Are orphanages a necessary evil, or is there a better way?

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More than 8 million children live in orphanages worldwide. But as Georgette Mulheir shares in today’s brave talk, given at TEDSalon London Spring 2012, an estimated 90% of them are not true orphans. These children are sent to orphanages because a single parent is not adequately able to care for them, because of rampant poverty at home, or because they have a disability or special needs.

This is something that Mulheir’s organization, Lumos (interesting fact: it was founded by JK Rowling), hopes to change, because children who grow up in orphanages do not integrate seamlessly into larger society. As Mulheir shares, children raised in orphanages are 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record and — shockingly — 500 times more likely to commit suicide.

Mulheir has visited hundreds of orphanages in 18 countries, and notes a similar feedback loop at work in each — children have limited contact with caregivers and don’t get the stimulation they need for optimum development. They develop self-soothing behaviors — like self-harming — that get them labeled as disabled and keep them in institutions long term. This is not necessarily because orphanage personnel are bad people — it’s because they simply have too many kids to care for.

In her talk, Mulheir wonders if there is another way and calls for a radical resource redistribution. She points out that giving support — both financial and otherwise — to desperate parents and foster families would cost governments far less than maintaining large care institutions. With the saved funds, better services could be created for children who need them.

“Children are amazingly resilient,” says Mulheir. “We find that if we get them out of institutions and into loving families early on, they recover their developmental delays and go on to lead normal happy lives.

How bad can orphanages be? Listen to the vivid description in Mulheir’s talk. And after the jump, Mulheir shares a blog post she wrote as she visited an orphanage in November 2009.  She’s happy to report that the last of the children moved out of the institution by summer of 2012.

Mulheir writes: 

The first thing that greets you is the smell: it is a specific stench that, unless you’ve experienced it, is hard to define. It is a combination of stale urine, boiled cabbage and fear.  It remains with you long after you leave the building. And, no matter how much they wash, it is a smell that remains on many children for weeks after they leave an institution and move into a family home.

This residential special school is a three-hour drive from the capital. It is remote, isolated and inaccessible. It is typical of everything that is wrong with the institutional system of caring for children.

The main building is familiar to me even before we arrive – an immense, grey, concrete block, like so many others in the former Soviet bloc. I know the layout immediately, because they were all designed in the same way. I imagine that a factory in some former Soviet republic produced all the institutions for children, in the same way that all trams were produced in what was Czechoslovakia and all the parachutes in what is now Transnistria. An identikit building, designed to homogenise an entire population, and to raise a generation of children loyal to the Party and the State.

Such thoughts are reaffirmed as I enter the lobby of the building: 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, we are greeted by a bust of Lenin. I have been visiting this country for 10 years and I have never seen such open homage to the old regime, whatever people may think privately.

The Director is also there to meet us, eager to show us around her empire. We walk to her office through corridors that are dark and dank. The floors are wet and, as we walk around the institution, 20 metres ahead of us there is always the same elderly woman mopping the floor furiously. Those children we pass do not raise their eyes to look at us. Even when we try to engage them in conversation, their gazes are fixed, firmly, to the floor.

We are taken to the Director’s office for the obligatory discussion about the institution’s history and its incredible success as a school.

“We have 120 children here,” she tells us. “They all have special educational needs and we do our very best to provide a good education for them. But more than that, many of these children come from terrible families. Here we provide them with the care they need – we are their parental home.”

I think about the stench, the damp, the deadened eyes of the children and wonder what sort of home this is.

“We opened in 1956,” she continues, proudly, “and since then more than 5,000 children have come through this institution. We have many successes to be proud of: some of our ‘graduates’ have established their own families and now their children are living here with us.”

There is no irony in her statement. She appears to believe this is a genuine measure of success.

“Our children have many problems, illnesses and terribly difficult behaviours,” she explains. “So many of them have enuresis, but the doctor gives them pills to treat it.”

Enuresis – or bedwetting – is a common problem for children in institutions. Here, it is exacerbated by the toilet situation. I am sure the Director had hoped we would not visit the toilets when she showed us around the building, but we do. The floors are sparkling and, bizarrely, covered in brand new rugs. The stench, however, cannot be hidden. And when I enter each of the five cubicles I find that each is covered in old excrement: none of them is functioning.

It is clear that there are no toilets here that work. For the 120 children who live here, going to the toilet means visiting the latrine outside. In winter, the temperature falls to minus 25°C. No wonder that so many of the children wet the bed.

