of scientific research backs this up. According to some studies, those who survive a childhood in an orphanage can be 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution; 40 times more likely to get a criminal record; and 500 times more likely to commit suicide. They are also more likely to abandon their own children to an orphanage. This can perpetuate the cycle of poverty and the need for orphanages.

The lesson to be learnt from last week’s news headlines is clear: orphanages are dangerous and we must condemn them to the history books. Overseas governments and private donors need to urgently direct funding away from institutional care, and towards supporting families to stay together. There can be no more excuses. A global movement to create a world without orphanages is the only way to prevent further tragedies. 

Wayne Cornish works for Hope and Homes for Children; for more details, visit their website.