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Poverty, not lack of caregivers, is often cited as the reason for placing orphan children in orphanages. Parents and other caregivers struggling to provide for their children may feel compelled to use orphanages to address an immediate problem. In many regions where material poverty is prevalent, evidence demonstrates the “pull factor” of residential care as the means of meeting such basic needs as food, access to education, and other services for children.

Parents and community members may be under the impression that an orphanage is beneficial to a child because it fulfills some of his or her basic needs, without realizing the detrimental effects it can have on a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. In some regions, teachers, missionaries, and orphanage staff have actively encouraged or solicited parents and families to place their children in formal residential care. In Malawi, for example, over 50% of institutions reported directly recruiting in this way. For many concerned, it may seem like this is the fastest way to provide a child living in poverty with basic material support. However, investing in programs that provide these needs for children living in family care is more cost-effective and reduces the likelihood of orphanage placement. There is also anecdotal evidence that where orphanages do not exist, families and community members are more likely to initiate or seek other ways to care for orphans and vulnerable children within families.

Another significant reason that children are placed in orphanages is because of disability. In Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, one-third of children in residential care are there because of disability. In many contexts around the world, children with disabilities are placed in orphanages because families don’t have access to appropriate support services. Children with disabilities may also be abandoned, at birth or later, as a result of cultural beliefs and persistent discrimination.

Abuse and chronic neglect by parents or other caregivers are also reasons for the placement of children in residential care, especially in the face of alcohol and drug abuse or in cases of untreated mental illness. Here children may be placed in residential care after being removed from their families via external intervention, after being abandoned, or after running away and living on the street. The stress associated with single parenthood, family breakdown, or parental illness, when coupled with lack of access to a reliable social support system, medical care, or services such as daycare, can also increase the risk of loss of parental care.

Children may enter residential care after being separated from their families during natural disasters. In emergencies such as these, parents may also place their children in an orphanage after the disaster so their immediate needs for food, shelter, or medical care are met. When proper procedures are in place, children can be reunited with families after rehabilitative or emergency care has been provided. However, this is not always the case: sometimes children remain separated from their families permanently or for a long time. Review procedures or decision-making processes are often absent when it comes to determining whether orphanage placement is absolutely necessary and appropriate for the child in question. This review process is called gatekeeping.

Gatekeeping can occur within the orphanage, led by managers and social work staff under the supervision of local authorities. It can also be a statutory function of a government body mandated with child welfare and protection with community participation. Ideally, both of these methodologies should be in place to ensure proper assessment and review by the responsible authorities. In Rwanda, pilot projects have established Child Care Networks at the community level that involve community leaders and social workers in the decision-making processes. Gatekeeping mechanisms should determine that there are no viable family-care options available for the child prior to placing him or her in an orphanage. When placement does occur, it should be temporary and/or rehabilitative in nature, with every effort being made to transition the child to family care.


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