Orphanages and Reform

I am really interested in what people think about this recent article about Karen Gordon, Adopting a Crusade (by Kerry A. Dolan, Forbes Magazine). I remember first reading about her in one of my mom’s women’s magazines a few years ago. I admit that this whole issue of orphans and orphanages brings up a lot of conflicting opinions and feelings for me.

For one thing, it once again brings up the whole tricky topic of caregiver hierarchies. What kind of caregiving hierarchy is best? The first thing people say is that "orphanages are institutions and all
children deserve/should/need to be with ‘families’ and parents."

Says Gordon,

would love for all children to live in a happy, nurturing home," she
says. "In the meantime someone needs to be dealing with the existing
problem." The unkind reality, she notes, is that most kids in
orphanages will spend an entire childhood there.

In the article, the children in the Hungarian orphanage are cared for in smaller groups of  6-8  with a primary caretaker. So those who say even small groups aren’t as good as a "family home" must be instantly discounting all the parents, adoptive or otherwise, who have 6 or more kids too (and that means a few of my friends). Because if we use that argument we’re saying that one parent/caregiver can’t possibly take care of that many kids at one time.

On the other hand, in Minnesota a few years ago I was vehemently opposed to a proposal for the creation of an orphanage by a well known do-gooder, Mary Jo Copeland. At the time, my reasons for this opposition were the same as the arguments most people expressed; it’s an institution, it’s better for kids to be in single families, staff turnover negates the idea of a "two parent" family benefit, and I was sure that children of color were going to be overrepresented.

There are good orphanages, it seems, like the one featured in the article about Gordon. There are bad ones, we are all aware of from the media (Romania, Russia, China).

But there are good adoptive/foster families and there are bad adoptive/foster families too.

I’ve worked in group homes and I’ve worked with children in foster
care placed in group homes and I truly believe the biggest flaw is not
the group living system with other non-kin residents; it’s the fact
that our country does not value people who provide caregiving services
and pay them so poorly that the staff ends up having a high turnover
rate (this is also common in the other areas that rely on caregiving
staff – child care services, nursing home attendants, personal
caregiver attendants).

Basically, we’ve become a society that doesn’t value anyone who is
unlucky enough to have a family that can not care for them. We malign
and complain over the available options but don’t give a crap enough
to  fund them properly so they work the way they’re supposed to. This
is the case in the South American institutions Gordon works on behalf
of too. Gordon says, ""How do we get the most underpaid,
uneducated group in society to do the most challenging job on the

So what do we make of institutions where the caregivers do not turn
over quickly? Where the caregivers are trained in child development?
After all, I know that most home studies for adoptive parents don’t
require them to have formal child development training, they might have
to take a 16-hour training (in which some basic child development is
covered) –  but that’s it.

From the article,

Hungarian pediatrician, Dr. Emmi Pikler, had
founded the orphanage in 1946 with the belief that orphaned children
could thrive only if they were nurtured with consistent care.

instead of rotating caregivers, as many orphanages do, Pikler has each
one looking after the same small group for several years. Each staff
member watches over 6 to 8 children, compared with up to 30 at other
orphanages, and pays special attention to one child at a time. Infants
are free to roll around on the floor instead of being confined to their
cribs all day. Bath time is stretched to a leisurely 22 minutes per
child to extend tactile human contact.

The caregiver talks to the
baby all the while, strengthening their bond. Children need this kind
of attachment to learn and to develop into healthy adults. Dr. Pikler
believed in this. The care and setting at Pikler are intended to mimic
those of a home to the extent possible in an institution. The right
environment can be delivered without expensive buildings and without
master’s degrees.

So what about all the parents around the world who send their
children to boarding schools? While it is true that these children
still have living parents (or we assume this) it has never been my
understanding that boarding schools provide nurturing and all the
social development and attachment work that supposedly happens in
families versus institutions. This makes me think of David Banda and
his father and the many others around the world who place their
non-orphaned children in orphanages for care and education, much like a
boarding school, because they cannot afford to care for them.

It seems we are saying that children with poor, living parents need
to be cared for by others. Okay, but then why adoption as the "logical"
next step? Because when we are talking about adoption, the implication
is that the adoptive family becomes the "new" family and the existing
family suddenly no longer exists. Why not a formalized guardianship
system? Where people who have the desires and abilities to care for a
child or children do so without wiping out the existing familial
relationships between parent and child?

There will always be a huge gulf between those who are opposed and
those who are in favor of continuing orphanages and institutions. I
don’t think I really know anyone who would prefer them as the ideal situation for children. But what do you think about orphanage reform?!? Is Gordon misplacing her money and her ideas? Should she be working on orphanage abolishment instead of orphanage reform?

By the Numbers [*edited to add that it doesn’t make a distinction here whether these "orphans" are social orphans or true orphans]

Most of the world’s estimated 16.2 million orphans will spend their entire childhood in an orphanage.

1 million Number of orphans in China.

