Written by: Elizabeth Thompson, Development Coordinator – Heartline Ministries

It was a sweltering day in Haiti when I stepped onto the grounds of an orphanage in the capital city of Port au Prince. I was there with a mission group of kind Americans and Canadians who had traveled to Haiti to learn and serve.

We went to this orphanage to deliver much needed new mattresses and clean clothes, and to generally “love on” the children through smiles, songs, painting nails, blowing bubbles, and serving a meal.

Upon arrival, it took me less than a minute to register the reality of what I had walked into – children suffering from devastating neglect and probable abuse, deplorable living conditions, and orphanage tourism masked as well-intentioned helping.

The children were dressed in rags, visibly suffering from malnutrition, and some had obvious skin infections.

A child ran up to me and jumped in my arms, clinging tightly to my neck. This ostensibly loving gesture was a clear sign of attachment disorder, which leads some children to display excessive familiarity and affection with strangers.

Desperation parading as affection. Severe neglect made manifest in clutching arms and legs that wouldn’t let go.

There were no adults present. The oldest child, likely around 14 years old, was left in charge of the children.

I came to learn that the children were locked in their rooms at night. Also, that most of the children were not actually orphans, but remembered their parents and where they came from.  

I was sick with grief and anger. At the evil of child abuse. At the pernicious living conditions of beloved children made in the image of God. That this so-called ‘orphanage’ should be aptly named an institution since the children were not in fact orphans. That every child represented a materially poor family likely deceived into thinking their children would have clean water, food, education, and healthcare – a better life than they could provide – and traded their child for a lie. That the institution director was effectively lining his pockets at the expense of vulnerable children.

As we handed out clean mattresses and clothes, I choked back tears knowing that these humble gifts would soon be removed from the children and sold for profit once the institution director returned. Short-term mission teams had distributed many other gifts in the past, and they were nowhere to be seen.

Through our brief presence and presents that would be taken from the children, we were unwittingly contributing to more loss for children who had already lost so much. It was a painful reminder that good intentions are not enough.

In a place like Haiti, where poverty is endemic and natural disasters tragically occur with some regularity, some materially poor families are compelled to relinquish their children to so called orphanages, particularly if their children have disabilities. Desperate parents lacking the means to provide for their children’s basic needs often believe there is no alternative to placing their children in orphanages.

The “orphan crisis” is indeed a crisis – but one that is misconstrued with devastating results. There are approximately 32,000 children living in Haitian ‘orphanages’ though 80% of these children have at least one living parent. Only 15% of Haitian orphanages are registered with the government. This lack of oversight contributes to the lucrative orphanage industry in Haiti and increasing evidence of children being trafficked out of orphanages.

If we want to make a real difference for orphans and other children at risk of becoming orphans, we need to reconsider our understanding of the orphan crisis – and orphanage solution – starting with underlying myths that compel our action.

International nonprofit organization Lumos is dedicated to ending the institutionalization of children and recently published a compelling report that pulls back the curtain on the Haitian orphanage industry by presenting informative research and recommendations. Let’s take a look at the top five myths of orphanages based on the Lumos report:

Myth 1: Orphanages are good for children

Over 80 years of research demonstrates the extensive harm of institutionalism to child development and long-term physical and mental health. The majority of developed countries ended the institutionalization of children long ago – over a century ago in the case of the United States – because of the proven damage done to children who grow up in institutional care.

We know that institutions should be a last resort option for children, yet enthusiastically promote this antediluvian form of care in developing countries by funding and founding orphanages, often with little knowledge of where the children come from and quality of care they actually receive day to day, not just when we are visiting.

The Lumos report points to evidence that children living without families are at significantly increased risk of being trafficked, all forms of abuse, mortality, conflict with the law, and mental health challenges. Children in orphanages and institutions are six times more likely to be victims of violence than children raised in families, and at much greater risk of being trafficked for the purpose of profit.

There are certainly exceptional orphanages that provide loving, high quality care for children who are truly orphans. Yet even that level of care cannot compare with the flourishing that takes place when children grow up in the context of a loving family.

Myth 2: Children in orphanages are orphans

80% of children in orphanages in Haiti – and most other developing countries around the world – have at least one living parent. It is more accurate to call so called ‘orphanages’ institutions, as the vast majority of children residing in these residential facilities are not true orphans.

