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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.