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Why do institutions damage the very children they are supposed to protect? If there weren't orphanages, where would all the orphans go? How could parents abandon their children? Click on your question below to read the answer to some of our frequently asked questions...


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  • Why are there so many children in orphanages around the world? Are they all orphans?
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    The UN estimates that there are 8 million children around the world who living in are in institutions, often called ‘orphanages’. 1 million of those are in the European region.  Studies show us the vast majority (approximately 90%) are not orphans but have a living parent or family.

    There are several reasons why children are put into institutions, or so-called ‘orphanages’.  There is a strong link between poverty and institutionalisation. Children are also put into institutions due to disability and discrimination.

    Very few children in these institutions are true orphans.  Most have families that want them and care for them but through lack of support for extremely poor families and lack of community-based services, parents are often told they have no option but to place their children in these institutions.

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  • But aren’t these institutions helping children?
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    In some countries parents of children with physical or intellectual disabilities are often made to feel that they have no choice but to place their children in an institution.  They are told ‘they cannot meet their children’s needs,’ ‘they cannot afford to look after a disabled child’ and ‘placing them in an institution is the only way a child will receive an education’.

    Being placed in either a residential special school or disability institution is no guarantee that a child’s medical issues will be dealt with or that they will receive an education.  In fact, research shows that children in institutions are more likely to fail educationally and teenagers have poor work prospects, which will affect their ability to become independent and to contribute to society as adults.

    Sixty years of research have documented that children growing up in institutions often demonstrate delays in physical, emotional, social and cognitive development.

    Placements in institutions, often some distance from the child's birth family, also tend to discourage contact with parents and family, which results in children having less support as they grow up.

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  • Why are institutions so harmful for children?
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    Sixty years of research demonstrates that institutionalisation seriously harms the health, development and future life chances of children.  Studies consistently demonstrate that young people raised in institutions have much poorer outcomes than their peers raised in families. They are at a much greater risk of unemployment and homelessness, sexual exploitation and trafficking and even suicide.[1]

    In many institutions where the staff to child ratio is poor, there are set times for personnel care. This can mean that it is impossible for a carer to respond to the individual needs of these children as they arise, which results in children remaining in a state of discomfort for long periods of time. This has a dramatic effect on the child's ability to focus on anything other than their discomfort - the child may be hungry, wet or in pain. This will limit their potential to play, learn and develop.

    For children with disabilities, this situation is even worse. Children with physical disabilities can spend long periods of time isolated in their beds in the institution with little stimulation and interaction. This can exacerbate their disabilities, leaving them bed bound, with medical complications and in pain. 

    What’s more, living in an institution is a breach of children’s fundamental human rights.  The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that “for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality” the child should “grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”.  Placements in institutions, often some distance from the child's birth family, also tend to discourage contact with parents and family, which results in children having less support as they grow up.

    [1] Mulheir  G., Deinstitutonalistion – A Human Rights Priority for Children with Disabilities, Equal Rights Review, Vol. 9, 2012, pp 120


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  • Why do children end up in institutions?
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    A significant proportion of children in institutions are there because their families are poor.  Some research suggests that this accounts for the majority of children in institutions. Countries that rely heavily on institutions to look after vulnerable children tend to have few support services in the community.  If a family is in financial crisis and does not have enough money to meet their child's basic material needs, instead of being provided social support, they will be given no option but to place their child in an institution.

    Moreover, due to a lack of specialised healthcare and inclusive education in the community, parents of children with disabilities are made to feel they have no choice but to place their children in an institution.  Many are advised by healthcare professionals that the institution is the best pace for their child and that the State knows better than parents how to care for children.  In many communities, there is no inclusive education and, if parents want their child to go to school, the only choice is an institutional placement.  Local school buildings are not adapted to the needs of children with disbilities.  Stigma attached to disabilities means that parents fear for their children's futures - they worry how their children will cope when they grow up. 

