Orphanages… Will we ever learn?

September 2019

An increasingly large number of concerned citizens around the world are campaigning to end the era of orphanages. I’ve written a book about the issue. And given a TED Talk about it. Major international child protection agencies, the United Nations, and governments around the world are also trying to raise awareness about the problem of orphanages. However, despite these efforts, the institutionalisation of vulnerable children remains an international crisis.

“Are you content to see these little ones imprisoned in orphan asylums where machine charity clothes them, teaches them by the ticking of the clock, when homes are waiting, empty, to do all this, and add what machine charity can never give – human love.”

Those words are not from a recent campaign. They are from the ‘Child-Rescue Campaign’, launched more than a hundred years ago in America.

The 1907 Child-Rescue Campaign aimed to revolutionise America’s child protection system by rescuing children from institutions and abolishing orphanages.

Campaign, 1907, Campaign, 2014.

How is it possible that we’re still running the same campaign a hundred years later?

Let’s travel back in time to 19th century America. The Industrial Revolution was a period of massive population growth and the cause of myriad social issues: poverty, slums, poor sanitation and health problems had become commonplace in the nation’s overcrowded cities. Because there were few social services for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, asylums were established to fill the gaps.

It was during this asylum boom that orphanages (aka orphan asylums) sprang up in large numbers. The thinking was: forget the hopeless, impoverished and immoral parents (poverty and immorality were often thought to be one and the same); get the children away from corrupting influences early enough and place them in a safe, controlled and supervised environment, and they can be turned into productive, law-abiding citizens!

Just like orphanages today, only 10 to 20 percent of the children living in American orphanages in the 19th century were actual orphans. Most had one or two living parents who were simply too poor to care for them.

These orphanages were far from safe havens for vulnerable children. Many were highly disciplined and emotionally barren places where children were subjected to corporal punishment. Some of the orphanages were run by kind, compassionate people, but even in these ‘good’ orphanages, violence, bullying and sexual abuse was commonplace.

Fortunately, at the turn of the century, a new social and political movement started gaining momentum – the Progressive Movement. The Progressives didn’t believe in asylums. They understood that rounding up vulnerable children and incarcerating them in institutions was not a long-term solution. They believed it to be more effective and humane to address the root causes of poverty, preventing the need for orphanages in the first place. Why not put the funds being channelled into orphanages into establishing better schools, better housing, public health measures and income security for poor families?

In September 1907, the Progressives launched the Child-Rescue Campaign through a popular women’s magazine called The Delineator. Then in 1909, they wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, who subsequently called the first White House Conference on Children. At the heart of the agenda was a request for delegates to acknowledge the merits of family-based care for children.

The first question to be considered by the conference was:

“Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune… be kept with their parents with aid given to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?“

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.

CCT’s Village Hive Model mobilises whole communities to prevent children from separating from family and facing adversity. It is a community-led model made up of dynamic networks of people and services that ensure no vulnerable child is overlooked. The networks in a Village Hive facilitate holistic interventions in children’s lives, taking families from a place of vulnerability to empowerment.

“Those who fail to learn from history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” Let’s not forget the lessons we learnt all those years ago. We have solutions. It’s time to finally put an end to the era of orphanages.

You can help by supporting a Village Hive which prevents vulnerable children from ending up in orphanages.

Visit cambodianchildrenstrust.org/donate to get involved today.


‘Building the invisible orphanage’ by Matthew A Crenson

‘A Home for Every Child: The Washington Children’s Home Society in the Progressive Era’ by Patricia Susan Hart

‘Little Strangers’ by Claudia Nelson