NGO Campaigns to De-Institutionalize Children: Heroic or Misguided?

Disability Rights International (DRI) is a non-governmental organization that promotes human rights for people with disabilities. Children in institutional care, such as orphanages, quickly become disabled, so it is no surprise that DRI has announced that its newest project is the Worldwide Campaign to End the Institutionalization of Children.

Lumos, a charity funded and headed by J.K. Rowling, has also dedicated itself to closing orphanages.

DRI and Lumos are correct that children don’t belong in orphanages. But they also don’t belong on the streets or in dangerous homes. And I worry that these organizations, in partnering with UNICEF, will follow UNICEF’s bad example in trying to care for unparented children.

For years now, UNICEF has set a dangerous precedent in closing down orphanages without tracking outcomes for the children who are reunited with high-risk families. Without tracking outcomes, we will never know if we are simply transferring children from one dangerous situation to another.

We have good reason to be concerned that these organizations will do just that. In promotional materials, these organizations blindly repeat UNICEF’s propaganda that only a small number of these children can’t go back to their families.

First, as any U.S. social worker can tell you, there is a difference between “can” and “should.” Just because a child has living relatives, doesn’t mean a child will be safe with those relatives. UNICEF doesn’t make that distinction.

Second, UNICEF has no data to support its claim that most of the children in orphanages can safely be cared for by their birth families. We don’t have data because UNICEF does not accept accountability or measure outcomes for these children.

And finally, UNICEF, the guiding light of child welfare NGOs, remains a fierce opponent of international adoption (in practice, if not in policy). This has been tragic because many unparented children in orphanages do not have safe and nurturing in-country placements available.

I wish the United States was more of a leader on international child welfare issues. We treat stray animals better than UNICEF treats orphans. Imagine the public outcry if animal shelters abruptly shut down and dropped off all the animals with the people who had abandoned them. And then didn’t follow up. Let’s make sure we are not doing this to kids.

Yes, let’s close orphanages. But let’s also develop thoughtful, methodical criteria for reunification, a broad spectrum of child welfare solutions that includes adoption with the world’s first available families, and be accountable for transparent, measurable results.

Katie Jay is an attorney and blogger who advocates for child-centered welfare policies.

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About Katie Jay 4 Articles
Katie Jay is an attorney and blogger who advocates for child-centered welfare policies. Katie believes that every child has a human right to develop normally within a nurturing, permanent family. She works on legislative and litigation initiatives to establish a child’s human right to family under our domestic and international laws. Katie began her career as a writer by detailing the bureaucratic and political obstacles to adopting her daughter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her blog,, covers both domestic and international child welfare policy, because when it comes to the care and safety of children, there should be no borders.


  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve worked with orphaned children for years. I’ve witnessed first hand the work UNICEF is doing too close orphanages with little work on finding good homes for these children. They knowingly send children back to families that have no desire to have their children. I’m saddened how a group that claims to help children, can be so negligent and careless towards these innocent ones.

  2. Thanks for the well reasoned and thoughtful commentary. All too often as a society we get caught up in the rhetoric around child welfare reform and don’t do enough to ensure that our “reforms” are actually improving the lives of the children that we purport to serve.

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