Predicting the Haiti "Orphan" Rescue

Several days before news broke of the missionaries attempting to take "orphans" out of Haiti, I predicted just that scenario.

It was easy to predict because of the misconceptions the average person has about orphans and orphanages. These misconceptions combined with a desire to help RIGHT NOW laid the foundation for funding and support to go to Haiti and "rescue" "orphans."

Misconception #1: There are hordes of orphans needing rescuing in developing countries, especially after disasters.

There are actually relatively few real orphans. Most children in orphanages have one or both parents still living. If both parents are dead, many have other relatives willing to care for the children if support is available.

If the unthinkable were to happen and you and your spouse or if one of your children and their spouse were to die in a disaster, would your children or grandchildren be sent to an orphanage? Most likely not. There would be grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, and close family friends or neighbors willing care for them. This is also true in developing countries where families often have closer relationships and a greater role in helping each other raise children. Even after a disaster few children are without relatives or neighbors willing to care for them if they had financial support to do so. From the IRIN article West Africa, Protecting Children from Orphan Dealers:

Of the estimated 1,821 children living in orphanage care in Sierra Leone, UNICEF and child protection agencies have verified just 256 as having lost both parents.

One in eight Liberians is classified as a child missing one or both parents. But many of the estimated 5,800 estimated children in orphanages are reportedly not orphans, according to local child rights activists.

MYTH: Hordes of abandoned orphans -- The pervasive perception that thousands of orphans were dependent on international aid was spread, wittingly or not, but a number of agencies. On 15 February Reuters, citing Indonesian government and UNICEF figures reported: "Up to 10,000 Aceh [Banda Ache, Indonesia] children seek parents after the tsunami. " The reality is more complex. Firstly, the numbers: given their physical weakness, a far greater proportion of children were carried off by the waves than adults. UNICEF estimated children comprised half the victims, whereas before the tsunami only one in three inhabitants were children. "We have far more orphaned parents than orphaned children," pointed out UNIECF's Shannon Strother. Secondly, their status: by late February [just 2 months after the tsunami] only 60 children had been identified as 'unaccompanied minors', i.e., left without support from any adult they knew before the disaster. All other orphans between 6,000 and 10,000 according to UNICEF, were in "some kind of foster situation". Their extended family, their neighbors or their friends had taken them in.

Misconception #2: Funding orphanages is a great way to help children in developing countries.

With so much money going to orphanages, often parents or relatives feel that they have no alternative but to give their children up to an orphanage. This was the situation of the parents in Haiti that gave their children to the missionaries. From the BBC

Elvita Dorlis says she loves her son deeply but did not apologize for trying to send him away. She says she simply had no means to care for him after the family lost its home.

"Life was so bad," she says. "He was leaving with foreigners to go to Santa Domingo to look for a better life and things went wrong."

According to the UNHCR report Human Rights in Liberia's Orphanages

The lack of alternative assistance, such as day-care institutions to take care of and feed children, and the lack of a free education system, means that some parents may feel that there are few alternatives to placing children in orphanages.

While there are some instances where orphanages are a good solution, orphanages are the most expensive way to care for children. Institutionalizing children also breaks families apart, sometimes forever. It would be far less expensive and better for families if programs were funded that helped people care for their family members. Because of this orphanages should be used only if no other means of caring for the children is possible. According to the United Nations Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children

Family poverty should never be the reason that the children are institutionalized, instead this should be a signal to help the family. Before that happens families should be worked in to help them keep their children. Whether that be help with livelihoods, counseling, or helping them access other means of social support.

Misconception #3: People that run orphanages always put the needs of the children first

Unfortunately, you cannot automatically assume that any orphanage you are considering funding is really putting the best interest of the children first. In many cases there are other motivations for running an orphanage. Again from the IRIN article West Africa, Protecting Children from Orphan Dealers:

"We are alarmed at the extent to which the orphanages have abused the country's child protection laws," she told IRIN.
Accra-based child protection specialist with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Eric Okrah told IRIN: "Running an orphanage in Ghana has become a business enterprise, a highly lucrative and profitable venture."
He added: "Children's welfare at these orphanages has become secondary to the profit motive."

For orphanages that put children up for foreign adoption there is also the money to be made from adoption fees which can be thousands of dollars.

Does this mean that all orphanages or foreign adoptions are bad? No. But it does mean that donors should always evaluate an orphanage carefully before donating. Look past the emotional appeal and ensure that the organization is following good child protection practices and is truly looking after the best interest of the child.

This link provides guidelines of what to look for before funding and orphanage.