By Shannon Senefeld
Among the many charities that will be looking for support in the coming weeks there will be plenty of orphanages, promising that your money will help poor unfortunate children overseas. Many of these pleas will come from faith-based groups. But if you really want to help children, don’t give money to orphanages.
In fact, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) wants to shut these orphanages down. Why? Because all research shows that kids are much, much better off in families than in institutions. And the data shows that most children in orphanages aren’t even orphans. Some 80 to 90 percent of these children have a living parent. They are institutionalized because of reasons like poverty and disabilities. This is a tough message to get across.
A new survey we just conducted highlights one of the major obstacles we face: Americans’ misconceptions about orphanages that often result in misguided support. For instance, the U.S. eliminated orphanages some 50 years ago in favor of family care, but our poll shows 87 percent of those surveyed believe they still exist here. Our poll also showed that:
· 90 percent of Americans think that orphanages provide a vital service for poor and vulnerable children in developing countries;
· Six in ten Americans say they would consider providing financial support to an orphanage overseas;
· Close to half of those surveyed (47%) agree that they would rather give money to an orphanage than to a family living in poverty. A similar number said they would be interested in volunteering at an orphanage.
Americans are well-meaning, but there are better ways to help kids. We are up against an “orphan industry” that knows about and exploits such misconceptions, raising hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. annually for these institutions, even though the best of them retard children’s development and worst of them lead to neglect and abuse. The very presence of an orphanage – often supported by American donors – in a poor community ‘pulls’ children from parents who are hoping for an education for their child, or for help in dealing with a disability that they cannot handle.
Poverty is the number one reason children end up in orphanages. Parents hoping for a better life for their kids -- decent food, a chance for an education -- hand them over. Disability is another driver. It’s very difficult for a family living on less than $2 a day, to give a child with a disability proper and appropriate care. So, these children are often left at orphanages.
The research is clear: institutionalization has a negative effect on children’s health and development that often lasts way into adulthood, as we recently summarized in our report, The State of Residential Care for Children and Implications for Human Development:
Our report shows that children in orphanages:
· Have lower IQs, poor learning skills and stunted physical growth;
· Lose one month of linear growth for every two to three months spent in an institution;
· Have a higher prevalence of mood and attachment disorders;
· And are at much greater risk of abuse and neglect.
We know from our decades of experience working in more than 100 countries around the world that there is a better way to help children than supporting orphanages – help their families. Children are always better off in a family environment that can provide love and individual care rather than in an institution where such personal, caring interaction is, at best, haphazard.
At CRS, we have teamed up with the Lumos Foundation – founded by J.K. Rowling – and Maestral International on a campaign called “Changing the Way We Care.” Our proposal to move children out of institutions into family care is a finalist in the MacArthur Foundation’s “100 and Change” competition that awards the winner $100 million over 10 years to impact a global problem.
We do not question the motivation of individuals, agencies and governments who support orphanages. We know almost all of them want to help children. So, a crucial part of Changing the Way We Care is education to see that this generosity is redirected to help children, not the orphanage industry.
We need to transform orphanages into family support centers that help families facing poverty and other challenges so they can care for their children. So what should you do if you want to help children? Find an organization that supports families and send your donations in that direction.
Dr. Shannon Senefeld is the Senior Vice President for Overseas Operations at Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.