6,500 Number of Chinese orphans adopted in 2006. 1

700,000 Number of orphans in Russia.

3,700 Number of Russian orphans adopted in 2006. 1

6,000 Number of orphans in Nicaragua.

43 Number of Nicaraguan orphans adopted in 2006. 1

Numbers of orphans are estimates from 2003.  1Adoptions into the U.S. only.

Sources: National Council for Adoption; Unicef; U.S. Department of State.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

8 thoughts

  1. In my opinion the only way to have a “formalized guardianship system” would be to establish extremely high standards and pay…. foster care on steroids. A trained guardian would receive a real living wage, housing subsidy, starting at a base of $40,000 a year in order to take care of a certain number of children, be unionized, get bonuses for good performance as reviewed by peers and child advocates, and be subject to regular licensing and performance reviews. Otherwise, no one would do it, or if they did do it the they wouldn’t do a very good job or get burned out and quit after a year or two.
    It would be great if orphanages could be abolished… as long as the alternatives were really better. In some places it seems like there are no alternatives whatsoever.

  2. One of the things that needs to be considered in orphanage reform is transitioning the child out. I know in Kazakhstan many of the children who age out of the orphanage system do not have the life skills needed to survive. Many of the kids turn to drugs, crime or suicide, many girls end up as prostitutes or mistresses.
    In my limited opinion as group homes, orphanages, foster care changes are considered the long term needs of the child need to be considered with the goal of ensuring that child can be a functioning member of society. I think the statement that a family is better implies that the kids will learn those skills. While I know that that is not always true, the orphanage systems in many countries are not doing it at all.
    Changing how care is given is important from the perspective that the kids need to grow up healthy both physically and emotionally. Fewer kids per care giver imply that will happen. But the short term health is only one goal that needs to be considered.

  3. Also check out:
    look under “what we do” in the menu. This organization tries very hard to keep families together, and if they cannot, the children live in homes of various sizes to mimic a “normal” home environment.
    A model, in my mind, of what is possible…

  4. I don’t know the details, but apparently my great-aunt and great-uncle had “semi-adopted” a boy from Mexico. This was probably back in the 1950’s. He would sometimes come up and stay with them for a while, but he didn’t live there permanently. I assume they gave him some financial help. They had no other children. This seems to be one good way of helping children. Wouldn’t these rich actresses/singers be able to help more children if they staffed and run safe, caring orphanages such as the one you wrote about in Hungary? It would be a long-term commitment, but surely they have enough money.
    I have been wondering about the orphan situation in Japan, since that’s where I live. It seems that there are homes for orphaned or abandoned children, and there is not a lot of adoption and no overseas adoption. On the one hand it is sad that most of these children will have to stay in the children’s homes for their entire childhood. On the other hand, compared to some countries there will be fewer children separated from their parents, because: 1) social systems are good for single mothers, 2) the standard of living in the country is high, so poor parents will not need to abandon their children, and 3) there is no particular “demand” for babies, so younger or single mothers are not artificially encouraged to give up their children. The orphanages are really there for “last resort” situations.

  5. Hi christie, your blog looks interesting, I’ll check it out. My father was adopted in Japan and I have a lot of interest in the subject and have written some posts about it. I only lived there briefly when I was small. As far as I can tell, the problem in Japan is that adoption is viewed very negatively, almost like the mirror image of America. The parents and guardians of the children in the childrens’ homes generally don’t believe that adoptive parents could really love the kids, and this contributes to huge proportion that are not released for adoption and age out in the homes.
    There is certainly less poverty and income disparity in Japan than in America, but single motherhood has a lot more stigma. Japan spends many times more money on social services for older people than it does for children and mothers. Another factor affecting family resilience is the breakdown of the extended family into nuclear ones.
    Stateless children of guest workers sometimes end up in the homes.
    In my opinion, Japan’s small international adoption program is run on sensible principles (although legal fees are incredibly high) but there are really, really bad problems with the over-reliance on children’s homes when temporary foster care and domestic adoption should also be used as alternatives.

  6. Offhand I would say I don’t see how one could sufficiently reform orphanages. No matter what they are still institutions and the care is given by paid staff.
    I think human beings need something that only people committed to them as a family is can provide. I think it is tough enough to be successful as an adoptive parent. I’m not convinced I will be, though I will give it everything I have.
    I spent part of my childhood floating around the “system,” and that didn’t feel like care, or home or love or belonging of any kind. It made me numb. It made me permanently unsure of myself. Seems to me an orphanage has to be a far worse case of that feeling I can clearly remember many decades later.

  7. I agree with you re: guardianship being preferrable to adoption. Such systems already exist in the US in the form of gov’t subsidized kinship care, as I understand. Which saves a ton in administrative expenses when compared to non-relative foster care.
    I’ve read that in Africa the cost of keeping one child in an orphanage or institutional village could enable six more to be cared for in a local family. David Banda’s father might have preferred that option had it been available.

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