The next stop on our guided tour is the kitchen. Here, two cooks are preparing a chicken dinner for the children. This, I’m later reliably informed, is a rare occasion. The children don’t often receive meat. As we’re there, a piece of meat falls on the floor. One of the cooks picks it up, hesitates, looks at me, and even though she sees that I’m watching, she throws it back into the pot.

The dining room is next door — dark, dank, huge and Dickensian. Row upon row of bare tables and wooden benches.

We move on to the classrooms. Here we meet some of the children and see them at their lessons. The six and seven year olds are so small. My colleague bends down to speak to one the girls.

“What are you working on?” she asks.

“I want my mum,” she responds, her eyes filling with tears.

Several of the other children also look on the verge of tears. I sit next to one little boy and try to engage with him. He turns away, refusing to make contact. He is terrified.

We enter another classroom, filled with 10- and 11-year-olds. They cope better with our visit. They answer our questions, jump up and say a few words in English, and offer to help me improve my Maths. They are all bright kids. I have yet to see one child who I think would need special education. Again, though, there is a girl looking sad. She sits in the corner, on her own. My colleague asks the Director what is wrong with her.

“Oh, she was at home with her mum for a month,” the Director responds loudly, “but she came back to us yesterday and she isn’t used to it yet.”

The girl begins to cry.

After visiting several more classrooms we are taken to a room you would find hard to imagine. It’s clearly a type of bathroom, dank and dirty, with rusting pipework and chipped and broken tiles on the wall. In the middle of the room is an odd contraption: half shower, half primitive bidet.

“What’s this room for?” I ask.

“This is the female hygiene room,” a member of staff responds. “The girls come here to clean themselves when it is their time of the month.”

A flustered member of staff tries to demonstrate the contraption, but the water is turned off and the boiler is broken. So we move on.

Next are the bedrooms. They are not too large, with eight to ten beds per room. There are brand new blankets on the beds. Their colours are so vivid that the contrast to the rest of the building is almost an assault on the eyes. There is, however, nothing personal in the rooms. There are no personal spaces. There are no personal possessions.

There are just a couple of broken-down cupboards and a shelf. One toothbrush, one tube of toothpaste and one bar of soap sit on the shelf. All of them are still in their packaging, unopened.

There are three corridors of bedrooms, with 40 children on each corridor. For some bizarre reason, there are boys’ and girls’ bedrooms on each floor.

“How many members of staff are on duty at night?” I ask.

The answer is three. They are untrained and unqualified. The Director refers to them as babysitters.

How can one member of staff ensure the protection and safety of 40 children? How easy is it for one child to distract the staff member, while others sneak into bedrooms so they can bully those more vulnerable?

I have seen it before in institutions where I have made unannounced visits. The staff members are drunk or asleep. The children do what they want. The law of the jungle prevails.

Finally, we’re taken to the piece de resistance: the hall where the children ‘play’. A feast has been prepared for us. So much food. So much variety. I am sure the children never see anything like this. I feel sick. We try to refuse, but in the end we must take a small bite to eat. We do, however, successfully refuse the Director’s invitation to a drink of vodka. It is only 10.30am, but she is clearly disappointed.

“What do you think of the reform process and the future of these institutions?” we ask her.

“The reform is a very good thing,” she responds. “We support the reform, but you can’t just leave these children with such terrible families. And if they closed our school, where would our children receive such a good education? We agree with the reform, but only when the community is ready to look after children.”

I know there is no point explaining to the Director that the educational outcomes of her institution are appalling and that studies show repeatedly that children raised in institutions in this part of the world do not do well as adults. I hold my tongue, because I know that I will never convince this Director of the truth.

Thankfully, the local county council agrees with us that this institution has to go. They asked us to visit because they want to close it and they want to know if we can help them do this.

As she leads us to the door, we pass a huge sign on one of the walls. It summarises the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Children’s right to family, to a good education and healthcare. Their right to speak up and be heard.

We thank the Director for her hospitality and say goodbye to Lenin and his young charges.

This place must close. These children deserve better. After our visit, the County Councillor agrees a date for us to meet very soon in order to finalise the plans for closing this institution, so that she can convince all of her colleagues.

By the summer, we hope to able to start finding families for these children. So they have a place they can truly call home.

To hear more about what’s it’s like to grow up a “ward of the state,” listen to Lemn Sissay’s powerful TEDTalk, “A child of the state.”