Myth 3: Supporting children to live with their families is either too expensive or not feasible

The cost of supporting children to live with their families is estimated to be substantially lower on average than the cost of keeping them in orphanages. Lumos reports that if the basic costs for education and health care were covered, many of the 32,000 children living in Haitian institutions could live at home with their families at a cost far less than that of staying in an orphanage.

Redirecting funds from orphanages to community-based care solutions that strengthen families, and supporting the reunification of children living in orphanages with their families, is not only more cost efficient than funding institutional care, but proven to have considerably better development outcomes for children.

Myth 4: More orphanages must be needed if so many parents are placing their children in them

Most parents who relinquish children to orphanages do not wish to do so, but feel they have no choice as a result of extreme poverty. They simply cannot provide for another child. Lumos reports on the reality of a ‘pull factor’ when orphanages exist – that parents often give their children to orphanages in order to access basic care and services, including food, clean water, education, and healthcare.

Further, orphanage directors in Haiti have been known to pay ‘child finders’ to recruit children for orphanages, promising parents that their children will have a better life.

What materially poor Haitian parents need is not more orphanages, but opportunities and support – opportunity to develop income generating skills to earn a living wage, support to provide for the high cost of educating children in Haiti, affordable healthcare for children, and quality maternal care to survive pregnancy and birth.

Myth 5: Visiting an orphanage during a short-term mission trip is good for the children

Research suggests that short-term volunteering in orphanages, though usually well intended, is in fact detrimental to children. Most children living in orphanages have some form of attachment disorder and do not benefit from the coming and going of strangers who don’t speak their language and stay for a very short time. Children need stable environments, not the disruption and loss caused by short-term, untrained visitors.

By visiting and donating to orphanages, travelers may actually contribute to the commercialization of orphanages, supporting a care model that separates children from their families.

There is a better way. At Heartline Ministries, we work hard to strengthen families and prevent children from becoming orphans by empowering families to stay together when possible, with the evidence-based conviction that children need families, not orphanages, to have strong beginnings and flourishing futures.

By the grace of God and careful intervention of a skilled organization, the horrific institution I visited in Port au Prince has been shut down and all of the children reunited and supported to live with their families.

We pray that all children living in Haitian institutions who are not truly orphans, whose parents chose relinquishment out of desperation, will also be supported to reunite with their families. We pray for the day when orphanages in Haiti are no longer profitable because family and community-based care solutions are widely adopted. Until then, we are working, one family at a time, to keep Haitian children where they belong – in their families.

To learn more:

Listen to Heartline Director, Troy Livesay, share in depth about Heartline’s family preservation work on the Think Orphan Podcast.

Read the full report published by Lumos, “Orphanage Entrepreneurs: The Trafficking of Haiti’s Invisible Children.”

24 Comments

    • Debra

      Man so sad…..I’ve visited an Orphanage close to Creve….we had VBS with them for the whole week…we’ve given to them…hopefully the money went to them…
      The director is always dressed so nice and the children look like orphans….This I don’t understand…

      It’s soooo sad….Lord help!!!!
      Thanks for the info…so helpful.

      • Anna-Cardoso Sherman

        Debra that is sad, PLEASE!! it is up to you to ensure that your hard earned money is going to homes that are genuinely taking care of children. our donors are encouraged to do surprise visits at any time.

    • Kathy Brehm

      Amen, amen, amen! Orphans and human trafficking problems would be so much smaller if we chopped at the root of the problem — the demise of husband/wife, parental relationships, in other words, FAMILY.

      • Ashley @ Heartline

        Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Kathy! I really enjoyed reading about the work you are doing to empower families in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I love Eden Mission’s concept of families helping families.

      • Aimee

        the problem is desperate poverty, maternal mortality, lack of education, lack of adequate housing and food security, lack of sanitation, lack of prevention of preventable diseases – especially vaccine preventable ones, lack of adequate family planning so children have a home with resources to care for them, lack of injury prevention (one of the major killers in developing countries are accidents and injuries), lack of adequate treatment for diseases like HIV so parents can continue to live with and care for their children. there would be no orphan trafficking if families weren’t so desperate as the author points out (thank you for such an important article). For a successful community based program that focuses on work for single parents, safety and food security and education for children and trades education for the parents of grandparents, and housing for some (or support for community housing and for relatives to take in “orphans”) look at the website for Chikumbuso in Zambia. projecting some fictitious demise of the family unit onto this setting grossly simplifies the problem.

