What is meant by the term 'orphan'?

According to UNICEF, an orphan is a child under the age of 18 who has lost one or both parents from any cause of death. In 2015, there were 140 million orphans globally, of which 15.1 million had lost both parents. A ‘single orphan’ is a child who has lost one parent, whilst a ‘double orphan’ has lost both parents. UNICEF states that “[e]vidence clearly shows that the vast majority of orphans are living with a surviving parent, grandparent, or other family member.”[1]

[1] UNICEF. Orphans. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/media/orphans

How many children are currently living in residential care worldwide?

The most recent research estimates that there are currently 5.4 million children residing in orphanages around the world.[1] This is a median estimate and the true number may be even higher due to a lack of data in some parts of the world.

[1] Desmond, Chris; Watt, Kathryn; Saha, Anamika; Huang, Jialin and Lu, Chunling. 2020. 'Prevalence and Number of Children Living in Institutional Care: Global, Regional, and Country Estimates.' The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 4(5): 370-377.

What is meant by 'residential care'?

Residential care is an overarching term that encompasses all kinds of residential care facilities for children including orphanages, children’s villages, children’s homes, children’s centres, and institutions.

Why are children in residential care institutions?

Studies show that anywhere between 40-90% of children in residential care institutions have at least one living parent.[1] This means that most children in orphanages are not orphans. Reports from Save the Children and the Better Care Network reveal that poverty is the main driver causing parents to relinquish their children to institutions.[2] Thus, orphanages often attract families who cannot afford to feed, clothe or educate their children. The main priority therefore needs to be the strengthening of families and communities so that vulnerable children are not separated from their families due to poverty.

[1] Lumos. 2017. Children in Institutions: The Global Picture. Available at: https://lumos.contentfiles.net/media/documents/document/2017/03/Global_Numbers.pdf

[2] CsĂĄky, Corinna. 2009. Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why We Should be Investing in Family-based Care. London: Save the Children; Better Care Network Secretariat. 2009. Global Facts about Orphanages. Available at: http://handstohearts.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Global-Fact-Sheet-on-Orphanages_BetterCareNetwork.pdf

Why aren't orphanages an appropriate form of care?

More than 80 years of research shows that institutional care has detrimental effects on children’s physical, cognitive, social, and psychological development.[1] One study found that children lose approximately one month of linear growth for every three months spent in institutional care.[2]

Institutions can cause or exacerbate attachment disorders, and there is a greater risk of abuse, neglect, and maltreatment. Therefore, residential care should only be used as a last resort, as no matter how well-run an orphanage is, it is still detrimental to a child’s well-being and development to grow up without the commitment and love of a family for life.

[1] Berens, Anne E. and Nelson, Charles A. 2015. The Science of Early Adversity: Is there a Role for Large Institutions in the Care of Vulnerable Children? The Lancet, 386 (9991), pp. 388-398.

[2] Johnson, Dana E. 2014. Medical and Developmental Sequelae of Early Childhood Institutionalization in Eastern European Adoptees. In: Nelson, Charles A. ed. The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology. Vol 31: The Effects of Early Adversity on Neurobehavioral Development. New York: Psychology Press. pp. 113–162.

Is there a role for orphanages?

Orphanages can play a role as a temporary and last-resort option for vulnerable children, however, they should never be seen as a permanent solution. When institutional care is deemed necessary, smaller settings with low staff-child ratios and family-like environments are preferred over large institutions.

What is deinstitutionalisation?

Deinstitutionalisation is the process of moving away from residential care models to family and community-based care models. It involves a rigorous process of family tracing, ongoing assessment, care plans, the redistribution of resources and support towards family strengthening, and, ultimately, the integration of children from residential care settings into family-based care.

What is family-based care?

Scripture and research agree that children grow best in families where they can receive the love, security and belonging that they need in order to thrive. Family-based care covers the broad spectrum of family placement options for children who cannot be cared for by their biological parents and includes kinship care (where the child is cared for by relatives), short or long-term foster care and adoption. Family-based care services also include early intervention and prevention of family breakdown and separation, reunification, and ongoing support.

I am funding an institution or orphanage, what should I do now?

Please do not immediately stop funding the institution or orphanage. The sudden drop in funds is likely to make children more vulnerable as it could lead to unplanned and unmanaged transitions for children. Instead, please use the financial influence you have as a donor to encourage the institutions you support to redirect their efforts towards family-based care with the best possible outcomes for the children involved. Read Faith to Action’s Transitioning to Family Care for Children: Guidance Manual for more information.

Should I volunteer in an institution or orphanage?

We would not recommend visiting or volunteering in an institutional care or orphanage setting. The revolving door of volunteers visiting children in orphanages and then leaving is extremely detrimental to children, and this stream of broken attachments further exacerbates already-existing trauma and attachment issues. Children need and deserve consistent love and attention, and these needs should be met by permanent caregivers, rather than volunteers who come and go. Prospective volunteers and short-term missionaries should read through the Homecoming guide to Short-term Missions and Volunteering-Safeguarding Orphans and Vulnerable Children for best practice guidance and principles. Work that focuses on supporting and strengthening parents, caregivers, staff, and the local community is preferable to directly volunteering with children in orphanages.

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