Misguided Kindness – how we can harm the children we try to help

In the wake of devastating humanitarian crises, like last year’s earthquake in Haiti, it’s all too easy to get caught up in emotion and feel an overwhelming urge to support orphanages, build new ones or send children overseas for adoption. These can seem like logical solutions in the face of children’s suffering.

But this misguided kindness can actually cause harm to children and families who are already suffering. And it may lead to them being permanently separated from each other.

The best way to protect children is often to keep them with people they know and trust, even if reuniting them with their family may take weeks or months – humanitarian agencies have developed strategies for reuniting children with their families and where this isn’t possible, for placing them with foster families within their own communities.

In the aftermath of an emergency, the very existence of orphanages can encourage poorer families to put their children in them – in the hope that they’ll be better cared for. Depressing, but true – after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, one study found 98% of the children placed in residential care in Aceh, Indonesia had been put there by their families so their children could get an education. 

The misuse of orphanages doesn’t just happen after emergencies. In developing countries generally, it’s estimated that four out of five children living in orphanages or other institutions have one or both parents who are still alive.

And there’s clear evidence that institutional care is bad for children – even for a short stay. One study suggests that for every three months a young child lives in an institution they may lose one month of development.

Our new report, Misguided Kindness, uses lessons learned in emergencies – from the genocide in Rwanda to the Asian Tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti – to demonstrate what action is needed to keep families together during crises and to bring separated children back into a safe and nurturing family life.

Misguided Kindness urges people to take action to make sure that their assistance is channelled towards interventions that help children in emergencies, rather than potentially cause them harm.

Read the full report: Misguided Kindness: Making the right decisions for children in emergencies.

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