Comhlámh > Put Children First: End Orphanage Care > FAQs about orphanage care and orphanage voluntourism

Do you have a question about orphanages, orphanage care and/or orphanage volunteering? We hope that this FAQs resource can help you find an answer.

If you can’t find what you are looking for, drop an email to and we will try to respond to any other questions you have.

Take a look at our Put Children First: End Orphanage Care campaign pages to learn more and see how you can support it.


Contrary to popular belief, most children (approximately 80%) who live in orphanages are not actually ‘orphans’ and have at least one living parent. They also have families, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles who are often willing and wanting to care for them. The reason that many of these children live in orphanages is poverty. Often the only way for children of families living in poverty to get an education or access other basic services is via residential care institutions, or orphanages, as they are more commonly referred to by Westerners. However, decades of research have found that growing up in institutional care is harmful to a child’s development, which is why there is a global effort to help keep families together and prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children.

Orphanages may sound like a quick fix solution for caring for children living in poverty but decades of research into child development show that even the best run institutions cannot match the care provided by a family. The solution lies in supporting families, so they can care for their own children. This can include the provision of local services to meet the economic, educational, psychological and special needs of families to prevent family separation. This can include employment skills and job training, daycare and after-school programmes for children and healthcare services.

The reason is three-fold. First, whilst all countries are committed to family-based care, change takes time and many countries are still in the early stages of moving away from using residential care institutions as a response to poverty.

Secondly, the continuing support from well-meaning individuals, charities, churches, educational institutions and companies, is weakening these countries’ efforts to move away from an institutional model of care and diverting resources away from programmes that can help to keep families together.

Finally, in many countries, particularly tourist destinations, the growth of the volunteering industry has driven a rise in the number of orphanages, established to attract support from well-meaning donors and volunteers. Children are actively recruited – or trafficked – from poor communities to pose as ‘orphans’ to generate income.

Indeed. Countries that are reforming their child protection systems are developing laws and policies to prevent children from being separated from their families and unnecessarily placed in institutions. Internationally, Australia is the first country in the world to recognise orphanage trafficking as a form of modern slavery, with the Modern Slavery Act in place since 2018. The UK is also in the process of reviewing its own Modern Slavery Act,
providing an opportunity for orphanage trafficking to be defined within this legislation. These legislative changes will help to protect vulnerable children from exploitation. However, there still needs to be a significant shift in how countries in the global north engage with overseas aid and development to avoid inadvertently fuelling the cycle of children needlessly separated from their families.

Every effort should be made to place children living in orphanages in family-based alternative care. This can include kinship care, e.g. to live with grandparents or other relatives or foster care. There’s work ongoing worldwide right now to develop family-based solutions for children and this is where support should be directed – to support children to have a better life in family-based care. Continuing to direct support at an orphanage is simply propping up a system that is harmful to children.

Children need to develop a secure and stable relationship with at primary caregiver so that they can develop emotionally, cognitively and socially. Many of the children in orphanages have been separated from their caregivers and are extremely vulnerable as these vital relationships in their lives have been disrupted. The lack of individualised care and stable relationships inherent in institutions adds to the children’s confusion about relationships, self-worth and security. The transient and superficial nature of volunteering can exacerbate a child’s sense of abandonment and loss as volunteers enter and then exit it in quick succession from the children’s lives. Children who greet volunteers with open arms, wanting to be picked up and hugged are most likely displaying symptoms of Attachment Disorder. These children desperately want to be loved but that love needs to come from someone who can offer a long-term and stable relationship.

Sadly no. First, these children are vulnerable, and they require specialist care, which should only ever be provided by suitably qualified and trained professionals. Consider this in the context of your own country – children with special needs would never be cared for by unqualified members of staff or volunteers. Secondly, children should be cared for by local people, not international volunteers. Where there’s a skills gap, international volunteers who have been suitably trained may be able to provide training to local people – but this should be as a short-term measure to help strengthen local capacity.

Some volunteer-sending operators are attempting to package their programmes as ‘responsible orphanage volunteering’ or refer to ‘good orphanages’. Don’t be fooled – even well-run orphanages are not good for children.

