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How can abuse be tackled within institutional care?

Sep 24, 2014 05:20 PM
Of the 8-10 million children who end up in orphanages, many are subjected to violence or sexual abuse
Of the 8-10 million children who end up in orphanages, many are subjected to violence or sexual abuse

In developed and developing countries alike, child abuse is tragically common in orphanages around the world. This week, guest blogger Emma Walker investigates the scale of the problem, why it happens, and why family-based care may provide the solution.

An estimated 8-10 million children live in orphanages around the world, but that number barely scratches the surface of the problem. A much bigger, and more sobering, number is the estimated 143-210 million orphans globally (according to figures calculated by a leading children’s charity); a figure that does not include those children lost to trafficking, slavery or simply abandoned. With such a vast number of children needing help, shelter and care, it would seem logical to assume that those 8-10 million who do find themselves in orphanages are the lucky ones. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

The epidemic of abuse

Children in care are some of the most vulnerable individuals in society. Already, they are likely to be traumatised by being abandoned or losing one or both of their parents, and experiencing physical violence and other abuses prior to entering the system. Despite this, there is evidence that suggests the prevalence of violence and sexual abuse in institutional care, such as orphanages, is considerably higher than in foster or family-based care. Where an orphan has a disability, the risk of abuse is significant and can stem from staff as well as other children.

There are various statistics available indicating the level of abuse in institutional care and while some of these figures can be contradictory, they are nonetheless shocking and strongly suggest that abuse is both widespread and prevalent in both developed and developing countries:

  • 43% of orphans and vulnerable children in Africa were reported to have experienced physical and emotional abuse.
  • 63% of orphans in Kazakhstan have been reported to have experienced physical violence and abuse.
  • Nearly 50% of orphans in Romania reported physical violence being regularly used as punishment, while over 30% of orphans reported being aware of serious sexual abuse taking place.
  • Over 800 perpetrators were found to have physically and sexually abused 1,090 children in care in Ireland between 1914 and 2000.
  • 52% of orphans in India were reported to have experienced physical abuse in 2007.
  • Orphans in North America are 6 times more likely to experience violence than those in foster care.

Shifting definitions

It is clear from these few statistics that abuse in institutional care is epidemic across the globe. Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is the lack of cohesive and robust regulatory and safeguarding policies and procedures within the institutional system itself. Arguably, these regulations and policies can vary dramatically on both a national, regional and individual institutional level.

The statistics also suggest that abuse within orphanages is not a problem exclusive to developing countries, although the key concerns with a lack of funding and suitable training programmes for staff members are more likely to be an issue in impoverished regions. That abuse can still occur in countries where these provisions are adequate would indicate that a lack of awareness and poor management are much broader issues that permeate to the core of the care system. The notion that children in orphanages are unwanted and therefore highly disposable can be a dangerous one – particularly when considering the alarming correlation between human trafficking, child labour and prostitution, and illegal adoption practices and orphans.

Happy faces at the Children's Village in Bataan, the Philippines
Family-based care provides a safer environment for children, acting
like an extended family unit and providing all the benefits of a home
and a community

In recent years, there has been a shift in the perception of what constitutes abuse. Today, many argue that the level of abuse experienced within orphanages doesn't have to be as dramatic as sexual exploitation or physical abuse in order to cause long-term dysfunction and maladaptive behaviours. Psychological abuse can be equally, if not more, damaging to a child and can impact their development, educational attainment and behaviour, as well as increasing the likelihood of children in care presenting with adult psychological disorders, amongst other issues. Such abuse may include inadequate stimulation with poor facilities, few or unsuitable toys, no interactive play sessions between children and staff, and minimal direct contact.

Creating communities

Due to this shift in the perceived effectiveness of institutionalised care, there have been calls for more efforts to be made to help children remain within their family unit. Astonishingly, the vast majority (4 in 5) of children in orphanages have at least one living parent. Issues such as poverty, illness, and parental substance abuse are the main factors that lead to families being torn apart and a child ending up in an orphanage. Where this is not possible, an alternative proposal is that a more family-orientated type of care should replace traditional orphanages. These family-based care homes will act like an extended family unit with a greater community feel and more one-on-one interaction between 'staff' and an individual child.

This approach would appear to have multiple benefits. However, for this approach to work effectively, there needs to be a radical change in the way the caregivers themselves perceive the children. It could be argued that by creating a more family-based environment rather than a clinical, schedule-driven one, abuses will be picked up more quickly, perpetrators will be weeded out, and the very nature of the care provided should help inhibit and prevent child abuses within the care system as each child will be seen as having worth. Significant research has been undertaken to show the importance of early nurturing and stimulation to ensure that a child develops emotionally, physically and academically. It may sound cliché, but rather than relegating orphans to a lifetime of abuse, the care system as a whole needs to start caring more.

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