09/12/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

Why We Cannot Deinstitutionalize Orphanages

Orphan. The use of the word in literature, film, and the media has never been positive. When one enters the word into a search engine, the first items that pop up are related to a movie by the same name: a horror movie about an "evil" child who happened to be that way because she's an orphan. Other prominent images in the media include pictures of starving children with protruded bellies, huge institution-like facilities with rows and rows of bunk beds, and disturbed and neglected youth looking for trouble.

Cut to reality.

Through my organization, Kitechild, I've traveled extensively and have met many orphan and vulnerable children from all corners of the world. When I meet them, they often shatter the negative images associated with their living situation. They are simply, at the most pure, children. Although most have experienced extreme hardship in their young lives, they have an incredible ability to bounce back and seek happiness. They love to sing, play, dance, and color. They know all about Dora the Explorer (yes, even in the remote villages of India, they do) and have aspirations of becoming teachers, policemen, and firefighters -- no different from those of your son, little sister, niece, or nephew.

In an ideal world, children would grow up in a loving family; if not their mother or father, perhaps a grandmother or an uncle. In the real world, global issues such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, repressive cultural norms, and even war and displacement are real problems that prevent children from being raised with their own families. Most governments in developing countries where an orphan crisis exists do not have the appropriate infrastructure in place to provide social welfare programs addressing this crisis. Foster care, adoption, and family welfare programs are marginal at best.

In all of Kitechild's research, we continue to find that poverty is the biggest causal factor displacing children in orphanages. A child is considered a social orphan when they have at least one living parent, but due to poverty or abuse, cannot afford to stay with their own family. A true orphan, on the other hand, has no living parent and no known extended family willing to take them in. True orphans are usually products of HIV/AIDS, or of war and displacement, such as the situation in Congo or the refugee crisis in Syria.

There is a lot of talk in the NGO sphere about the horrendous conditions that exist in many orphanages, even TED Talks advocating for the deinstitutionalization of children. It is true that orphanages ran like institutions where children are referred to as inmates and conditions are akin to a prison exist. However, there are also many orphanages that are homes: the caretakers truly care for the children, there is space to play, pets, story time, and children are allowed to visit their families when possible. Whether they are true or social orphans, the fact remains that these homes often serve as intermediary places where children can be fed, attend school, and be safe from the streets.

In an ideal world, the issues of poverty would never play a central factor on a child's right to a loving home. Until that day happens, what about the children now? As the call to deinstitutionalize grows louder and spreads faster than alternative solutions, we risk losing a generation of children who for now don't have an alternative to living in an orphanage. The sense of urgency is real: there are an estimated 8 million children residing in orphanages. The causal issues of poverty, war, and disease are large-scale problems that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) seek to eradicate by 2015. Yet, less than two years shy of the expiration date, we are still far behind.

We cannot deinstitutionalize without having systems in place to ensure that these children do not get left behind. That is why only through collaboration with other NGOs that work to end the larger issues through government advocacy for social welfare programs in developing countries and raising awareness of the plight of these children, can we start mobilizing a collective effort to solve the orphan crisis. In the meantime, we will continue to work with those homes committed to providing high-quality care for orphaned, vulnerable children to prevent them from living on the streets, going hungry at night, being forced into child labor or being sold into sex-trafficking. Through our project-based model, we will continue to transform orphan care, by supporting caretaker training, access to quality nutrition, and access to education. We will continue to expose those homes that are not adhering to best practices. We also hope to continue to partner with organizations that are addressing the bigger causes affecting these children and hope that our research contributes to achieving the MDGs. Finally, we will continue to open up the discourse on viewing these children as they really are: human beings full of potential.