A child reaching out of a cot in an orphanage

Why do children end up in orphanages

It is estimated that at least 5.4 million children live in institutions around the world.  

There are many, often interconnected factors that push and pull children into institutions. Although the reasons why children end up in institutions look different in different countries and contexts, some of the common factors that lead to institutionalisation are outlined below.

Poverty and lack of access to resources

Across the world, poverty is one of the biggest factors leading to children being separated from their families and entering orphanages. Families facing poverty can struggle to access essential services – which may include health, education and financial support, among many other areas. This can cause difficulties when it comes to providing for their children’s basic needs.

This can lead to authorities taking children away from their families, or parents feeling that the only way their children can access the services they need, is by placing them in an institution. This is particularly the case for specialised, targeted care which, in many countries is not always available in the community.  

Lack of alternative care options

When it is not safe, or right at this time, for children to be in their birth families, and there is no alternative family-based care available (such as kinship care and foster care), authorities may feel that their only option is to place a child in an institution.  


Care systems often discriminate against certain groups of children, families and communities such as children with disabilities. In this context, institutions can incorrectly be seen as an adequate form of care for children whom some in society have lower expectations or misconceptions about their abilities. This discrimination leads to disproportionately higher numbers of children with disabilities, children from certain ethnic groups, and indigenous children being represented in institutions. 

Misplaced good intentions

There is a general lack of understanding of the impact of institutional care, in spite of conclusive evidence demonstrating the damage caused to children. Many people still believe that institutions provide a good form of care. In some cases, well-meaning people seek to volunteer in, or visit, institutions to support children, sometimes called.

The ‘orphanage business model’

In some resource-poor environments, institutions are private, money-making initiatives, often small scale and operating under the radar of authorities. They thrive in environments where there is a chronic lack of availability of support for vulnerable families or where money and donations can be elicited from well-meaning tourists or donors. They are able to present themselves to parents as the sole means.

Parallel, independent and well-funded systems

In some countries, the institutional system runs in parallel to the national care system. Institutions can be well-funded and operate outside of regulated care provision – in many cases funded, and overseen, by international donors. In these instances, in resource-poor countries, in can be difficult for authorities to wrestle oversight and control of private institutions, and prevent children being placed in them.   

Change is complex

The harm of institutions is recognised in global human rights frameworks and policies. However, the process of moving from a system of care that relies on institutions can be complex, expensive and require expertise to oversee and implement complicated policy reform. This change cannot happen overnight and needs long-term commitment and planning.