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Why do institutions damage the very children they are supposed to protect? If there weren't orphanages, where would all the orphans go? How could parents abandon their children? Click on your question below to read the answer to some of our frequently asked questions...


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  • Why are there so many children in orphanages around the world? Are they all orphans?
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    The UN estimates that there are 8 million children around the world who living in are in institutions, often called ‘orphanages’. 1 million of those are in the European region.  Studies show us the vast majority (approximately 90%) are not orphans but have a living parent or family.

    There are several reasons why children are put into institutions, or so-called ‘orphanages’.  There is a strong link between poverty and institutionalisation. Children are also put into institutions due to disability and discrimination.

    Very few children in these institutions are true orphans.  Most have families that want them and care for them but through lack of support for extremely poor families and lack of community-based services, parents are often told they have no option but to place their children in these institutions.

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  • But aren’t these institutions helping children?
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    In some countries parents of children with physical or intellectual disabilities are often made to feel that they have no choice but to place their children in an institution.  They are told ‘they cannot meet their children’s needs,’ ‘they cannot afford to look after a disabled child’ and ‘placing them in an institution is the only way a child will receive an education’.

    Being placed in either a residential special school or disability institution is no guarantee that a child’s medical issues will be dealt with or that they will receive an education.  In fact, research shows that children in institutions are more likely to fail educationally and teenagers have poor work prospects, which will affect their ability to become independent and to contribute to society as adults.

    Sixty years of research have documented that children growing up in institutions often demonstrate delays in physical, emotional, social and cognitive development.

    Placements in institutions, often some distance from the child's birth family, also tend to discourage contact with parents and family, which results in children having less support as they grow up.

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  • Why are institutions so harmful for children?
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    Sixty years of research demonstrates that institutionalisation seriously harms the health, development and future life chances of children.  Studies consistently demonstrate that young people raised in institutions have much poorer outcomes than their peers raised in families. They are at a much greater risk of unemployment and homelessness, sexual exploitation and trafficking and even suicide.[1]

    In many institutions where the staff to child ratio is poor, there are set times for personnel care. This can mean that it is impossible for a carer to respond to the individual needs of these children as they arise, which results in children remaining in a state of discomfort for long periods of time. This has a dramatic effect on the child's ability to focus on anything other than their discomfort - the child may be hungry, wet or in pain. This will limit their potential to play, learn and develop.

    For children with disabilities, this situation is even worse. Children with physical disabilities can spend long periods of time isolated in their beds in the institution with little stimulation and interaction. This can exacerbate their disabilities, leaving them bed bound, with medical complications and in pain. 

    What’s more, living in an institution is a breach of children’s fundamental human rights.  The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that “for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality” the child should “grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”.  Placements in institutions, often some distance from the child's birth family, also tend to discourage contact with parents and family, which results in children having less support as they grow up.

    [1] Mulheir  G., Deinstitutonalistion – A Human Rights Priority for Children with Disabilities, Equal Rights Review, Vol. 9, 2012, pp 120


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  • How can parents abandon their children to these places?
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    There are many reasons why parents place their children in institutions.

    In the UK the main reasons are linked to difficulties the parents are experiencing.  This may be as a result of drug, alcohol or other substance misuse. It may be due to mental or physical illness or due to the parents having learning disabilities making it difficult for them to understand how to meet the needs of their children.  Most parents in the UK whose children cannot live with them love their children very much but due to their own situation and often their own experience of being parented they cannot safely care for their children or meet their needs.  

    In the countries where Lumos works there are far more reasons why parents do not look after their own children.  There will be some parents who have similar difficulties to those in the UK, but there are other reasons why children may be placed in an institution. 

    Some parents of children with disabilities believe that their children will be cared for better in an institution than at home.  Often at the time the child was born there were few services in the community which supported and helped parents to care for their children at home and parents believed that their children’s needs would be met better in an institution.  That is why such an important part of closing institutions is to create community support services for children with disabilities and then provide parents with advice, information and support to care for their children at home with them.

    Another reason for children being placed in institutions is because of the poverty of their parents.  Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have a right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs, it goes on to say that the government of the country should help families who cannot afford to provide this.   Where parents are living in poverty they may feel that their children will have better access to good food and education in an institution than they would have at home.  Again providing community-based family support services and working with national governments to ensure that all children have access to nutritious or experience of providing good parenting to their child.  This will include young single parents who may not get support from their own family. 

    By providing family support services and parenting advice such as parenting courses, more parents are likely to feel confident and supported to care for their children safely at home.  Even where there are child protection concerns there will be some parents who with support and advice are able to recognise the difficulties that they have had, and be able to make changes in their responses to and the care they offer their child, enabling the child to return home to live with them.  Food, a comfortable home and education is an important part of the deinstitutionalisation process.