Ten Years Later: Lumos Foundation’s Push into Global Child Welfare

Think about it: If an orphanage wouldn’t be good enough for your child or a child you love, why would it be good enough for a child in Haiti, or anywhere else in the world?

This question is at the center of the work Lumos, the nonprofit started by J.K. Rowling in 2005, has been doing for over a decade. Named for the light-giving spell featured in the Harry Potter books, Lumos works to redirect the care of disadvantaged children away from orphanages and toward more supportive settings with their families or in the community.Eye_home_2

Through advocacy, coalition-building and on-the-ground implementation of changes to the care provided for children without families, Lumos is helping to establish new approaches to global child welfare. These new approaches include reunifying institutionalized children with their extended families and providing more support to those families to remain together, and creating healthier community-based placements for children whose parents are truly not able to care for them.

As we reported last September, five months after Lumos officially opened its U.S. office in April 2015, the goal is to end the institutionalization of children by 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, and one the organization has already made steady progress on, moving forward with strategies on several fronts. Recently I caught up with Georgette Mulheir, CEO of Lumos, to find out how progress is going.

In Haiti this work is particularly needed; poverty is high, and Mulheir said others warned them work there would be very difficult.

“People told us not to go to Haiti,” said Mulheir, which gave Lumos all the more reason to invest its time, resources and expertise there. Over 32,000 children reside in orphanages in Haiti; so far, Lumos has begun work with two institutions to move children into families and communities.

“We’ve got lots of really well-intentioned but misguided people who are putting money into orphanages in Haiti and what we want them to do is not to stop supporting Haiti, but to look at whether they can do something different with their financial and human resources,” Mulheir said. “Could they be helping to do economic strengthening with those families so those families can keep their children?”

Lumos has been meeting with the government of Haiti, which has now established a national action plan to get children out of institutions and to establish community-based services.

Mulheir emphasized the importance of alliances in ending the practice of putting kids into orphanages. She sits on the governing council of the Global Alliance for Children (GAC), an organization that mobilizes targeted investments in childhood as a core component of a nation’s social and economic progress. GAC has been a major player in bringing together the resources and helping to collaborate on this work, she said.

About to visit Haiti, Mulheir expects to meet with a number of individuals and groups, including staff from the Clinton Foundation, to talk about ways in which their strategic agendas may intersect.

The Clinton Foundation began work in the island nations several years ago, and is now making a bigger push with its climate and women’s empowerment agenda there by launching the Women in Island Leadership Network. The network brings together young leaders in the STEM fields in the island nations, and helps them mentor and build skills to rise in leadership roles.

Mulheir has been impressed with the warm reception Lumos has received from U.S. nonprofits and foundations. She pointed to the Annie E. Casey Foundation in particular, which Lumos has met with to discuss strategy and learn from its “groundbreaking strategies for how to help local government officials change their policies.”

Another significant piece of Lumos’ strategy in coming to the United States involves forming alliances with religious organizations that support orphanages, and helping them to fund alternatives. Much of the funding of orphanages in the Caribbean comes from the evangelical Christian church community, and so Lumos is working with faith-based organizations–including the Faith to Action Initiative and the Christian Alliance for Orphans–and is also having discussions with Catholic Relief Services. Mulheir said one of the goals is to “get very senior members of different churches around the world to highlight this issue and make sure their congregations are aware that the best of intentions in orphanages are not going to result in the best of outcomes.”

Georgette Mulheir, CEO of Lumos Foundation.

“A century ago, the U.S. was challenging the orphanage model,” Mulheir said. “Western Europe got rid of this system decades ago,” she added. “But now we’re exporting this outdated model to other countries.”

Another key strategy that Lumos is using to end orphanages involves getting the European Union to change its funding regulations. The European Union had been spending money on renovating institutions that served as orphanages when Lumos began advocacy about six years ago to get them to end that work and invest in better options for kids.

“Now it’s a very high priority for the EU,” Mulheir said. As of January 2015, the EU is prohibited from spending EU money on the renovation of institutions, and instead the EU is investing in community-based care.

Also high on the strategic agenda for Lumos are the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which, despite their promise of leaving no one behind, do not include children in institutional care, or children without families. Mulheir said Lumos is continuing to advocate for data collection on children without families, since without any effort to count these children, there is no way to measure their progress on health and education or other outcomes.

Within the decade since its founding, Lumos has helped guide a historic shift away from orphanages and toward healthier living situations for vulnerable children. As the organization connects more with philanthropy’s power brokers in the U.S., and expands into Latin and Caribbean regions, it continues to do systems-level advocacy and cross-sector collaborative work to change the way children without families are treated, and raise the bar for providing quality care for the most vulnerable children across the globe.

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About Kiersten Marek 22 Articles
Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is a clinical social worker in Rhode Island, and a Senior Editor for Los Angeles-based Inside Philanthropy, where she writes about economic and social philanthropy. Kiersten is also the author of Know Thyself: A Kid's Guide to the Archetypes, an identity development workbook.