An orphanage is
no place for a child

Calling for Change

Volunteering in orphanages

Volunteering to help alleviate poverty has a two-fold benefit, the recipients benefit and the volunteer is brought closer to the real issues faced by those in need. The benefit of volunteering is often questioned in the context of depriving someone in the local community of employment, but if care is taken over the choice of project and the kind of help provided, volunteering can make a real difference for good.

It is incredible that tourists are encouraged to take part in the short-term care of young, vulnerable children through volunteer programmes at orphanages.

Children in orphanages are immensely vulnerable. There is consistent evidence that children who are institutionalised at a young age develop a variety of emotional, social, behavioural and educational problems. Separations caused by hospitalisation, assignment into foster care or entry into an orphanage cause dramatic disruptions in attachment relationships. Once in institutional care, the routines, staff turnover and large child-caregiver ratios cause frequent disruptions in attachments.

An orphanage is a sign of failure of all other avenues

Out-of-home residential care should not be an option when support can be given to families to take care of their children instead. There is international agreement that residential care is a matter of absolute last resort, to only be used for as short a time as possible, when all avenues for appropriate family care have been exhausted.

Residential care should only be an option when families and communities - supported by government and civil society - are unable to protect children from vulnerability; when early prevention strategies have failed; and when transitional care structures cannot return children to a safe and enriching, non-residential family care environment.

Instead of supporting orphanages, our duty is to support all other avenues of positive, long-term solutions that prevent the institutionalisation of children.

Residential care is up to 100 times more costly

In terms of a large-scale response to the 'crisis of care', residential care has a number of disadvantages. It has been shown to be at least 10 times and up to 100 times more costly than family care. The establishment and maintenance of such facilities may divert external support from families who, with help, could care for vulnerable children at home.

As illustrated in the highly publicised case of David Banda, the Malawian boy adopted by Madonna in 2006, destitute families sometimes place children in orphanages in the hope that their child will receive food and be educated. If directed at families, this additional financial support would enable destitute parents to better feed, clothe, educate and care for their children at home.

Stable attachments develop a sense of security

The most agreed upon explanation for these effects concerns the dependency of children's development on stable and secure attachments to one or more adults. There is strong evidence to support the fact that human infants are born biologically prepared to form attachments to their caregivers and that the neurophysiological templates for human development are dependent on such attachments. Stable, strong and affectionate attachments enable infants to develop a sense of security that supports their exploration of the world and encourages them to seek out new learning and relationships.

Given that human infants are 'designed' to maintain stable contact with secure attachment figures, there is perhaps no greater threat to their developmental integrity than disruption of the 'parent (caregiver)-child' relationship. Repeated early experiences of frustration in their need for stable and consistent soothing and attention, including separations, result in infants and young children developing insecure or disorganized attachments.

The entrance of tourists into caring for vulnerable children

It is on this landscape of child vulnerability that global tourists are encouraged to take part in the short-term care of young, vulnerable children through volunteering in orphanages.

Volunteer tourism operators frequently advertise the enormous 'needs' of both the institution and the children who reside there, and short-term volunteers are encouraged to 'make intimate connections' with 'previously neglected, abused and abandoned' young children and to take part in their daily caregiving activities.

Dissolution of bonds with successive volunteers is damaging

Inherently, the formation and dissolution of attachment bonds to successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children being cared for in such environments. The early adversity faced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, putting them at greatly increased risk for developing disorganized attachments, thus affecting their socio-psychological development and long-term well-being. Consistently observed characteristics of children in institutional care are indiscriminate friendliness and an excessive need for attention.

Do No Harm - Do Your Research

The following two reports are quite detailed, but well worth reading before volunteering.

The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering (Nepal)
Volunteer's Perceptions (Cambodia)

The REPLACE Campaign is supported by International Child Campaign

Child Protection Policy in Relation to Campaigning and Website Images (pdf 370 KB)