01 March 2019

We need a revolution for the way we care

Image Chris Lelsie

Kate Adams is Senior Policy and Strategic Relations Adviser at Hope and Homes for Children, she has worked with us for almost three years and on securing children’s rights for a decade.

“My orphanage was different; the kids would have died if we weren’t there”. This was the response of my best friend the week I started working at Hope and Homes for Children. I sat across from her, an incredible doctor and the most compassionate human being, explaining in ardent disbelief what I had recently come to learn: that everything we think we know about orphanages is a myth. That they drive families apart, not save children from orphan-hood; that in fact the vast majority of children have a living parent and families; that they cause untold harm and enduring pain and, in the worst cases, they are a criminal scam. The cold, sad truth is that every donation, visit or volunteer that supports orphanages are contributing to ripping families apart, not piecing children’s lives back together.

“Everything we think we know about orphanages is a myth”

The BBC’s File on Four investigative documentary on ‘The Orphanage Business’ on Tuesday night was a critical piece of journalism for this reason – calling all orphanages into question, evidencing their futility and exposing the exploitative orphanage industry. The documentary focuses on the ever-growing ‘economy’ in which westerners are, mostly unwittingly, creating a supply and demand equation that serves to proliferate orphanages across the world. Simply put, if we continue to support them, orphanages will continue to develop and thrive as businesses that can commoditise and exploit children.

What this doesn’t mean is that only some orphanages are bad. Illegal orphanages are on a sliding scale and are one part of the equation. There is no such thing as a good orphanage; it is impossible to create one, no matter how well run or intentioned, all orphanages (legal or illegal) are intensely detrimental to children’s wellbeing and deny them their most basic rights. Almost a hundred years of evidence, including from the likes of Harvard University, have recognised this. The earlier babies and children are torn from their communities and families, and the longer they stay institutionalised, the worse the consequences. So, we’re in a genuine race against the clock, in that every day lost in solving this problem is having a real-time impact on children’s’ lives. That’s why Hope and Homes for Children is advocating with governments to prevent children from experiencing this violation in the first place, to reunite children with families or transition them into supported family care.

“There is no such thing as a good orphanage”

The relevance of the UK’s role in this can’t be overstated. Orphanages are a problem created by the West (having transposed our own system decades ago), fuelled by the West through our support, and one we have a major responsibility in resolving. Last year, following years of awareness-raising efforts, for the first time in history the UK government began to recognise this and made a strong stand against overseas orphanages. Having outlived this horrendous form of care over three decades ago domestically, to mark the Global Disability Summit in July 2018, the UK announced its position that; “the UK government recognises that institutionalisation harms children’s physical, emotional and psychological development…we are committed to ensuring all children realise their right to family care and that no child is left behind”.

The BBC documentary reemphasises the grave importance of this commitment being actioned. Last week, our Private Sector Taskforce (formed of highly senior representatives from the UK’s top companies) met with the head of the Department for International Development – Permanent Representative Matthew Rycroft CBE. They called for the statement to be turned into formal policy and for the Commonwealth – which represents almost a third of the global population and has a political spotlight in the context of Brexit – to make the elimination of orphanages a priority.

It is long overdue that we all had the bravery to look ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge the double standard that is allowing some of the most vulnerable children in the world to be exploited in a system we ourselves rejected because of the damage it causes.

So where is the outrage? This issue rarely hits our newsstands because it has gone on too long to be considered ‘news’. But as this stirring documentary demonstrates, it has never been more relevant. We hope the BBC’s exposure of this issue is a starting point for keeping institutionalised children alive in the hearts and minds of our public and private sectors – and of every individual within them to reflect on their responsibility to act.

(To listen to the BBC File on 4 Documentary follow this link)