    • Michelle Klein

      I went in, my heart aching to help, to heal, to love. I organized and brought down teams to do the manual labor, fund the improvements and much needed donations. I thought, when the process got to be so long, that going down every 3 months would at least be a good start, they would know me, trust me and have, at least, a tiny understanding that we would be a family.
      So the donation bins overflowed, I impressed myself with how much I could stuff into a Rubbermaid container and got to the point where I didn’t even need a scale to check for the weight restrictions. I raised funding for the purchase of things cheaper once there, to buy appliances needed to finish the second kitchen or to buy battery banks for the generator.
      Every three months, this was my routine. Rain, shine, winter, summer, political unrest and civil war. On a plane I went to visit my children, to connect, to love.
      It didn’t matter that many nights I fell asleep to gun fire or that so many trips downtown required an armed guard and an experienced driver to navigate thru the roadblocks, manifestations and slums. I wasn’t in it for me. I was in it for the children I was desperate to bring home.
      Then I got word that the American directors had sold much of the donations to get the money needed for their family to flee the country. They just left. They left their oldest son. His passport had expired. They left the two boys they had pretended to be adopting. They left a room filled with the clothes that had been donated, many to specific children. They left an office full of dossiers and paperwork that they had received from the adoptive families. Most of it unopened and coated with thick red dust from the open windows they didn’t even take the time to close. They left.
      The left everything that was important for us to bring our kids home. And they left our kids. Keys were given to the oldest child, gates were locked and they left. And children died.
      It took 3 years to finally sit next to my children on a plane home. The adjustment was hard….but I can love them through it. I am mom and I can make it better.
      I learned pretty quick that a crèche, very frequently, is someone’s business opportunity. They ran the business or their “orphanage” much like an absentee landlord. Distance yourself and keep the money coming in. They failed. They blamed the people, the politics, the country, the adoptive families, the children. Fingers pointed in every direction except back at themselves.
      It took much longer to realize that I can’t make it all better, that love is not enough. I didn’t know that my quarterly visits, likely, did more damage than good. I mean, after all, I abandoned them NINE TIMES before I brought them home. I didn’t know that I would never earn that trust I craved or that they could, possibly, be completely incapable of loving me back. I didn’t know that bringing this child home to love and to raise would rock the very foundation of my world. I didn’t know that. Helping, healing, loving…..and the damage it caused. To me, my family, most of my relationships.
      I didn’t know.

      • Ashley @ Heartline

        Michelle – thank you for bravely sharing your story and joining your voice in this difficult discussion. We are so thankful for your genuine love for these children and are so sorry to hear about the trauma suffered by all of those involved. We’ll be following up with you via email to see if we can pray for you and your loved ones.

    • LuAnn

      This is one big reason I love working with Trades of Hope…we (Trades of Hope) work with artisan groups like Papillon and Haiti Design Coop to create sustainable jobs so families can afford to keep their children!

      • Ashley @ Heartline

        LuAnn – Thanks for working to empower mamas so they can provide for themselves and their families!

    • Scott Blackburn

      Change the title to Orphanages in Haiti if that view here this article applies. Far too many generalizations here. Not all care homes are bad and when people write and post articles like this it puts those of us in child care ministry in a bad light and makes it even more difficult to receive support. There are so many right answers as to how we (people) care for the needy children in the world none of which will be easy or accepted by the many needed to do the work. There will always be abuses and opportunities for people to take advantage. The key is knowing the Ministry you are supporting, support them well, and visit them often to keep them accountable. Sitting behind a computer screen writing and sharing criticism and not doing anything to fix the problems won’t accomplish much.

      • Ashley @ Heartline

        Hi Scott, Thank you for reading and for taking the time to respond. We appreciate you sharing your feedback and thoughts. We’ll be in touch with you soon via email and look forward to the opportunity to continue this discussion.

