The harm of orphanages (part 3): the lack of stable and consistent love

A child's hands on metal bars in an institution in Kenya

The UN Global Day of Parents (1 June) provides an opportunity to appreciate all parents in all parts of the world for their selfless commitment to children and their lifelong sacrifice towards nurturing this relationship.

I was prompted to write this article after attending an Africa Care Leaving Researchers Conference in South Africa. A participant sitting near the conference hall entrance shot up her hand and questioned whether independent living was the right goal for care leavers. Her argument was that all human lives are embedded in relationships; the reality is that we can’t extricate ourselves from these relationships and hence our narrative should change from independence to interdependency.

But children who grow up in orphanages and similar institutions experience relationships in a very different way from children who grow up in families and this is what I’d like to consider here.

Significant research shows that for human beings to thrive and develop a sense of belonging and identity they need relationships. And not just any relationships but positive and stable relationships. These relationships are often enhanced at the level of the family unit.  However, many children’s institutions have a narrow perspective on the importance of relationships in children’s lives when they intervene to remove them unnecessarily from their families and confine them to spaces that are significantly devoid of relationships; orphanages and children’s homes.

Beyond that sense of belonging and identity that I mentioned earlier, young children need reciprocal, give and take, interactions with an adult to ensure their brain development, behaviour development, personality growth, cognitive development, social-emotional development and even their physical growth. Unfortunately though, the reality is glaring, many orphanages have low ratios of staff to children, making it difficult for children to experience this kind of individualised care. Yet  every child needs a consistent care-giving adult, it is from this one person that they learn to trust and navigate all other relationships in their life.

The lack of stable and consistent love

Without a parent figure, stability or a sense of certainty is often a mirage to children who are confined to orphanages. High staff turn-overs are common due to poor pay and burn-out by staff and  dwindling donor funds, together with  the unsustainability of the model, mean many orphanages close without warning.

One young person from care said at a conference organized in Kenya, that “an institution can be shut down but a family can’t.” This was after the institution where they had lived was closed, and they were told there was no adequate money to support them.

Children need meaningful and enriching relationships with a diverse range of people; orphanages hardly provide an opportunity for this. The interactions with what many of the institutionalized children call the ‘world outside’ are limited. The children’s yearning to experience more diverse relationships is often seen in the way they rush to strangers who come “into their world”, exposing the deep-seated relational deprivations or attachment problems that are caused by the lack of stable and consistent human interactions in these children’s lives.

There is also a question of whether the limited relationships experienced by children in orphanages are even meaningful. A significant number of children within these settings end up interacting just within their circles, with their peers. A worrying reality is that many of these institutions are literally as they are referred to “children’s homes”- dominantly children living and interacting with other children. How much can they learn from their peers who are similarly deprived of the range of relationships that should be part of every child’s life?

One young person from care said at a conference organised in Kenya, that “an institution can be shut down but a family can’t.”

The challenge of becoming a parent, if you never had one

Few adults in their life as children, also means few or no adult role-models later in life for children in orphanages. For this reason, becoming a parent can be challenging for children who have lived in institutions, not only because of the absence of adults to learn from but also because of the skewed gender in staffing; some orphanages are female dominated, others male dominated, depending on the categories of children that they admit. Children who experience these kinds of atypical environments, can hardly understand their roles and responsibilities in the wider world. They  often end up feeling ashamed and inadequate and we point accusing fingers. But it is difficult to expect children and young people who have not been raised in families to bring up their own families.

Just as staff come and go in the lives of these children, so do visitors and donors. This constant flow of new adults through their lives reinforces trust and attachment problems. By disregarding their socio-emotional and psychological needs in this way, many children are left feeling objectified. Additionally, an open door policy to visitors and has exposed some of these children to abuse, including sexual abuse.

An inforgraphic saying: Of those who survive childhood in an orphanage, 23% become homeless, 50% are in contact with the law, 90% are not prepared for independent living

The long-lasting consequences of a childhood in institutions

Research has significantly shown that young people from care are more likely to commit suicide, more susceptible to use and abuse drugs, more prone to prostitution and violence, and are over-represented in prisons, compared to children who remain in families. One of the contributing factors to these poor outcomes is the lack of stable, positive relationships in the lives of children who grow up in institutions.

Policy makers and practitioners have a critical role to play in ensuring that families and communities remain at the centre of children’s growth and development. All services should be developed with and around the family and community, working to address issues that lead to child separation. For example by working to alleviate violence and neglect in households with parenting and psycho-social interventions and by working with families and communities to address poverty. If we know poverty is the major driver of institutionalisation, we should aim to remove the threat of poverty from the family and not at removing the child from the family. And family and community centered approaches should always be explored as alternatives for those children who for different reasons cannot stay with their biological parents.

Some orphanages do meet the survival needs of children. They provide shelter, education, food and clothing- however, children to thrive, need more than these, and as the saying goes, “the most beautiful things in life aren’t visible or tangible, they can only be felt.” Children need people who can laugh and cry with them when in pain and laugh with them in those happy moments. A person who each morning when they wake wants to know if they slept well and at the end of the day, wish them a goodnight. A place where they feel a sense of love, identity and belonging – all these orbit around consistency and caring.

Long lasting and caring relationships are centred around the family which is the fundamental unit of society.  Hope and Homes for Children and other global actors continue to advocate for family and community based care for all children without parental care for them to experience protection and harmonious development as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Stephen Ucembe is Regional Advocacy Manager for Hope and Homes for Children in East and Southern Africa. An experienced social worker, he supports our partners in the region to prevent children being confined to institutions and advocates for a model of care that allows children to grow up in families. In a series of 3 blog posts he explores the damage of orphanages in the African context.

To know more

To know more about the harm of orphanages read the other parts of this blog series: “The harm of orphanages (part 1)” and “The harm of orphanages (part 2)”.