Closing Down Orphanages…

Written by: Julie Walton Photography by: Whitney Runyon

Written by: Julie Walton
Photography by: Whitney Runyon

Back in 2014, I was in Sri Lanka with a group of girls serving at a children’s home in the middle of the jungle.  In addition to seeing the largest spider I’ve ever seen in my life, it was there that I became aware of a harsh reality that children’s homes (and the orphaned and vulnerable children they care for) were facing.

You see, I had always admired people who cared for orphans.  People who left everything behind to start orphanages seemed downright heroic to me.  Far from the villains throughout Charles Dickens’ books or the Annie musical, these were incredible people.

In 2012, I began taking groups of young people to serve at a network of children’s homes in Sri Lanka.  These homes seemed exactly like the ones I had read about. They were caring for kids with the biggest smiles and worst stories.  And the men and women who ran these homes were just as heroic as I had imagined they would be. They tearfully spoke of the hardships they’ve encountered…one told me in the quiet of an evening that his only dreams for the future were that his boys, HIS boys could one day have jobs and be okay in life.

So when the director of one home tells me about how international policy makers had recently began a large push to shut down all children’s homes, I was stunned.  I didn’t get it. (I still don’t).

Who could be against this?  Where would all of the kids go?

In 2014, these questions swarmed in the eyes of a little boy named Arond.  He was eighteen months old and had lived at this children’s home since birth.  It didn’t matter how goofy I was, I could not get Arond to smile.

Arond* is a great example of what policy makers are trying to address.  They see his hollow eyes as a lack of attachment and fear that this will not be provided in the group home.  And so, they create policies to close these homes. The big academic word is deinstitutionalization. It’s a push throughout academia and global governance to shut down any and all institutional care of children.  The majority of the research centers around the communist models of institutional care seen throughout Romania and the former Soviet Union. Many of these large institutions still exist today. The research is clear: these institutions do not promote healthy attachment nor foster the best case scenario for kids to grow into healthy adults.

But here’s my disconnect: the policy makers seem to rely upon a black and white, one size fits all solution, but have failed to come up with a better solution for 8 million children including my friend Arond.

So today, in 2018, these questions swarm as I study for master’s degree in International Affairs.  I came to grad school determined to figure out this disconnect.

You see, policy has yet to shift these enormous institutions and instead has had its greatest ramifications in small, community borne homes where local men and women are doing their best to care for the vulnerable children in their community.

As I look into the eyes of these men and women, I don’t find Disney-sized villains.  I see men and women doing their best.

You see, for Arond, there is no alternative currently available: no foster care system, no child protection division to ensure that abuse has ceased to exist in his home.  So if the children’s home is shut down, where does he go?

There is extreme tension here.  I often wonder how to prioritize between meeting the short term need and solving the long term problem.  I think children’s homes do both. They meet the short-term need and yet exacerbate the long term problem in some communities.

So how do we deliberately and purposely move forward?

Here’s what I would propose:

  1. Policy makers should focus on shutting down the homes the research clearly identifies.  These are often large, government run facilities built around harmful ideologies and lacking care.  We should work to immediately address this injustice and re-home children into better care.
  2. Research and establish an internationally recognized benchmark for residential foster care.  Look to partner with and support smaller homes as they seek to improve their standard of care.  In the softest part of my heart and the sharpest part of my brain, I believe we need all hands on deck to love this generation that has been orphaned and left vulnerable.  So if there are mothers and fathers working their absolute best to love kids-they ought to be supported and not opposed.
  3. Work with local governments to strengthen child protection policies and establish family based foster care.  I believe we would find hundreds, if not thousands of families throughout the developing world that would eagerly become foster families if given economic support.

But in the meantime, if you care about orphans, please hear me: we cannot just shut down orphanages.  I get that this is a tag line and it feels like a worthy pursuit.

But a little boy named Arond still needs a home tonight.  He needs a safe bed tucked in the jungle of Sri Lanka. He may not know what it means to be loved by a mom and a dad, but he does know what it means to be loved…by a dozen big sisters…aunties and uncles galore.

And today, the little boy with vacant eyes is radiant and thriving.  The children’s home has provided stability and true joy for a little boy whose life began in tumult and tragedy.  We can’t take that from him until we have something better to give him.

Remember how I couldn’t get him to smile?  Want to know who could? His brothers and sisters at the home.  He wouldn’t smile for me because I was a stranger in his home and he knew the difference.

Arond is more than an example to policy makers, he’s a little boy who needs a home…and he didn’t necessarily need me as a stranger to make him smile, but he does need me, he needs us to understand his life and fight for him and many others like him.

They needs us to win this battle AND this war.

I believe we will.

*Name change for protection

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