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.