Orphanages separate children from family and “family in community” life that is essential to developing healthy social relationships. Daily life in an orphanage, especially institutions housing large numbers of children, differs greatly from the daily life of family. Orphanages lack the close relationships and day-to-day interactions within a family that lay the foundation for a child’s social and emotional development, self-image, and sense of belonging. It is from growing up in a family that children learn the meaning of kinship and parenting—essential lessons to draw on in their own spiritual growth (their understanding of Abba God) and as they become parents later in life.
“The institutionally-reared women showed a markedly increased rate of poor psychosocial functioning and of severe parenting difficulties in adult life.” 1
Children under two years of age who are placed in orphanages and children who remain in orphanages for long periods of time are especially at risk. Without the consistent and loving care of a parent or primary caregiver, infants have difficulty forming the bonds and attachments that are the cornerstone of building trusting and sustainable relationships.
“I lost my parents to AIDS and then my auntie followed. I was taken and adopted by an [orphanage] where I have lived for the last 5 years…It is an institution not a home. I wish I was left with my poor grandmother with just assistance for care. Today I have lost touch with most of my relatives. We live in homes named by numbers and the so called house mothers…As children we need real love from our relatives not people paid to love us…” (14 year old youth in Tanzania).
Children who have been separated from parental care and placed in orphanages have emotional, spiritual, and social needs that can leave them at risk if left unmet. Children may need help coping with great challenges: the death of or abandonment by a parent, separation from siblings, the emotional toll of illness in the family, or exposure to violence and conflict. When reunification with birth family is not an option, alternative forms of family care such as kinship care, foster care or adoption have been shown to have better outcomes for children’s social and emotional development (as well as their physical and intellectual growth).
To learn more about the impact of institutional care on children, see these Resources.