The delegates at the conference unanimously agreed that home life was the highest and finest product of civilization, the great moulding force of mind and of character. They declared that poverty was not a sufficient reason to remove children from their families. They also stated that poor families should receive financial aid to support their children and that children who had to be removed from their families for safety reasons should be supported in kinship care, foster care or adoptive families, not orphanages.
Roosevelt’s Conference on Children was a landmark event in the history of child welfare. The Progressives had heralded the end of orphanages in America.
Today, we no longer have orphanages in America, the UK or Australia, but over the last two decades, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of orphanages in the developing world.
In Cambodia, the number of orphanages has increased by more than 75 percent since 2005 and the number of children living in orphanages has nearly doubled. This pattern is evident across the developing world.
This boom in orphanages isn’t caused by an increase in poverty or number of orphans. In Cambodia, the number of orphans and the poverty rate are in steady decline. The orphanage boom is fuelled by foreign-funding. The increase in donations from well-intentioned foreign tourists, volunteers and philanthropists has caused more orphanages to open and more children to be separated from their families to fill their beds.
Aside from the trauma of being separated from family and community, institutional care spells lifelong trouble for children and for the adults that they will grow up to be. Young adults who have grown up in institutions are 10 times more likely to fall into sex work; 40 times more likely to have a criminal record; and 500 times more likely to commit suicide.
No matter how well-run an orphanage is, residential care deprives children of the single most crucial resource they need to grow up well: the permanent emotional bond of family. It is simply impossible for orphanages to satisfy this fundamental need.
At best, orphanages are a short-sighted and ultimately futile approach to overcoming poverty. And at worst, they inflict lifelong damage on the children they claim to help.
Right now, there are millions of children across the world who are separated from their families and communities, living in foreign-funded orphanages.
The solution is complicated, but I believe, in part, it lies in redirecting foreign donations to programs that strengthen vulnerable families and prevent children from falling into alternative care systems like orphanages and foster care.