    • Kim Chapin

      Excellent article full of important information. Just had a conversation with a new friend whose experience mirrored Michelle Klein’s. After all these years of working in the country, I am surprised that people continue to be naive about what is happening in so many orphanages. Extreme poverty impacts people in the most unimaginable ways. Please continue to educate our well meaning lovers of all things Haiti. Thank you for being an advocate for children and their families!!! Kim Chapin, Mission Team Director, Rays of Hope International

    • Victor Borden

      I agree with the article. I’ve been on 5 mission trips to Haiti and seen first-hand was is described in the article. The idea of keeping children with their parents is exactly what Haiti Home of Hope is doing. American missionaries are on location directing the orphanage. Haiti Home of Hope takes in children for fulltime care only those whose do not have parents or are in situations where the parents cannot help, even when assisted. Serving in Haiti is a thrill and profoundly fruitful in Jesus’ name!

    • Susie Cofield

      I went to Haiti last year. It’s very overwhelming. The corrupt government is the biggest problem. The best asset Haiti has is donations from other countries. USA, Canada and France (and others I suppose) build and pave their roads among other things.
      All the children we met were clinging to us. And they lived with their families.
      Heartbreaking.

      • Ashley @ Heartline

        Hi Susie, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Haiti truly has many, many great assets – especially the resilient and courageous Haitian people. Each day, I am encouraged to see many Haitians striving to make a positive impact on their communities and country. I hope you will continue to connect with Heartline through social media, this blog, and email as we share these stories. I recommend reading “The Big Truck That Went By” by Jonathan Katz for a more in-depth look at appearance versus reality related to how foreign aid and intervention have impacted the country. We appreciate your participation in the conversation!

    • Anna-Cardoso Sherman

      Not all orphanages run that way and ours is a home ANOTHER THING why aren’t Christians adopting? Most of our children come out of the sex trade and have been abused. We do NOT profit from what we do here in Mexico. Our children all excel at school and many come 1st in class. This article reminds me of an extremely selfish self centered young American that visited us: She had tears in her eyes and said that she was extremely disappointed. I was stunned as no one had ever said that before. She then said all our children are clean, well nourished and our home is hygienically clean. Why was she disappointed? Because she couldn’t go back and brag on her mission trip, she didn’t bath a snotty dirty child, she didn’t need to change their clothes to the clothes she brought. (used and stained) SERIOUSLY??? So before anyone decides to stop helping our home, some of our children CANNOT go back to their abusive families. NO they are NOT better off in the streets because the sex traffickers will find them and put them back into slavery. Most of them will not be adopted because the law in Mexico is not in favor to the child but the abusive parent. Yes there are terrible homes that profit and abuse children but its not right to place all homes in the same basket. PLEASE!!!! If you are supporting and orphanage or poor families PLEASE PLEASE!!! CHECK AND FIND OUT IF YOUR MONEY IS REALLY GOING TO WHERE YOU WANT IT TO GO. It’s your hard earned money and they MUST be accountable to you. ANNA SHERMAN

      • Ashley @ Heartline

        Thanks for joining the discussion Anna, I really appreciate that you took the time to share your perspective and experience. It is so important to bring these difficult issues to light. Thank you for bringing up the importance of donors doing their homework on the organizations they choose to support.

    • Anna-Cardoso Sherman

      Please do your homework because there are genuine people world wide doing amazing work to help children.

    • Gaile Jenkins

      Such a sad story and this is only one small country with dire needs for children and families, but we the people who want to “help” need to do the research, to know the best way to help in different countries/orphanages and situations.
      I travel to Ethiopia where there are so many abandoned babies due to extreme poverty, parents dieing from aids, pregnancies due to rape – so many little ones who will never find family no mater how hard investigations are persued, because mothers will face serious jail time if found.
      Lack of Education is a big factor, but so much of the country is remote/distant/hard to access, although the country is trying hard, it will take years and years to reach many.
      All we can do is try our best to help….not trying, is not an option!

    • Jose

      There is no such thing as a good orphanage. Children belong in families not institutions. It is appalling that most developed countries already know that and support children to be with foster families or with relatives when parents are not capable. Yet, many Americans take pride in supporting orphanages in Haiti. Poverty should not be a cause for institutionalizing children.

    • Julie Wright

      I agree fully with Scott – he said things very nicely.

    • Watch Series

      This is one big reason I love working with Trades of Hope…we (Trades of Hope) work with artisan groups like Papillon and Haiti Design Coop to create sustainable jobs so families can afford to keep their children!

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