Orphanages Should Be a Last Resort

One of the biggest myths is that children in orphanages are there because they have no parents. This is not the case. Most are there because their parents simply can’t afford to feed, clothe and educate them. For governments and donors, placing children in institutions is often seen as the most straightforward solution. And it’s a way of sweeping out of sight the poorest and most discriminated-against children with the biggest problems

Save the Children, 2009

When I first started exploring the research surrounding institutional care – or orphanages – I was shocked at how little I knew. To me, orphanages always seemed like a necessary evil, places for the many children without parents who simply had no place left to go.  As long as they were clean and well-staffed, what more could you ask for? But as I started to research, I learned that many children (estimates say about 80% of the 2 million children in institutional care) DO have a living parent. So why are there so many orphanages?

We see it a lot in Honduras. An orphanage springs up, sponsored by well-meaning foreigners and missionaries, and immediately attracts the community’s interest. Usually the orphanages are decked out with luxuries that most Honduran families do not enjoy – electricity, hot water showers, comfy beds and furniture, televisions, washing machines, etc. As the orphanages grow, so do their donor bases, the number of children they serve, and the ideas for program development. A common “add-on” is the school, usually a bilingual school.

Imagine that you are a single mother with four children who lives in a house built of scraps of aluminum siding a few blocks away from the orphanage complex. You work seven days a week and grow some beans and corn in the backyard to sustain your family. But across the way, other children from poor families are wearing clothes and shoes from the US and studying English. Wouldn’t it be better for your child in the long run to take him there, to give him a better life, a life that you’ll never be able to provide?

The answer, most often, is no. Research shows that what children need most developmentally is an attachment to a primary caregiver – usually, their mother, and a place that they can identify as home. Unfortunately, in many instances in Honduras and around the world, poverty is the primary cause of child abandonment. But poverty as a justification for abandonment is not something that we – as individuals, governments, and humanitarians – should allow to continue.

I am not suggesting that the many orphanages in Honduras do not provide essential services and that they do not are about the children they serve. I just believe that more emphasis should be placed on keeping families together. On alleviating the poverty that would force a mother to let go of her child, on providing services that can re-connect families and encourage them to do everything in their power to stay together. I believe that orphanages should be a last resort – and should include among their services the on-going efforts to find family living situations for children.

This is why our goal remains to provide direct services to children so their mothers can work, while helping our moms develop the confidence and skills to provide a loving home for their children. And when we do embark on the task of caring for children who have no family, we want to create a model that resembles foster care, so that the children we serve can grow up with a primary caregiver in a culturally appropriate home. Honduras is a place where familial bonds are so strong that extended families live together for generations. Poverty should not have to break this tradition apart.