JK Rowling representing her charity Lumos. Photo: Getty

OPINION

The distressing truth about volunteering at an orphanage

Good intentions are keeping a dangerous industry alive, says the chief executive of NGO Lumos, Georgette Mulheir

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By Kate Leaver on

In 2004, JK Rowling picked up The Sunday Times. On the front cover, a photograph looked back at her: a young boy chained to a bed in an orphanage in the Czech Republic. The accompanying story was about the irrevocable harm orphanages can do to children around the world. It was so harrowing, Rowling set up a non-government organisation; she named it Lumos, after the Harry Potter spell for casting light into darkness.  

By that time, the influential social worker activist Georgette Mulheir had already been working on this cause for more than a decade. She had started her work in Romania, where kids were in particularly horrific conditions, working with the government there to replace these institutions with community-based care, accessible healthcare and viable education. 

Having already worked in the field, Georgette came on board at Lumos at its inception. She has worked with her team over the past 11 years to rescue kids from orphanages, reunite them with their families and give the local government clear strategies to support them. Lumos have just launched a new campaign, We Are Lumos Worldwide, and the first thing they need to do is address our dangerous misconceptions about orphanages.

For a start, there are currently 8 million children in orphanages around the globe – but 80 per cent of them have at least one living parent. So, “orphanages” are not filled with orphans; actually they’re often a desperate last resort for parents too poor to care for their children. This, for me, came as a painful revelation. Georgette has witnessed the moment when parents give up their children out of fear – it’s that harrowing sight, among others, that keeps her going to work every day. And the problem is growing. 

“Evidence suggests the number of children going into orphanages in some parts of the world is increasing,” she says. “While many orphanages are set up by well-intentioned people, some are set up by unscrupulous ‘entrepreneurs’, whose sole motive is profit and who treat children as commodities. I have heard of recruiters encouraging or even paying parents to give up their children with the often false promise of education and health care.”

While many orphanages are set up by well-intentioned people, some are set up by unscrupulous ‘entrepreneurs’, whose sole motive is profit

Once they’re institutionalised, Georgette tells me, children may face any number of horrors. In the larger institutions in Central and Eastern Europe, where it’s not uncommon for 600 children to live, the first thing staff do is shave a child’s head, take their clothes and dress them in uniforms of cheap material. In the worst places, they may be sedated with psychotropic drugs, tied at the hands and feet by cables, or secured to the wall to stop themselves from self-harming. They’re often given punishments that the United Nations would classify as torture; being made to kneel in the snow for an hour, stand in the sun for an hour with arms raised or burned with cigarettes. It’s a cruel intersection of greed, lack of funding, untrained staff and desperation. 

Even the best places are dangerously under-staffed, vulnerable to exploitation, run for profit or detrimental to the mental health and wellbeing of a child. Orphanages are no place for a child, particularly one with living family outside. 

 “Volunteering in orphanages unfortunately perpetuates the cycle of orphanage care, which decades of research has shown to be harmful to almost every facet of child development,” says Georgette. “Children need consistent, loving adult care, which they can only truly receive from families. Orphanages, even those that are well-run, cannot replace the love of a family. Crucially, children learn to make emotional attachments in families. And research proves that attachment is crucial to brain development and the development of cognitive and social skills.”

That research is the precise reason there are no orphanages in the United Kingdom, the US, Australia or Canada. We have enough proof of the harm these places do to a child to banish them altogether from our own countries. Yet, well-intentioned young people help keep this industry alive elsewhere. 

“A constant stream of volunteers to orphanages, young people showing affection to children and then leaving, disrupts the attachment process,” says Georgette. “And that can leave children with many, many problems in their emotional and psychological development. The resulting desperation for affection and love leaves them much more vulnerable to others who seek to exploit and abuse them.”

Georgette strongly discourages anyone from volunteering in an orphanage. It’s just part of her campaign to re-educate people on the reality of institutionalisation for children. She spends most of her time working directly with governments around the world to address the problem. Georgette and Lumos have pledged that by the year 2050, there will no longer be any orphanages operating in the world. 

To find out how you can help or get involved, you can visit WeAreLumos.org

@kateileaver

JK Rowling representing her charity Lumos. Photo: Getty
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