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Story Publication logo October 16, 2018

The Lasting Pain of Children Sent to Orphanages, Rather Than Families


Image by Shawn Talbot /

We’ve all heard stories about abusive orphanages. But there’s a bigger problem: good orphanages...

A visit to the Asociación Amigos del Niño Ayume orphanage in Bogota. Image by Tech. Sgt. Lesley Waters [CC BY 4.0]. Colombia, 2012.
A visit to the Asociación Amigos del Niño Ayume orphanage in Bogota. Image by Tech. Sgt. Lesley Waters [CC BY 4.0]. Colombia, 2012.

This is the first in a two-part series from The New York Times.

President Trump is considering reviving the policy of separating immigrant families at the border. He is doing so not despite the policy's cruelty, but because of it — he considers it an effective deterrent. Whether it deters Latin American immigration is unclear. But the stories of children taken from their parents, locked into institutions, and even being lost in the system, are certainly heartbreaking to many Americans. They grab us like no other issue concerning immigration.

Those stories touch us because we know that children belong with their families, whenever possible.

The sad truth, though, is that border separations aren't the only way that Americans are helping to take children in poor countries away from their parents. Well-meaning Americans (and Europeans and Australians) do exactly that when they volunteer at and support orphanages.

Millions of people volunteer abroad every year — students, taking-a-break students, church members. Often they go to provide care and affection to children in orphanages.

"There is an association with volunteering — that orphanages are a place I can help the most. It's what comes to mind," said Jessi Warner, chief operating officer of Projects Abroad, a company that links travelers to volunteer work.

But such volunteers might be doing more harm than good. Rich countries closed their orphanages long ago. Decades of research shows that institutions — even the best — harm children, who simply do better in every way in a family. Within one, they can get consistent adult attention and engagement. But orphanages are expanding in poor countries.

What could caring people support that actually helps vulnerable children in poor countries? The same strategies that wealthy countries use: family reunification and foster care.

"Shifting children from low-nurture institutions to high-quality foster programs can produce very notable increases in measures of well-being, including I.Q.," said Jedd Medefind, the president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which seeks to increase family care of vulnerable children. "At the same time, it's important to acknowledge that foster care is far less than ideal for most children as a long-term option. The very best for children is a safe, permanent, nurturing family."

Philip and Jill Aspegren are American Christian missionaries living in Costa Rica, where they run Casa Viva, an organization that has branches in the capital, San José, and in two other cities. While many missionaries run orphanages (and the Aspegrens once did), Casa Viva is different. No children live there. Its goal is to unite children with a family, preferably the child's own family.

When a family abandons a child, or Costa Rica's child protection agency removes a child because of neglect or abuse, Casa Viva makes sure the children are well cared for while they wait for reunification — or if that's not possible, adoption. It recruits foster families in local churches, and trains and supports them. It supervises weekly visits between children and their original families, when appropriate. This year, Mr. Aspegren said, Casa Viva will work with more than 200 children in foster families.

"People who get into orphanage work think they're doing the best for kids," Mr. Aspegren said. "They give them a home and food. But kids need love and connection more than they need that."

In Latin America, as in most developing countries, orphanages are the standard. About 240,000 children live in orphanages in the region. Matilde Luna, the director of the Latin American Network for Foster Care, estimates that only about 60,000 children are in foster care. The network is trying to increase that number; for example, it has pilot foster care programs in five Mexican states.

Latin Americans prize themselves on valuing family. "When a child loses his parents, it's common to be with grandparents or an aunt, and this happens spontaneously," Ms. Luna said. Nothing in the culture suggests that children belong in institutions, she said, yet foster care as a public policy is not established in many countries.

You've probably heard the horror stories about children abused by foster families, even in wealthy countries. These failures, though real, are the story of a small percentage of children, because successes don't make it into the news. A much more widespread problem is that children in foster care don't get the services they need, and many wind up dropping out of school, pregnant, or incarcerated. (The outcomes would be far worse and tragedy more common if those children came from orphanages.) Foster care is neglected and underfunded. It needs more services and better monitoring. Despite foster care's troubles, however, no one in America is clamoring to bring back orphanages. In poor countries, however, the picture is the opposite.

Volunteers from rich countries make children's lives worse in two ways. One, paradoxically, is by hugging them. By definition, every child in an orphanage has been abandoned. Their attachment issues get worse with each volunteer who showers them with love for a week or two — and then flies away.

Volunteers are also perpetuating a system that takes children from their families. The word "orphanage" is a misnomer, because the vast majority of children in orphanages have at least one living parent. These parents give up their children because they are too poor to care for them.

