22 March 2019

Why do children end up in orphanages?

Cary lives in an orphanage for children with disabilities in a remote village in Rwanda. She is desperate to live in a family again.

Every child’s circumstances and experiences are different. And the causes behind why children end up in orphanages vary from one location to another.

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.

80% of children in orphanages have a living parent, but are abandoned because of poverty, disabilities or discrimination.

There are four sets of reasons why children end up in orphanages.


Some families struggle to cope, whether it is in finding work, feeding their children or paying for school fees. Many experience housing challenges, or live with mental health problems or social exclusion. Some families are coping with disability and other special needs. Breakdowns in relationships, and alcohol and drug abuse are also common. So families sometimes see orphanages, children’s homes and institutions as a way in which they can improve the chances for their children, and this is fed by a perception that their child will be better off.

THE ALTERNATIVE: But if, instead of concentrating resources in orphanages, we can find ways of supporting these families to care for their children themselves, or when this is not possible, to use those resources to provide suitable alternative family and community care arrangements, we know the outcomes for children will be far better.


The lack of preventative and alternative family and community-based care services means that social workers readily refer children into orphanages. This is compounded by the lack of training and support of social workers themselves to help them develop alternatives for children. They are often reluctant to place children back with their families or to develop alternative family and community-based care arrangements because they do not have the skills or adequate support to provide them. So orphanages are often used as a convenient first resort, instead of being a last resort, as required by the UN Guidelines on Alternative Care. But orphanages are neither safe nor convenient for children. On average, when a child is placed into an orphanage, it is estimated that they will spend eight years confined within it with profoundly negative lifelong consequences. Orphanages should not even be a last resort.


Orphanages, whether state-run or private, are financed on a per capita basis – funding per child. As a service, every orphanage requires a basic threshold of financing below which it could not exist. Therefore, in order to ensure the continuation of the service – whether as individual orphanages or as a wider institutionalised system – a minimum number of children are required to be placed within it. This method of financing inevitably establishes perverse incentives that work against children’s best interests.

The more children that are placed in orphanages, the greater the budget it attracts.

Conversely, because the money does not follow the child in such systems, there is no incentive to place them back into families. Where there is a genuine strategy to reduce the number of children confined within orphanages, the reform process begins to slow down to avoid closure as it did, for example, in Serbia. Wherever orphanages are still open for business there will be financial incentives to build back and inflate the service through the referral of children into it. For example, by the end of the 1990s Uganda had made great progress in closing its orphanages. The number of children in the remaining ones was less than 2,000. Then donor funding was largely cut from the reform process. By 2015, the system had experienced a process of rapid inflation as a consequence of the underlying financing model and 55,000 children were back in orphanages. This was over a period when the number of actual orphans in the country significantly reduced.


There is a darker side to the orphanage economy. There are a small number of cases in which children are actively taken into orphanages and exploited. The condition of the children and the orphanage they live in is used to attract funds from well-meaning donors. This can be a highly lucrative business. Such practices turn children into commodities. Sometimes children are used for labour. But in the worst cases paid access to the children for sex and trafficking inflict the most extreme forms of abuse. For example, some 12,000 children are trafficked out of Nepal every year, many of them via orphanages, into India, where it is estimated by Human Rights Watch that some one million Nepalese women and girls are forced to work in brothels.

Orphanages are NEVER a solution

Orphanages, children’s homes and institutions are unnecessary because children can be successfully reintegrated with their birth or extended families, or provided with suitable alternative family and community-based care arrangements.  With every day that a child is confined within an orphanage, the harm to them increases.

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