Most 'orphans' have a living parent, says charity

At least four out of five children in orphanages around the world have a living parent, a leading charity says.

November 24, 2009 / BBC News

In a report, Save the Children says some institutions coerce or trick poor parents to give up their children.

As a result, the report says, millions of children are put at risk through living in an institution, and face rape, trafficking and beatings.

Save the Children says resources should go into projects which support families so they can look after their children.

It also wants stricter monitoring of children's institutions.

The report says orphanages in some countries have become big business, with those who run them often receiving financial incentives from governments or well-meaning donors.

Parents who hand over their children to institutions may hope to give them a better future or believe they will be returned to them at 18.

But few are aware they are giving up all legal rights to their child, the charity says, and often adoptive parents do not know the true background of the youngster.


Save the Children says about eight million children are known to be living in orphanages and similar institutions around the world, but the actual number could be much higher as many are not registered.

The report says children have become "commodities" in a growing industry.

"Unscrupulous institutions are known to recruit children in order to profit from international adoption and child trafficking," the report says.

"This trend is exacerbated by the fact that many public and private care providers receive funding on the basis of the numbers of resident children in their care. They are, therefore, keen to maintain high head counts."

Report author Corinna Csaky added: "It is a myth that children in orphanages have no parents. Most are there because their parents simply can't afford to feed, clothe and educate them."

The BBC's Will Ross, in Kenya, says many children there have been forced on to the streets by poverty, the effects of HIV/Aids and last year's inter-tribal violence.

Institutions have sprung up to take in some of these children but there have been complaints of inhumane treatment and the government admits the homes are not always well run, our correspondent says.

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Reading the report

I just read Keeping Children out of Harmful Institutions (KCHI), the report of Save the Children and pretty much like their approach. In many ways the report is an extension of the UNCRC, though due to a narrower scope, it can focus in more detail on the issue of children in care, which the UNCRC addresses in more abstract terms.

Unlike the proposed Families for Orphans Act 2009, KCHI doesn't inflate the meaning of the word orphan by defining it as: a child, both of whose parents are known to be dead. That sets the tone for what follows.

It's interesting to compare KCHI to both the Families for Orphans Act (FOA) and International adoption in the European Union (IAEU), a policy report from Istituto degli Innocenti in Florence, Italy, at the request of the European Parliament.

There is an immediate difference between these three texts, two of them being report, while FOA is a bill, but all three of them address the issue of children in care, each of them in a very different way.

IAEU is most blatant in its focus on and advocacy of inter-country adoption. The report starts with inter-country adoption as its premise and derives from there several proposals to enhance the current practice. While paying attention to other forms of care, it is more as a footnote than anything else. Its aim is to define a European system of adoption. In fact the central tenet of the report is the declining numbers of children adopted internationally. The solutions provided are all geared to a reversal of that trend. So above all else IAEU's aim is to increase the number of children adopted internationally.

FOA is much more covert in its focus on inter-country adoption, but when read carefully it becomes evident the bill is much more geared towards inter-country-adoption, than meets the eye. FOA focuses on "orphans", but in doing so, it redefines the meaning of the word to accomodate the American notion of permanency. Every placement is temporary unless it leads to family reunification or adoption, the only two permanent solutions. The goal of FOA is the promotion of permanency world wide, which in effect means the promotion of adoption, more specifically inter-country adoption. The latter is again not explicitly stated, but can be derived from the fact that FOA is an American bill aimed at the reform of child welfare systems in other countries. What other reason would the US have than guaranteed delivery of children, to seek reform in other countries? So above all else FOA's aim is to increase the number of children adopted internationally.

KCHI derives from the notion that institutionalization of children is often not in their best interest and makes recommendations for family based care as an alternative. There is no special focus on any form of child placement in particular.

Of all three proposals, IAEU and FOA are both very much serving the interests of existing child placement organizations. Especially FOA, is every agency director's wet dream. It provides agencies with federal funding for activities in foreign countries to set up programs that streamline adoption procedures, while at the same time putting pressure on foreign countries, by making foreign aid dependent on the number of children put up for adoption. FOA is truly an offensive bill, which comes as no surprise, knowing it was written by representatives of the adoption industry.

Even though being more openly about inter-country adoption, IAEU is more covert in its goals. Where FOA only needs a second glance to see what is written between the lines, IAEU is a much more sneaky attempt to promote the availability of children for prospective adoptive parents. At first glance IAEU is a report about adoption practices in Europe. It starts with a long section about inter-country adoption statistics, or the lack thereof. Then it describes the legal frame work for inter-country adoption based on the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child, the Hague Convention and various resolutions of the Council of Europe. The report details about the implementations of this legal frame work in the countries of European Union and describes inter-country adoption outcome studies in various European Countries. On the surface, the report seems benign, but the overall theme is: harmonization of adoption practices in the European Union, which is a much less benign issue for those familiar with the recent history of adoption in Europe.

If IAEU is read against the back drop of the Romanian case, it becomes evident what the underlying aim of harmonization is. After years and years of corrupt adoption practices, Romania decided to limit inter-country adoption to grand-parents only. This decision has been met with fierce opposition, both from prosepective adopters and the adoption industry, whom both lobbied the European Union extensively to seek reopening of adoption from Romania. Harmonization of adoption practices and a system of European adoption is a back door way to force countries like Romania to change their adoption laws, thereby reinstating the situation before the initial adoption ban. In that sense IAEU is a first step to help restart the gravy train on behalf of prospective adopters and adoption agencies. In the mean time a system of European adoption provides a layer of protection against the competition of American adopters, by creating an internal European market for children.

