How (NOT) to be Part of the Orphanage Problem

November 2019

How to be part of the solution to family separation in Cambodia

Wanting to help some of the world’s most vulnerable children is a great intention. But without understanding the true impact of your help, you could unintentionally be part of a big problem that is separating 8 million children from the love and care of their own families.

Children who live long-term in Residential Care Institutions, like orphanages, are at serious risk of suffering lifelong damage, such as:

  • Mental illnesses
  • Attachment disorders, which may result in indiscriminate affection, trust issues, anger problems, difficulty expressing affection and having difficulty forming healthy relationships as adults
  • Growth and speech delays
  • Unable to reintegrate into society later in life and then struggle to parent their own children, affecting not only this generation but also future generations

DON’T: Support Orphanages or Residential Care Institutions

An ‘Orphanage’ is a Residential Care Institution. There are many names for Residential Care Institutions that sound well-meaning but ultimately cause harm due to family separation and lack of individualised love and care. E.g. Orphanages, Shelters, Safe Houses, Children’s Homes, Children’s Villages, Boarding Schools, Rehabilitation Centres.

“Just imagine for a moment what residential care would be like for a child… Firstly, you have a constant rotation of caregivers, with someone new coming onto the shift every eight hours. Then, on top of that, you have a steady stream of visitors and volunteers coming in, showering you in the love and affection that you’re craving, and then leaving again – evoking all those feelings of abandonment and proving, again and again, that you are not worthy of being loved.”

— Tara Winkler, TEDx Sydney 2016

In Cambodia, the government policy on residential care is that it should only be used as a short-term and temporary solution for children, after all options to live with parents or relatives have been exhausted.

If you support a Residential Care Institution, ensure that they can demonstrate through their case management process that all the children in residential care are living there temporarily as a last resort. For children who can’t return to biological family, a permanency plan should be developed to transition children from residential care to a permanent family-based care placement, such as local adoption or long-term foster care.

Some orphanages have recognised that long-term residential care is damaging for children and have started the process of transitioning to a family-based care model and reuniting children with their families. If the Residential Care Institution that you support is going through this process, keep supporting them through the transition.

How to identify a Residential Care Institution:

  • Children being cared for by an organisation or institution, outside of a natural community environment. Gated communities with ‘artificial families’ also fall into this category.
  • Many children, generally not related, living under the same roof.
  • Rotating caregivers who are paid.
  • No primary caregiver in the role of parent, providing individual care and love.

DO: Support Family-Based Care

The best scenario for a child is to grow up with the love and care of their family, surrounded by friends and relatives in their community. Often the reason children end up in Residential Care Institutions in Cambodia is because of poverty. Families can’t meet their child’s basic needs so entrust them into the care of an orphanage where they will access nutrition, education and healthcare services. Orphanages don’t have to be their only option. It is much more cost-effective to redirect donations to support families and programs that bring vital family support services into communities. In cases where children are not safe to live with their biological family, the best option is to preserve the relationships in a child’s life and place them with a foster family who the child already knows, ideally in their home community.

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