Part 4 : Closing Down Orphanages

Written by: Amanda McGinley + Nick Runyon Photography by: Whitney Runyon

Written by: Amanda McGinley + Nick Runyon
Photography by: Whitney Runyon

Where are we headed?

When it comes to orphan care, this is such an important and weighty question because the lives and futures of millions of children hang in the balance. Maybe it doesn’t feel like it, but the decisions that are made on this topic will affect the world’s future. They will affect your future. Our world is becoming smaller by the day through travel, globalization, and social media. Chances are, that in your lifetime, you will interact with a person who is or was affected by the orphan crisis. This is why movements, like shutting down orphanages, must be approached with our utmost care and attention.

Although there are small changes and movements happening with international adoption, domestic adoption, family preservation, and foster care, one of the biggest movements of today is the movement to close down orphanages (institutions and large group homes.)

The de-institutionalization movement (closing down orphanages) desire is to place kids from orphanages into family settings, through reunification, foster care, adoption, or into smaller group homes, but often does not have an exit plan for the children in the homes they close.

The movement to close these homes came in response to the boom in the unnecessary institutionalization of children, accounts of abuse and neglect at orphanages, and the growing research on the effects of institutionalization on children.   Most children in orphanages have living family, whom have placed their children in these homes due to poverty or by coercion from corrupt actors. This, paired with the well-meaning support of Westerners to build more homes, has led to more orphans or vulnerable children placed in homes.  Further, the research on institutionalized care is mounting. Children raised in these unhealthy environments struggle significantly with mental illness, attachment disorders, growth and speech delays, inability to reintegrate back into society, form healthy relationships as adults, and healthfully parent their own children. This can affect generations to come that may continue the cycle of abandoning children.

Eastern Europe has been at the heart of the movement, and has seen significant change over the last ten years.  In Moldova, the number of children living in orphanages has fallen from approximately 11,000 in 2011 to 2,000 today, largely as a result of the movement to close orphanages.

“Bulgaria and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova have made strides. China says it’s now able to provide care for three-quarters of its orphans and abandoned children via foster homes or adoption. Rwanda is set to soon become the first African country to eliminate orphanages.”

Closing these homes has and can lead to better lives for these children.  The need and benefit of removing children from direct harm and neglect is self-evident.  The opportunity for children to be raised in loving homes and families, where they are able to attach, grow, and flourish, is undeniably beneficial to the child. This can also affect generations to come, as these children grow to contribute to society and raise the next generation.

However, in some communities, homes are closing, and there are no systems to care for the children leaving the homes.  In some areas, there are no reunification efforts, foster care system, avenues for adoption, or smaller group homes. Many homes are closing without an exit strategy, and many children have been left homeless, trafficked, incarcerated, or have taken their own lives.

“…when done poorly, as has happened in some instances in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya, the burden is shifted onto families who cannot cope—and more children end up on the streets.”

Various policies have been enacted that have led to the closure of small group homes and some healthy orphanages.  These homes often serve as a ‘large family’ style arrangement for children with no other option. Sometimes a child cannot be reunified, and in some places there is no foster care or avenue for adoption. In these cases, smaller group homes and family style orphanages can serve as a healthy and loving place for children, while other capacities for care are developed.

Furthermore, there is an emerging body of research, finding that in developing nations children in these smaller group homes score higher on intellectual functioning and memory tests and have fewer social and emotional difficulties than their counterparts living in private homes (foster care or with family members.)

What becomes evident, as you dig into all of these different movements, is that wide sweeping policy will never be able to solve something as large and complex as the orphan crisis. Our hope is that, in the movement to close down orphanages today, we first learn as much as we possibly can and act out of the best interest of the individual child in regards to their individual circumstance. It is imperative that we understand how these different homes operate, all the way down to a local and community level, and if other systems and opportunities exist for the care of each communities’ vulnerable children. This will require more from all of us. More work, more research, more understanding, and more people who are willing to get involved. But these children, our next generation, they are worth it.