The 2015 CNN Heroes Award gala was recently held in New York City and broadcast around the globe. Hosted by CNN's Anderson Cooper and featuring guest appearances by a myriad of Hollywood stars and celebrities, the event honors ten "heroes" - "everyday people changing the world."
As in several previous years, CNN continues to reward ill-advised but well-meaning, caring people who build and staff orphanages in developing countries. By doing so, CNN is perpetuating an outmoded belief that orphanages are a safe refuge for children.
An estimated 8 to 10 million children live in institutions, orphanages and so-called children's homes around the world. And depending on the country, 80% to 95% of them have at least one living parent and extended families. It is discrimination, poverty, disability and lack of access to education that push vulnerable families to give up their children. Most families would keep their children with some support.
Children growing up in congregate care settings suffer greatly, especially those who enter facilities between infancy and three years old. Normal brain development cannot be achieved in babies without a one-on-one caregiver, with frequent touch and regular contact - rarely if ever available in an institution.
Despite being fed, without the love of a family setting, many times children will stop growing and even die - a condition known as "failure to thrive." It is estimated that a child loses one month of development for every three months they spend in an orphanage. Separated from family, children develop psychological and emotional difficulties and attachment disorders without a consistent caregiver, regardless of how clean, new or well-staffed an orphanage may be.
Tragically, the abuses children are subjected to can be even more deliberate. My organization, Disability Rights International (DRI), has investigated the human rights abuses perpetrated against institutionalized children and adults for over 23 years and in over three dozen countries. Children in institutional settings face sexual and physical violence at a rate that is much higher than children living with family, in kinship care or with substitute families.
DRI has found children permanently tied to beds and cribs, put into cages, intentionally denied medical care, left for years in isolation rooms or starving to death. Children with disabilities almost never leave institutions and those without disabilities who are set free, usually around the age of 16, have few skills to face the world alone. And most have lost touch with their families and communities, who otherwise would be a support during their transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Recently we documented institutionalized children at risk for being trafficked for labor, sex, pornography, organs and illegal adoptions. According to the US State Department 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, regarding Ukraine it stated,
The approximately 82,000-200,000 children institutionalized in state-run orphanages are especially vulnerable to being subjected to trafficking. Officials of several state-run institutions and orphanages are allegedly complicit or willfully negligent to the sex and labor trafficking of girls and boys under their care.
The recent rise in volun-tourism - where students or vacationers volunteer for a week or two in an orphanage while on holiday - has led to an explosion of unregulated orphanages in popular travel destinations. Owning an orphanage has become a business where children are the commodity and volunteers make donations, which line the pockets of unscrupulous orphanage owners. Poor and vulnerable families are duped into giving up their children to these bogus facilities, often with the promise of providing their children with an education.
In Western Europe, Australia and North America, orphanages have been replaced by supporting at-risk families and extended families so they may keep their children at home, and integrated into community life - a safer, less expensive and more compassionate option. Eastern European, African and former Soviet Union governments are now following this best practice trend. Additionally, UNICEF, Save the Children, the Better Care Network and many other international development and children's rights groups - including DRI - have been out front on this issue for years.
In 2012, one CNN Hero built a school in Uganda, in a village ravaged by AIDS-related illness and death. Because of his good deeds, children were able to get an education, they were fed and he was able to help over 7000 grandmothers in the region with micro-funds and seeds to grow food. As a result, children at risk of ending up in orphanages were raised by extended families and were able to keep community ties.
CNN could do much to educate and re-educate do-gooders, donors and future CNN Heroes for the benefit of millions of children throughout the world. Now that would be heroic.
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