Children in orphanages at specific risk of Covid-19
An estimated 8 million children currently live in orphanages worldwide.1 They are at specific risk of Covid-19, both in terms of infection and the socioeconomic impacts of the virus.2 Residential care settings are particularly vulnerable to clusters of infection and children in institutions generally live in very close proximity, accommodated in dormitories and very often have limited access to adequate food and appropriate health services. Children with disabilities are at even further risk as many have compromised immune systems.3 The Vesnova Institution in Belarus, which Ireland’s Chernobyl Children International (CCI) supports, has seen a recent outbreak of the pandemic. CCI is working to provide support for staff and to deliver medicines, sanitation, equipment and food for the orphanage. However as CCI calls for, there is also an urgent need for the temporary evacuation of children to housing facilities where physical distancing and Covid regulations can be implemented.4
Globally, the majority of children in orphanages have at least one living parent or an extended family network that could provide care.5 However any return of children to their family and community must be properly assessed and managed, with systems for family preparation and support to ensure children’s welfare and best interests. There are worrying reports of orphanages being closed down and/or children being forced to return home without any prior assessment or planning, placing children at potential risk.6 Anecdotal evidence provided to Tearfund Ireland from Odessa, Ukraine details the relocation of 90% of children from an orphanage without any preparation or additional support for families.
Children in vulnerable families at further risk of institutionalisation because of Covid-19
Families experiencing poverty and/or other difficulties will be significantly impacted by measures to control Covid-19, including disruption to public transport, reduced income or employment, reduced access to primary and targeted health and social services and the closure of schools. The pandemic has already seen an increase in the level of domestic violence and children are also at greater risk of sexual abuse and exploitation during emergencies.7 Children in alternative care settings may also be a risk as kinship and foster carers may become unwell and/or experience increased financial hardships that put their provision of care at risk 8. There is considerable danger that Covid-19 and these factors may result in the abandonment or separation of children from their families and increasing institutionalisation.9It is imperative that families at risk are targeted by humanitarian and development interventions in order to prevent the unnecessary separation of children from their parents or carers. Programmatic responses to the pandemic should work to support family and community services; and to increase and strengthen alternative care options and child protection systems.
Institutionalisation of children and the global movement to transform care
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, poverty was already a key factor driving institutionalisation leading to the unnecessary separation of children from their parents and community.10 Families were being persuaded to place their children in residential care by promises of education and health care; or being offered money or coerced by
corrupt organisations who deliberately recruit, traffic and neglect children in order to draw in further income. Research has shown that growing up in an orphanage can significantly impair a child’s development and future life chances.11 Many do not receive the education and health care provided. 12 Children in orphanages are significantly more at risk of experiencing abuse and exploitation, including sexual exploitation.13
Volunteering in orphanages has also significantly contributed to the growth of orphanages, as institutions were created to meet the demand from well meaning tourists, volunteers and donors.14 The harm of institutionalisation is further increased by orphanage volunteering as the constant turnover of personnel intensified children’s feelings of abandonment and loss, leading to emotional distress and contributing to a condition known as attachment disorder whereby the child and adult of later years struggles to develop healthy, trusting relationships.15 Orphanage volunteering also presents considerable child safeguarding risks as it normalises access to vulnerable children. Many institutions lack regulation and basic child safeguarding policies and systems and child sex offenders often specifically target orphanages to gain access to children.16 Volunteering in orphanages may incentivise the trafficking of children in order to feed ‘the orphanage industry’ for commercial exploitation which is now recognised as a form of modern-day slavery.17
There is a growing global movement to end orphanage volunteering and to close down children’s institutions. Many countries are working to reform their care systems, seeking to support families, setting up foster care and kinship care as alternative care systems where needed and developing community-based services. The UN is calling member states to prevent and address the harms related to orphanage volunteering, for the progressive elimination of institutions and for resources to be redirected to strengthen families provide community-based care services. 18
It is vital that these care reform efforts are not undermined by the response to Covid-19. Whilst it anticipated that an increasing number of children will be in need of alternative care as the current and long term socioeconomic effects of the pandemic impact on families, we must avoid further institutionalisation and work to ensure that alternative care arrangements, including kinship and foster care options, are enhanced in order to prevent children being placed in orphanages.
Ireland’s own history of institutional care of children featured systematic neglect and abuse. Very few of the children had their developmental, emotional or educational needs met through large scale institutionalisation. Ireland is now committed to supporting parents, to early intervention to ensure that they can continue to provide adequate care and to family based alternative care arrangements including foster care when parental care is not in the best interests of the child.19 We must now urgently address the ongoing institutionalisation of others in our society including people forced to live in the dire circumstances of the direct provision system; people with disabilities and older people. Covid-19 has further unveiled the health risks of institutional systems and the detrimental impact on people’s welfare, rights and dignity of what are often profit making entities.
Comhlámh and the Orphanage Working Group (OWG) are working to support the global movement to transform carefor children. We are calling for all humanitarian and development responses to Covid-19 to specifically target and support families at risk to prevent the unnecessary separation of children from their parents or carers; and to aim to strengthen alternative care arrangements (including kinship care and foster care) and child protection systems in order to prevent children being placed in orphanages. There also needs to be an immediate response to children currently living in institutional care including the provision of medicines and specific support for staff; and the temporary evacuation of children to housing where physical distancing can be implemented.
We are also calling for measures to be implemented to avoid any return to orphanage volunteering and visiting when the pandemic eases. These measures should include the issuing of travel advice warning of the harm caused by orphanage volunteering (including the risk of incentivising trafficking) and encouraging people not to visit or volunteer in orphanages; and public awareness raising and development education initiatives to increase understanding of the issues involved and the negative impact of visiting and volunteering in orphanages including within schools, universities and sporting bodies. We must also work to ensure the EU policy frameworks, programmes and funding instruments do not facilitate further institutionalisation but support family care, community based services and alternative care systems and standards.
Members of the OWG include Comhlámh, Chernobyl Children International, Maintain Hope, Nurture Africa, Tearfund Ireland, The Hope Foundation, The Umbrella Foundation of Ireland and James O’Brien, International Consultant. The Orphanage Working Group (OWG) was set up in 2016 by Comhlámh and a number of volunteer sending agencies who were concerned at the harm caused by the institutional care of children and the particular harmful impact of international volunteering in orphanages. Since then Comhlámh and the OWG has worked to raise awareness of the negative impact of volunteering in orphanages and to support the global care reform movement towards family and community-based care. For further information on the issues, see our report Children First : A Global Perspective on Volunteering In Orphanages and Transforming Care.
3 https://bettercarenetwork.org/library/particular-threats-to-childrens-care-and-protection/covid-19/alternative-care-and-covid-19/program-guidance-preventive-and-responsive-support-to-children-families-and-alternative-care; https://bettercarenetwork.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/COVID-19AlternativeCareTechnicalNote.pdf
10 https://bettercarenetwork.org/library/particular-threats-to-childrens-care-and-protection/effects-of-institutional- care/families-not-orphanages; https://lumos.contentfiles.net/media/documents/document/2017/03/Global_Numbers.pdf