What drives the growth in orphanages isn't motherless children. It's donors and volunteers from countries that don't use them. Some orphanages charge volunteers $1,000 a week — and the volunteers often continue to raise funds once they get home. Churches sponsor orphanages and send numerous teams to help out.

That means orphanages can be good business. The British organization Lumos, founded by J.K. Rowling to promote family care for children, said that orphanages in various countries send baby-finders into very poor neighborhoods to persuade desperate families that the institution can give their children food and education.

If poverty creates orphans, the solution should be less poverty, not more orphanages. But because of Western donations and volunteering, orphanages cost governments nothing.

The most important reason that governments don't set up foster care is the ubiquity of orphanages. But there are other factors, as well. Although orphanage care costs six to 10 times as much as family care, family care is complex to set up and unfamiliar in those societies. (Programs to help families keep their children are less expensive still.)

And foster care is harder to brag about, Ms. Luna said. "It's easier," she explained, "to take a picture in front of a painted orphanage, with the name of the donor."

The Aspegrens started their missionary work running orphanages in the Dominican Republic. "We went to give children family," said Philip. "We were surprised to see that all the children had family already. They were called orphans by name, but 95 percent had extended family regularly visiting the campus. The volunteers would play with the 70 kids living on our campus. The children would be saying, 'Who's next and what are they going to bring me?' I knew I had a problem."

The Aspegrens decided there were better places for children than institutions. In 2003, they moved to Costa Rica to introduce foster care, as part of the Viva Network, which is based in Oxford, England, and works to combat child poverty and abuse by reaching out to churches.

Marcela Torres, now the national coordinator for holistic care at Casa Viva, first heard about the organization in her church in 2014. "We had never heard of foster care, or knew that an organization in Costa Rica did this," she said. She and her sister, both in their 20s, lived at home with their parents. "It had been a long time since we had a child in the house," she said. "But we believed that the best place for a child separated from his family of origin was with another family."

The Torres family underwent background checks and interviews, and attended six weekend workshops at Casa Viva. Two months after they signed up, they went to Casa Viva to pick up two brothers, ages 9 and 3.

The family spent the first few days making the children feel safe, and trying to understand their needs. The boys were underweight and stunted. They were both severely impaired visually. The older boy missed his mother and cried. He didn't tolerate hugs or physical contact. The younger one didn't express much emotion at all.

The Torres family took care of the boys' health problems, and got both of them glasses. "They were used to doing everything for themselves," Ms. Torres said. "There was no adult they could count on." They were determined to show the boys a different way to live as a family — with adults caring for children.

Once a month, they took the boys to Casa Viva to see their mother, who was getting help from the government child protection agency. After six months, the boys went home. The older boy hugged his foster family. The Torres family never saw them again.

There are about 200 families like the Torres, who have fostered a dozen children. They get a stipend for each child, equivalent to about one-sixth of a professional's salary. "It's enough to help, and not so much that it becomes a motivation," Mr. Aspegren said.

The biggest hurdle to recruiting, he said, was a belief in families that they would grow too attached to the child. Although Casa Viva can accompany foster parents through this loss, Mr. Aspegren said that an attachment is necessary. "Connection is what kids need," he said. "We know it's going to be a painful process for families. If it's not, we're concerned they're not doing what they need to do."

Disabled children are far more likely to be abandoned than other children, and many of Casa Viva's foster families provide children with intensive, expensive care. "We have more families willing to take children with disabilities than institutions do," Mr. Aspegren said. One institution, he said, had rejected a child with a cleft palate. A family took him in and got him surgery. Another family spent months in and out of a hospital with a baby with multiple serious illnesses. Others patiently work with children severely delayed in their development; one boy could not hold his head up at the age 10 months.

Casa Viva has formal relationships with 35 churches, and has placed about 640 children in foster families. About 60 percent of those went back to their biological family or another relative. About 35 percent were adopted. "There's a small group we haven't been able to serve," Mr. Aspegren said, speaking about children who ended up in an institution.

Mr. Aspegren spends much of his time helping other organizations adopt family-based care. He travels around Latin America giving workshops, and also runs courses in San José. He sees progress.

"It is still discouraging to come across people who are moving to Latin America or other parts of the world to build orphanages," he said. "But 10 years ago, when I would talk about doing family-based care, I would get very, very negative comments from people very committed to the orphanage model. Today the tide has shifted."

Next week, I'll look at what volunteers and donors can do to help vulnerable children.


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