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Orphans

November 9, 2010

Yesterday, November 8, was World Orphans Day.

First a few bits of information about orphans – The pandemic of homeless and orphaned children is exponentially growing, leaving 145 million children orphaned or displaced globally. HIV and AIDS is devastating global communities and millions are facing the horror of war and abuse EVERY day.

I have been hearing a lot about orphanages lately because I am involved with the Rotary Club of Kirovograd, which has been raising money for much-needed equipment for a nearby orphanage, and because a local group of students decided to collect clothing, blankets, etc. for the same orphanage. I also requested a donation of books for this orphanage, which apparently has arrived and I have to go retrieve. In the Kirovograd oblast alone, we have at least four orphanages that I know of (note I say that I know of).

All of these activities and information got me thinking (which, as you know, can sometimes be dangerous) and wondering…so I did some research, and found these statistics (for those of you who don’t like this kind of post, sorry, but it is important information) about orphans in Ukraine:

  • Ukraine has over 100,000 orphans.
  • Only 10% of these are orphaned due to death of a parent; the rest are social orphans – due to alcoholism, abandonment, or imprisonment of parents.
  • Many social orphans have experienced abuse and violence from parents who were drug addicts or alcoholics.
  • Orphans typically grow up in large state-run homes, which may house over 200 children.
  • Many children run away from these homes, preferring to live on the street.
  • Children usually graduate from these institutions between 15 and 16 years old and are turned out, unprepared for life outside the home
  • In Ukraine and Russia 10% -15% of children who age out of an orphanage commit suicide before age 18.
  • 60% of orphaned girls are lured into prostitution. People who run prostitution rings target orphaned girls, who are especially vulnerable due to their lack of options and lack of people who care what happens to them. Though promised good jobs, they end up on the streets and brothels of cities across Europe.
  • 70% of the boys become hardened criminals. Most of the boys will commit crimes once leaving the orphanage. Many of these will die young of violence or end up in prison. Most inmates contract TB in prison.

Orphans in Ukraine are at a higher risk of becoming victims of human trafficking and contracting HIV. They are also looked down upon by many people that I have talked to – because they were unlucky enough to become orphaned.

I’m not going to write a soliloquy about how bad you should feel that you are privileged and these children are not. I don’t claim to have an answer to the challenges presented by the large number of orphans and how they grow up here. I am merely trying to shed a light on a very real situation, that many of us in Peace Corps encounter (indeed, I know people who work with orphans on a daily basis).

I also looked up information on orphanages in the United States. Yes, we still have them. Never heard of them? Ever hear of a group home, children’s home, rehabilitation center or youth treatment center? Then you have heard of orphanages, just under a different guise. Indeed, our foster care system in the United States does not have the capacity to host all of the children who are orphans. What I did not know until recently was the history of orphanages in the United States – and it is not really a pretty one. Here are some of the “high points”:

  • Orphanages sprang up in large numbers in the early 1800s as part of an American institutional building boom.
  • In pre-industrial America, orphans were indentured to foster families in exchange for their work (Yep, that’s right – these kids, for being orphans, were punished through indentured servitude).
  • By the 1860s, reformers sought to provide shelter and education and believed that separating children from adults in almshouses, placing them in institutions in rural areas, structuring their activities, and educating them would turn them into good citizens. For children who had already experienced a “life of vice” in the city, the reformers established industrial homes, houses of refuge, and reformatories with an emphasis on work and vocational education. The innocent poor–orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children–were educated in orphanages.
  • At any given time, no more than 10 to 20 percent of the children in orphanages were actual orphans. Most had one or two living parents who were unable (usually due to poverty), unwilling, or had been deemed unfit to care for them. Many of the children had been rescued from another institution, the poorhouse, where conditions were often abysmal.
  • Orphanages shipped children to other states on so-called orphan trains; the Midwest was a popular destination.
  • Many orphanages did not admit young children. Few orphanages had nurseries. Big cities had foundling hospitals, but single working mothers often used baby farms for their newborns. In baby farms, foster mothers nursed the babies, waited for them to die, or sold them for adoption. The death rates in all infant institutions were staggering, either because the abandoned children arrived at the hospital already starved and sick from exposure to the elements or because of contagious diseases.
  • In 1909, at a White House conference called by President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss children’s welfare, two hundred social workers declared that the best method of caring for dependent children was at home or in an alternative family. Institutions, they said, should be considered the last resort. For children who needed an alternative home, they suggested placements in screened, unpaid foster homes under the supervision of social workers. The children were expected to attend school and work for their board.
  • From the 1920s on, charities started to close their institutions, creating foster care agencies adhering to the social work preference for foster care over institutionalization
  • The 1935 Aid for Dependent Children legislation made it possible for more families to care for children whom they might otherwise have had to place in orphanages. By then, many orphanages had shifted their mission to caring for children with mental, emotional, and physical problems. Social workers preferred to put healthy children in foster families and pay for their board. Disabled children were left in institutions.
  • The anti-institution movement of the 1960s closed most of the remaining orphanages. But the number of children in foster care did not diminish, and by the 1980s foster care was in crisis. The system faced a shortage of foster parents, inadequate supervision, high staff turnover, and children who were moved from one placement to another. In some cases there was also abuse, neglect, and death of children in foster homes. In 1994, Congressman Newt Gingrich, suggested a return to orphanages.

Again, I don’t claim to have an answer to the challenge we are faced with because of the other social problems that lead children to become orphans. But I don’t think we should be blaming the children for having the misfortune of one or both parents dying, or giving them up. What we should be doing, rather than punishing children, is providing them with education, life skills, and opportunities – not leaving them to become victims of traffickers, or to develop the survival skills that leads many to crime.

Think about it – by taking care of the most vulnerable, we benefit as a society. It is more beneficial for our future, as well as theirs.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Gail permalink
    November 10, 2010 9:50 am

    The statistics on orphans are staggering. Many people like myself who adopted from Ukraine try to help the children left behind but the need is so great. It is often difficult to see any progress. I and most other adoptive parents though keep on trying to make a difference because every day we see a reminder of the great kids that are unfortunately left in orphanages.

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