Covid orphans: Why orphanages are not the answer

A series of harrowing stories about an estimated 1.5 million Covid orphans have hit the headlines in recent months. Our own social workers fear we are entering the worst childcare crisis in 25 years. But according to child protection expert Kristen Cheney, orphanages and international adoption are not the solution for these vulnerable children.

I spoke to Kristen, author and Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, and she explained why we must learn lessons from past humanitarian responses to protect a growing number of orphaned children from multiple risks. These risks include dropping out of school to find work, turning to crime or prostitution to feed siblings, being trafficked into illegal international adoption rings, and ending up in abusive orphanages.

Natalia Fricker: What is your main concern for children orphaned by Covid?

Kristen Cheney: For over a year I’ve been concerned that the knee-jerk response to news stories about Covid orphans would be, “We have to rescue the Covid orphans by building orphanages.” So, when the stories began popping up in the media, in India in particular, I wanted to say something, because we have over half a century of child development research that shows why orphanages are damaging to children—especially to young children’s development.

At worst, ‘orphan rescue’ narratives have propelled corruption and exploitation of children, resulting in perverse incentives to traffic children into institutions—and even international adoptions—for profit. This profit motive is so pervasive that I have been tracking its development in what I call the global ‘Orphan Industrial Complex’.

Just like in Uganda in the 1990s, I fear the Covid pandemic will see the Orphan Industrial Complex kick back in, both with people who are well-meaning, and those looking to make a quick buck. But orphanages are not the answer—not only because they are not an appropriate response for children, but because they are not needed.

Instead, what we should be focusing on is supporting families and communities, not uprooting children from everything they’ve ever known in the name of ‘a better life’.

What we’ve seen in past emergency responses is that more kids are sucked into orphanages locally, and then never get out and suffer all kinds of developmental setbacks. Care leavers describe how they are so sheltered inside an orphanage that they lack skills to navigate the world when they come out and have no social network because they’ve been cut off from their families. The orphanages are like, “We’re your family until you leave at 18 and then on your own.”

Hope and Homes for Children is one of the organisations that’s been working hard to change hearts and minds on this issue. And now is a crucial time because of the propensity for people to rush in and think orphanages are the answer to orphanhood, even though many of the orphan statistics include children who have lost one parent, but still have another living parent or family member to look after them.

NF: What would you say to people who highlight the increase in domestic violence in families due to Covid?

KC: During Covid we know that cases of domestic violence have increased, and some people are using that as a justification for orphanages, but if you strengthen the community, it’s still a better response. And at least in a family setting a child can tell someone, find a phone to call a helpline, or a neighbour might notice the abuse and report it. But children in orphanages don’t have that option, because if they’re being abused by orphanage staff and they have no one else to tell, there’s no way out.

NF: Do you think there is a risk of international adoption increasing in response to Covid orphans?

KC: Well, yes. The thing that tipped me off was a BBC article I read in May about a grandmother in India who was taking care of her two grandkids, because they’d tragically lost both their parents to Covid. She said a lot of people were knocking on her door asking to put her grandchildren up for adoption. That just blows my mind—this ethnocentric idea that, “Well, we can give them a better life.”

And then of course, in the wake of these kinds of humanitarian disasters are the traffickers—often right behind (if not before) the international aid. People don’t like it when you compare international adoption to trafficking, but we know kids are trafficked into adoption and that’s just a reality we have to deal with.

People don’t like it when you compare international adoption to trafficking, but we know kids are trafficked into adoption and that’s just a reality we have to deal with.

International adoption should only ever be a last resort, as per international standards, but too often what we see is that it’s the first resort. Not because it’s in the best interest of the child, but because it’s profitable.

In the case of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, in the first two months after the earthquake, there were calls for intercountry adoption processes to be expedited. At that time, many children were in and out of institutional care because their parents didn’t know how else to care for them, so they used orphanages as a stopgap measure.

Parents would leave their children in an orphanage for a few weeks until they could find a job and then take them home again once they could put food on the table. Then suddenly the earthquake hit and there were orphans who were adopted and whisked away by foreigners when, in fact, by far the best thing for that child would be to provide support for his or her family. Taking children away from their family and their homeland, even in extreme conditions, is not the right solution, especially in times of crisis.

NF: Can you explain what happened, and what lessons we can learn, from the HIV/AIDS orphan crisis in the early 1990s?

KC: Well, the HIV/AIDS orphan crisis is actually something I challenge in my 2017 book, Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS. Was there even an ‘orphan crisis’ because of HIV/AIDS? I argue that in Africa, in some ways, the supposed crisis was averted because a lot of the international government donor attention was given to community-based organisations, which bolstered the existing social safety structure in Africa in which children actually circulate between different caregivers all the time.