Where FOA is a big bad wolf with a strand of wool attached to its coat, IAEU is more like the proverbial wolf in sheeps clothing. Both however seek ways to globalize the market for children and for children´s services.

Save the Children´s report, is a breath of fresh air, compared to these highly politicized proposals. KCHI is a proposal that recognizes the realities of child welfare. It acknowledges the roles of various organizations operating in the child welfare arena and doesn´t hide the fact that adoption agencies and institutions can be operating mainly on self interest.

The institutionalisation of children has become a business in some countries. Children have become commodities within a growing industry. Care institutions and the structures that support them provide employment to a large number of caregivers and other staff, who rely on this model of care for their own livelihoods. They also provide a vital fundraising model for many small and large NGOs and faith-based organisations, which are dependent on donations for their own organisational survival. A reduction in the use of institutional care, or the transformation of institutions to community or family-based care options, could be seen as jeopardising funds. As a result, it is sometimes staff and partners within the care industry itself who are opposed to change. Furthermore, unscrupulous institutions are known to recruit children in order to profit from international adoption and child trafficking. This trend is exacerbated by the fact that many public and private care providers receive funding on the basis of the numbers of resident children in their care. They are, therefore, keen to maintain high headcounts.

On the issue of child trafficking the report also states:

While it is especially difficult to obtain statistical data on the exploitation and trafficking of children in institutions, there is evidence to suggest this is a widespread and growing concern.

Some children placed in institutions are, in effect, then ‘trafficked under the guise of intercountry adoption. Children, including those with parents, are being recruited into institutions for the purposes of financial gain via intercountry adoption. Unscrupulous adoption agencies collude with care institutions to coerce or deceive parents into giving up their children so that they can be adopted overseas. Many parents are persuaded to give up their children in the hope that they will be given the opportunity of education or a better life. Others believe their children will be returned to them once they reach 18. Few are made aware that they are giving up their legal rights to their children. Often the adoptive parents will not know the true situation of the children they are receiving.

It also shows how governments help maintain the status quo:

Institutions are also popular with governments, donors and organisations keen to show ‘results’. For example, it is easier to count the numbers of children in institutions than to quantify the impact of a communications campaign promoting positive parenting. The latter requires sophisticated impact monitoring, including that associated with prevention – an area notoriously difficult to track. Often it is more politically expedient to demonstrate having responded decisively to a problem, than to have prevented it from happening in the first place.

The report concludes with a set of principles:

  • Children should not be placed in alternative care unnecessarily.
  • Efforts should primarily be directed at enabling children to remain in, or return to, the care of their parents or, where necessary, of other close family members.
  • The removal of a child from his or her family should be considered an option of last resort and for the shortest possible duration.
  • The State is responsible, for ensuring appropriate alternative care only where the family is unable, even with appropriate support, to provide adequate care for the child.
  • Any alternative care placement should therefore be decided and provided on a case-by-case basis, by qualified professionals, and should respond to the best interests of the child concerned, in consultation with the child.
  • Alternative care for all children, and especially those under the age of three years, should be provided in family-type settings within the child’s community, rather than in residential institutions.
  • Residential care should be limited to cases where this setting is specifically appropriate, necessary and constructive for the individual child concerned, and should provide individualised and small group care.
  • All care placements must be regularly monitored and should adhere to quality standards.
  • All children in care should have a care plan that is subject to formal review.
  • Children should maintain contact with their families and, where relevant, be placed with their siblings.

It's good to see an organizations as large and influential as Save the Children take an unabashed stance for a child centric approach. In a world where politics and business predominantly choose the side of adopters and adoption industry at the expense of children, it's important there is at least one large organization that takes a different approach. Now let's hope Save the Children puts its money where its mouth is and stop inter-country adoptions through its Finnish branch, otherwise it helps feed a system they claim to be opposed to.

My own two-cent opinion

I agree... large institutions, like the Romanian orphanages of yesteryear, should not exist.  However I'm not so quick to believe private home-care is not without it's own troubled history.  Negligence and corruption have plagued many private/religious groups advertising themselves as protectors of children.  To ignore the ills seen in public and private foster-care, (as it still exists in Canada, The UK, and The USA), is wrong.  Furthermore, denying problems, (like wrongful removal, over medication, poorly screened care-takers, and inconsistent monitoring), simply puts children at risk for experiencing more harm than good, undoing anything that can resemble positive improvement.

I very much like Save the Children's reported belief that family care and preservation should be assisted and respected.  My concern is simple:  not every private home-care provider thinks like an unselfish humanitarian.  Many choose to assist/foster children because it will get them better placed on an adoption-list, or worse, many will take children in their home simply because those who take-in state children are given state-money.

If the greed element can be removed in home-care, I believe more children will win, regardless of geographical location and proposed adoption-option/plan.

In other words, if poor countries follow the UK/USA foster-care example, I fear those poor countries/poor children are headed for serious trouble.  [Can many third-world countries afford the problems the USA is facing, due to failing social services?]

Save the Children offers an interesting proposal, one that should be taken very seriously, because I believe there is an opportunity for poetic justice to be served....

If highly motivated and dedicated groups can remove the selfish greed element, discourage laziness, and focus on family assistance and preservation, perhaps one day, the poor, with proper guidance, can help teach the wealthy how to take care of it's own people, as I always thought God has always wanted and planned for His human creatures.

Pound Pup Legacy