5 compelling reasons not to put kids in orphanages

Whenever there is a natural disaster, like the earthquake in Nepal, there will be some well-meaning but poorly informed outsiders who decide to build an orphanage.

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The short and simple response is: "These children have lost their parents, why take them away from everyone else they know and love as well?"

This article is an urgent plea to please use your resources to help these children stay in their own communities, instead of taking them out. God's beautiful plan for the care of children was the family. As Christians, let's do all we can to strengthen the family and the community, rather than weaken them by separating children from the support network they so desperately need.

But not all are convinced - every child they come across seems to be an exception. So, here are 5 MORE reasons that children are best cared for in their own communities:

1. Science

For decades, researchers have found that residential care, the care of orphans in orphanages or children’s homes, has a negative effect on the psycho-social development of children experiencing orphanhood. You can read a summary of these studies in my book, The Urban Halo (see below how to get it free). 

Here's the Cliff Notes version: dozens of contemporary studies have documented medical and psychological abnormalities arising from institutionalization. These include physical and brain growth deficiencies, cognitive problems, speech and language delays, sensory integration difficulties, social and behavioral abnormalities, difficulties with inattention/hyperactivity, disturbances of attachment, and a syndrome that mimics autism.

Attachment Theory suggests that many of these difficulties result from the lack of availability of appropriate, nurturing, stable “mother substitutes” in residential care.

Simply put - too few staff, too many kids. I know my wife and I struggle to give enough love and attention to our own two kids. I can't imagine trying to meet the emotional needs of 20 or 30 children.

Imagine if we'd had triplets like we planned...arrrrgggghhhh

Imagine if we'd had triplets like we planned...arrrrgggghhhh

2. Lack of sustainability

According to Save the Children, the cost of supporting a child in an orphanage is about TWELVE TIMES the cost of support in a community based care program (yes - there are many viable community-based alternatives). Twelve Times.

The high costs associated with residential care, coupled with the fact that virtually all orphanages are now located in the developing world, mean that resources must be sourced from outside the country. This heavy dependency on major funding from outside the country is a cause for concern.

Orphanages are further limited by the constraints of buildings and staff numbers. Since orphan numbers continue to grow rapidly and outstrip available resources, residential care is not considered a viable option for caring for the majority of orphans in the developing world.

The UN points out that, “orphanages for 14 million orphans simply cannot be built and sustained”.

Folks - we need to get creative! Orphanages are simply not a solution that is going to meet the massive need.

3. Lack of Community Participation

Another important shortcoming of many orphanages is the lack of community ownership and participation - starting with the preference of children themselves. Research into informal fostering suggests that children prefer to go where they feel they will be loved and best taken care of, whereas parents and other adults prioritize economic factors. Parents often place their own children in orphanages because they know that they will be well fed and have a good education. Seldom do the adults consult the children.

Secondly, residential care is a western model of care that ignores the ability of communities to solve their own problems in traditional ways. Communities are not given the dignity of caring for their own orphans. This relates to what has been called the “iron rule” of community development, “Never do for someone what they can do for themselves." - in other words, How do we help local communities care for their own orphans?

We may be poor, but this is home. 

We may be poor, but this is home. 

4. Disconnectedness

In the community, children are able to stay together with their siblings (a tremendous source of solace and support) and maintain a sense of connectedness with their extended family, their neighbors, their childhood friends, their culture, their heritage and their land. Save the Children says, “too often admission to residential care is synonymous with children losing all contact with their family and socio-cultural background”.

Children taken out of their communities are raised in situations which do not prepare them for life as an adult. Orphanages cannot properly prepare orphans for adulthood in the community.

In other words, institutionalization stores up problems for society, which is ill-equipped to cope with an influx of young adults who have not been socialized in the community in which they will have to live.

How does this happen?

Children in orphanages are subject to the routines, procedures and administrative needs of the institution, serving the needs of the home for order, efficiency and conformity. There is an almost complete loss of independence. This is in stark contrast to the normal patterns within a family home and causes serious problems when reintegration into society becomes necessary.

In short, children in orphanages are deprived of the life skills that they would learn growing up in a family and may find it hard to cope with life outside the institution.

Finally, in the developing world where legal protection for minors is largely unavailable, children taken from their communities may lose their rights to their parents’ house, land and inheritance. Sent away from their village, orphans are in danger of losing their meager inheritance: parents’ land and other property as well as their sense of belonging to a family.

5. Abuse

Clearly abuse can and does occur in any situation. Biological parents and extended family are all potential abusers.

However, is there anything inherently worse or more dangerous about abuse that occurs in orphanages and children’s homes? I believe so. Few outsiders are aware or care what takes place in these facilities. As a result many situations of abuse in orphanages go unreported.

Evidence suggests that children abused in institutions may have greater difficulty in reporting the abuse, escaping from the situation, or getting support from outsiders. Due to the child’s utter dependence on the institution, the abuse may continue for a long time. Children with disabilities are especially vulnerable.


So, what can be done for these children? Thankfully, there are lots of great examples of projects helping communities care for kids in the community. I'd be glad to point you towards a few.

Start by visiting Uniting for Children, a website with articles and resources and alternative models of ministry. We owe it to these children to educate ourselves and help them in the best way possible.

Finally, my book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor, will soon be available as an e-book. When it comes out, I'm offering The Urban Halo free to all my subscribers. So, jump on my list for a monthly update and you'll get the first look at The Urban Halo e-book version.