26 June 2019

Institutional care for children: the vicious circle of a global crisis

Across the world and in a variety of contexts, the issue of institutional care is still widely misunderstood and information has been slow to reach the general public. As a result, institutions are surrounded by a number of common misconceptions. Perhaps the most prevalent myth is that institutions care for orphan children.

A child on a bed in an orphanage in Kenya


Establishing orphanages is seen as an appropriate response to perceived ‘orphan crises’ linked to wars, natural disasters or health pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola. Well-intended individuals and organisations commonly fundraise to support children in orphanages in lower-income countries. Contrary to common belief, the majority of children confined to institutions are actually not orphans but have at least one, if not both, living parents. While it is true that in crises circumstances many children lose their parents, most of those who end up in institutions are actually displaced and separated from their parents, rather than orphaned. Nearly all children confined to institutions have extended family that, in many cases, could be supported to care for them.

How the very existence of institutions is a pull factor instigating family separation

A phenomenon increasingly recognised by professionals in the sector is that institutional care creates a vicious circle, whereby the very existence of institutions is a pull factor instigating family separation. In several countries, the majority of children in institutions were placed or abandoned by parents in need who lacked sufficient means or support to care for them.
Poverty is in fact a significant underlying reason for children ending up in institutional care across the world. Many parents struggle to provide food, housing, medicine and access to education for their children, and are led to believe that placing their children in orphanages is a positive choice that will provide them with a better future. Institutional managers and staff sometimes are actively soliciting parents living in poverty to place children in their facilities, marketing their services, nutrition, shelter, access to education, health care, and improved chances for the future.

Orphanages, therefore, do not respond to the orphan crisis: instead they actively contribute to family separation by providing a one-size-fits-all response to deeper societal problems, which are left unaddressed. In some contexts, where mechanisms for protecting children’s rights are weak, institutions have been and continue to be used to isolate specific groups of children perceived as unfit for life in the community, such as children with disabilities, children belonging to ethnic minorities or born out of wedlock, and children living with HIV/AIDS – thus perpetrating a system of structural discrimination.

Naturally, a smaller percentage of children have been placed in institutional care as a consequence of orphanhood, severe neglect or abuse. While care outside the birth or extended family may be necessary and in the best interest of the child, institutions can never offer an adequate solution for children without parental care. A range of family- and community-based options should be available to provide appropriate support and quality care to children in their communities.

To know more: why children end up in orphanages?

Despite 100 years of scientific research showing how orphanages damage children, an estimated 8 million children worldwide are still confined to loveless institutions. It is a global crisis. At this blog “Why children end up in orphanages?” we analyse four sets of reasons why children end up in orphanages. Follow this link to read more.