"I lived for five years in an institution. The time I spent there seemed like an eternity. I felt like I was in a dark maze where I couldn't find the light."
No child should ever have to experience such darkness and sadness. But Dumitrita, the 14-year-old Moldovan child who spoke those words, grew up in a society where there was no chance for someone with disabilities like hers to attend a mainstream school. Fearing for her daughter's future, Dumitrita's mother saw no other option but to send her to a residential institution where she could learn, and at the age of 7, Dumitrita left her family.
A surprisingly common scenario around the world, it is nonetheless tragic and unnecessary. However well intended, institutionalization, especially for very young children, is toxic and often results in lasting, irreparable harm.
We now know there is a better way, and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a blueprint for action that could strengthen societies, help families care for their children, and return the world's estimated eight million institutionalized infants, young children and youth to family life.
The early years of a child's life are particularly critical. More than 80 years of research irrefutably prove the importance of a parent to a child's normal development. Loving, adult engagement with a young child helps strengthen neural-electrical connections in the young brain. Brain scans visibly demonstrate the dramatic difference between the brain development of children who have had sustained, nurturing, one-to-one care from an adult, and those who have been raised without it. Children growing up in orphanages and other institutions are more frequently sick and at greater risk of mental illness than are other children and, as adults, find their life chances limited.
Yet, despite all available scientific evidence, the numbers of institutions are on the rise.
Harry Potter author and Lumos founder J.K. Rowling reflected recently about a visit to an orphanage 10 years ago: "I was shown into a room full of totally silent babies. They had learned that crying brought no comfort and their lack of interest in eye contact was eerie. The photographer wanted me to smile; I wanted to cry."
Soon after, J.K. Rowling launched Lumos as an international non-profit organization to bring an end to child institutionalism worldwide by 2050. Lumos works with governments to strengthen families and build community services, such as inclusive education, health care and social services that help vulnerable families to stay together.
Today (September 4, 2015), Lumos released Children Need Families Not Orphanages, a new animated film narrated by J.K. Rowling, to both educate policymakers and build public and political will for reform.
Holding unprecedented promise for reforms needed to improve the lives and future prospects for all children and their families, Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Global Action will go the UN General Assembly for adoption later this month (September).
In a letter earlier this year to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and other key diplomats, J.K. Rowling cautioned against leaving children deprived of family care out of the global-development framework. With other advocates for children, she strongly encouraged recognition and support for the "critical role that families play in promoting children's development, health, education and protection." The final text now includes a reference to families.
Several SDG objectives have direct impact on the future for children -- including those in and at risk of entering institutions. The second target under Goal 4 states that "by 2030 all girls and boys have access to quality early-childhood development care, and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education." Science demonstrates that family care is essential; early-child development begins in utero, years before a child enters a (pre-) primary-school environment.
To measure success toward Goal 4, Lumos and other organizations are urging the use of the Early Childhood Development Index (ECDI), including its indicator on the percentage of children under age five experiencing responsive, stimulating parenting in safe environments. It also will be important to gather data on children living outside of families/households. To date, such children have been left off the UN's statistical map.
No parent should ever have to make the desperate choice that deprived Dumitrita of her family. Fortunately the teenager is back home today and attends a local school, where she has made many new friends and has become an advocate for other children. Her story is part of a bigger picture of ongoing reform in Moldova, where the number of children in institutions has declined by 70 percent in seven years. It also is powerful testament to the truth that children do not and should not have to sacrifice their right to a family in order to receive an education.
Families and children around the world deserve more. To truly eradicate poverty, foster equity and put all children at the heart of the global development agenda, we must fully support all parents and families in ensuring their children's education, development, health and protection.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 4.