J.K. Rowling Breaks Down Why Volunteering At Orphanages Can Cause More Harm Than Good

Volunteers may be well-meaning, but they're often supporting institutions that exploit children and poor families for profit.

08/25/2016 01:21 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2016

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is at it again with her epic Twitter takedowns. 

In a series of 12 on-point tweets on Sunday, Rowling broke down why people shouldn’t volunteer in orphanages in poor countries.

Rowling pointed out that orphanages in many underserved countries are actually “drivers of family break up.” This is because most children in orphanages are actually not orphans.

These children often end up in residential facilities because their parents are poor and can’t afford to feed them, Save the Children reports. Some give them up because the children have disabilities, or belong to a marginalized ethnic or gender group.

In other cases, families are coerced into giving up children in exchange for money. The orphanages could potentially profit from trafficking children or keeping them in residences. Tourists pay to support the facilities or to volunteer with the children. 

Linda Schaefer via Getty Images
Volunteer Kari Amber McAdam, a Dartmouth College student, feeds children at an orphanage in India.

By volunteering with orphanages, or donating to them, well-meaning, but ignorant, donors end up supporting “orphanages run as businesses,” Rowling explained. 

Cambodia, for example, saw a 75 percent increase in the number of residential care facilities for children between 2005 and 2011, according to a 2011 U.N. report. The U.N. called the rise in orphanages concerning, as it was likely due to centers turning to tourism to attract money.

These children are at risk of developing long-term damage. 

Children could develop personality disorders and speech delays at residential care facilities, according to UNICEF. Residential care has also been shown to place children at risk of physical and sexual abuse.

In the United States, orphanages no longer exist. Instead, when parents aren’t able to care for children, the kids are placed in government-funded foster care.

In foster care, children are ideally placed with extended family members, according to child welfare nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation. Otherwise, they’re taken in by another family in the foster care system. 

As a last resort, children go to group homes, but ideally only for short periods.

The goal is to ensure children have stable, life-long caretakers ― as opposed to being exposed to constant turnaround of short-term staff and volunteers at orphanages.

HOANG DINH NAM via Getty Images
Volunteer (R) looking after young children inside a dormitory room at an orphanage in Hanoi. Thousands of disabled children are abandoned in Vietnam.

“The stream of foreigners coming in and out of children’s lives for short periods ― it has a negative effect, creates attachment issues, and doesn’t help them form long lasting relationships with caretakers that they should be forming,” Orit Strauss, founder of volunteer site Giving Way, told The Huffington Post.

Giving Way provides an alternative for volunteers looking to give back. It’s a free online platform that connects volunteers to hundreds of NGOs worldwide, and it takes a firm stance against offering volunteer opportunities at orphanages. 

“People have the best intentions at heart and think that by volunteering or donating money to orphanages, they are helping ― but that’s in most cases not the case,” Strauss said.

Rowling’s helping to fix the broken system through her nonprofit Lumos, which works to reconnect the estimated 8 million children in institutions with family- or community-based care, according to the website. 

Her tweets are pretty effective too, especially when it comes to taking down organizations that market themselves to those looking to buff up their resumes. 

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