Volunteering overseas can provide an opportunity to experience a different culture whilst traveling and gain new skills for personal and professional development. However, the main purpose of volunteering is to contribute something meaningful to a community or project. To select the right placement, start by thinking about what skills you have and where these can be put to the best use. Use Rethink Orphanages’ Volunteer Checklist for Responsible Volunteering Abroad to help you choose an overseas volunteering placement where you will be making a difference. We also recommend using one of the Volunteer Sending Agencies who are signatories of our Code of Good Practice. You can see the full list of Code Signatories in the Directory of Agencies.

Volunteering with children can be a very rewarding experience, but it’s not always in the best interests of children. Children need stable, individual – and often specialist – attention, which is why volunteers can cause more harm than good if working with them directly. As appealing as it may be to volunteer with children, unless properly qualified you should never find yourself or other volunteers in a position where you are responsible for teaching or caring for children overseas. If you really want to make a difference in the lives of children and their families, you can achieve so much more by engaging with volunteer programmes that will benefit and empower whole communities to support vulnerable families. Use our Directory of Organisations to help you find a Volunteer Sending Agency that is a signatory of our Code of Good Practice, to help you choose the right overseas volunteering placement.

Several travel and volunteering organisations are increasingly recognising the problems with orphanages and orphanage volunteering. Many have never run orphanage volunteering programmes, and a growing number are removing orphanage volunteering – or orphanage tourist trips – from their products or are in the process of doing so. Find out who these organisations are here. You can support this by choosing to volunteer with an organisation that has taken this stance.

Unfortunately, some volunteer operators have recognised the growing shift away from orphanage volunteering, but rather than change their policies, they are just changing the description of their programmes. Watch out for terms such as ‘children’s home’, ‘safe home’, ‘boarding school’, or ‘children’s centres’ – these are still orphanages under different names. Also, look out for other words commonly being used instead of ‘orphans’ – such as ‘vulnerable’, ‘abused’, ‘neglected’, or ‘street children’. These are still vulnerable children requiring specialist care.

If you are thinking about international volunteering, we highly recommend exploring our ‘Where Do I Start?’ online self-study resources first. Read Rethink Orphanages’ Volunteer Checklist for Responsible Volunteering Abroad to help you choose a responsible Volunteer Sending Agency and help you choose an overseas volunteering placement, where you will be making a difference. Check our Directory of Agencies to find Volunteer Sending Agencies operating from Ireland who are signatories of Comhlámh’s Code of Good Practice.

Whilst your intentions may have been good, this is an example of how children are being used as a commodity and exploited to attract donations from well-meaning tourists. Children should never be used as tourist attractions and such excursions should be regarded purely as money-making enterprises.

Don’t be tempted to visit an orphanage or attend a performance held at an orphanage by resident children – you will just be contributing to the problem, not the solution. Take a strong stance and walk away.

Several travel and volunteer operators are currently going through this process. Having made the decision to stop supporting orphanages they have engaged with organisations working in countries to support orphanages to transition safely. This demonstrates it can be done, but it must be done responsibly. For more information please email

Local authorities and NGOs work with orphanages and authorities to find out why the children are there in the first place. They will set out to reintegrate the children into the care of their immediate or extended family where possible, and with appropriate support to address their needs. Not every child can be reunited with their immediate or wider family. In these circumstances, alternative family-based care, such as foster care, will be identified. When this is not possible or in the best interests of the child, care in a small family-like setting may be identified while a more appropriate alternative is sought.

It’s important to think about whether this type of project is supporting the orphanage industry. It may not involve working directly with children, but it is still helping to maintain the orphanage and therefore indirectly supporting this inappropriate model of care. There are many construction projects available that not only matches your skills but that also will support whole communities.

Sometimes suitably qualified volunteers, for example, a nurse, social worker or physiotherapist, may be needed to support local staff or volunteers. This may be because there is an existing skills gap or a training need. Make sure that your volunteering placement doesn’t displace local expertise but instead helps to strengthen the capacity of the local workforce for the long term.

This Frequently Asked Questions page was adapted from the Rethink Orphanages coalition’s resource, with their permission.