Sub-Saharan Africa was certainly taxed by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and many families really struggled, but largely we averted the worst-case scenario of roving bands of kids without parental care. Children lived with aunties, uncles and grandmas and they didn’t feel they were different. Of course, there were some instances of homelessness rising, but it wasn’t solely due to the AIDS pandemic. Other things like poverty, abuse and neglect drove kids to the streets.

Taking children away from their family and their homeland, even in extreme conditions, is not the right solution, especially in times of crisis.

At the height of the AIDS pandemic in Uganda in 1992, there was prevention of mother-to-child transmission and the introduction of anti-retroviral drugs which converted AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic but survivable disease. This meant you could at least live long enough to raise your children. Yet we suddenly saw this burst in the number of orphanages opening, while I was working with kids who were all in families, living with aunties, uncles, and grandparents. So I was like, “What’s going on? Why are all these orphanages suddenly popping up everywhere like mushrooms, when there were fewer orphans than before?”

That’s when I realised it was not really about the orphans at all. It was about this convergence of private donations and faith-based donations and the commercialisation of the whole problem—distorting what the numbers meant to create a response to a problem that arguably didn’t even exist. So, you have orphanages popping up everywhere, some of which are pretty much operating for profit. We must not let this happen again. We need to challenge these narratives of orphan rescue.

NF: What do you think is the most important message to get across to people?

KC: People don’t understand that orphanages are not the appropriate response unless you keep repeating it, repeating it and repeating it. And if I have to be the bad guy, so be it. People always ask me, “How can you tell if it’s a good orphanage?” Usually, I’m all for explaining nuance, but I’ve realised that the only way to get the message across is to say, “…there’s no such thing as a good orphanage.” And keep repeating it. Because it’s hard for people to absorb that.

NF: Our work lobbying governments to fund family-based care instead of orphanages is obviously essential, but what can individuals do to help?

KC: We need to talk about it and share more information with our friends to disrupt the idea that it’s always a good thing to support orphanages. We need to look deeper and understand it. It’s great that young people want to help children, but to help you’ve got to be qualified. So instead of sponsoring a child, do your research and think more about the complexities around these issues, because often the kids you think you’re rescuing aren’t even orphans, or in need of rescuing. Often all they are in need of is support to stay home with their families, where they belong.

Family-based care may not be sexy, but it’s more cost-effective, it’s more sustainable and, most importantly, it’s better for children.

When Sonia’s* father died of Covid, her mother considered sending her to an orphanage to prevent her going hungry. Determined to prevent this, our expert local partners, Child In Need Institute (CINI), stepped in and provided Sonia’s mother, Radha*, with the support she needed to keep her family together. Photo: S Ajay Kumar / Hope and Homes for Children

Millions more children are at risk

As Kristen highlights, children who’ve lost caregivers to Covid are highly vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, and years of abuse and neglect in orphanages. So far, the virus has robbed nearly two million children of their mothers, fathers or grandparents who cared for them i, creating a crisis for a generation of children.

With families under immense pressure, local services overstretched, and government priorities diverted elsewhere, millions more children are at risk of being separated from their families and exposed to unimaginable harm. As Covid continues to exacerbate already fragile childcare systems, we urgently need increased support for vulnerable children and their families to help keep them together and prevent children being confined to orphanages.

Our staff and social workers across the world are working harder than ever to provide families with the practical, emotional and financial support they crucially need to care for children orphaned by Covid and stay together. From Romania, to South Africa, to India.

How we’re preventing family separation in India

In India, since 2017, we’ve been working across two districts in the Jharkhand State (Ranchi and Khunti) to strengthen the formal and informal child protection mechanisms, establish and support community services and link children and families to support schemes to prevent separation.

Since the pandemic hit, here are three ways our local partner, Child In Need Institute (CINI), is preventing family separation due to Covid in Jharkhand State, India:

  • We’re establishing a Covid helpline and outreach programme across three districts in Jharkhand State to provide information, links to health and welfare support programmes and emergency support for those affected by Covid;
  • We’re developing and rolling-out a phone app, KoboCollect, for frontline health workers and community volunteers to identify and track vulnerable children who are at risk of separation (due to losing a parent or care giver to Covid) and link them to support services;
  • We conducted a mapping exercise to highlight the most vulnerable communities and the specific risks they are facing. We then helped the communities strengthen their own community structures to address the risks and prevent separation at the community level.

At a time when Covid has shown us the importance of family, we cannot allow orphanages to become the solution to the surge in vulnerable children and ‘Covid orphans’.

Now more than ever, these children need your help. Donate now to protect children and stop orphanages becoming the solution.


i  Hillis, Susan and Unwin, H. Juliette T. and Chen, Yu and Cluver, Lucie and Sherr, Lorraine and Goldman, Philip et al. Global minimum estimates of children affectedby COVID-19-associated orphanhood and deaths of caregivers: a modelling study. The Lancet. Volume 398, Issue 10298, p391-402, July 31, 2021. Full article available at: and