    Across Europe there is a significant over-representation of children with disabilities in institutions and they are more likely to stay for longer periods of time than their peers.  In some countries, children with disabilities never leave institutions: at age 18 they are transferred to adult institutions where they remain until their death.

    Furthermore, across Europe and Central Asia, children from ethnic minority communities are signficantly over-represented in institutions. In many Central and Eastern European countries, Roma children are particularly vulnerable.  Due to discrimination, Roma children are routinely misdiagnosed as having learning disabililties.  This is often simply an educational delay because the child did not have the opportunity to attend kindergarten.  As a result they are arbitrarily separated from their parents and placed in residential special schools. 

    This situation is compounded by the pressure from communities, where parents of children in mainstream schools are reluctant to have their children educated together with Roma children.  This has resulted in generations of children in the same family being routinely separated from their parents.  Due to discrimination and this generational exclusion from access to formal education, Roma people are much more likely to live in poverty than the majority community.  This makes their children doubly vulnerable to institutionalisation.

    In a minority of cases, children are admitted to institutions because they are being abused and neglected.  But Lumos' research shows that in many instances, children had previously been referred to social services, when the family was vulnerable, and the lack of intervention allowed the situation to develop into a crisis.  In many countries, social workers lack assessment tools to ascertain the cause of the neglect - and there is a world of difference between a parent who has resources but wilfully neglects their child and one who cannot care properly for their child due to grinding poverty.  Admitting children who have been abused to institutions compounds the trauma they have suffered and leaves them vulnerable to further abuse.  Therefore institutionalising such children is a wholly inappropriate response to child abuse.

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  • How can parents abandon their children to these places?
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    There are many reasons why parents place their children in institutions.

    In the UK the main reasons are linked to difficulties the parents are experiencing.  This may be as a result of drug, alcohol or other substance misuse. It may be due to mental or physical illness or due to the parents having learning disabilities making it difficult for them to understand how to meet the needs of their children.  Most parents in the UK whose children cannot live with them love their children very much but due to their own situation and often their own experience of being parented they cannot safely care for their children or meet their needs.  

    In the countries where Lumos works there are far more reasons why parents do not look after their own children.  There will be some parents who have similar difficulties to those in the UK, but there are other reasons why children may be placed in an institution. 

    Some parents of children with disabilities believe that their children will be cared for better in an institution than at home.  Often at the time the child was born there were few services in the community which supported and helped parents to care for their children at home and parents believed that their children’s needs would be met better in an institution.  That is why such an important part of closing institutions is to create community support services for children with disabilities and then provide parents with advice, information and support to care for their children at home with them.

    Another reason for children being placed in institutions is because of the poverty of their parents.  Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have a right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs, it goes on to say that the government of the country should help families who cannot afford to provide this.   Where parents are living in poverty they may feel that their children will have better access to good food and education in an institution than they would have at home.  Again providing community-based family support services and working with national governments to ensure that all children have access to nutritious or experience of providing good parenting to their child.  This will include young single parents who may not get support from their own family. 

    By providing family support services and parenting advice such as parenting courses, more parents are likely to feel confident and supported to care for their children safely at home.  Even where there are child protection concerns there will be some parents who with support and advice are able to recognise the difficulties that they have had, and be able to make changes in their responses to and the care they offer their child, enabling the child to return home to live with them.  Food, a comfortable home and education is an important part of the deinstitutionalisation process.

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  • Isn’t this is only way for some children to get an education?
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    There are a large number of children in Central and Eastern Europe placed in Residential Special Schools because they have a learning disability.  However, many of these schools are far away from their family homes. Many children have to leave their home, their family and friends to be able to go to school because there are not enough resources in the local mainstream schools to provide education for children with learning disabilities.

    There is a high number of children with disabilities living in Disability Institutions. Some of these children do not receive any formal education. In one European country, 60% of children with disabilities are not attending any formal education.

    The research shows that children in institutions are more likely to fail educationally and teenagers have poor work prospects, which will affect their ability to become independent and to contribute to society as adults.

    Lumos works to help develop inclusive education services and programmes which means children with disabilities can go to school alongside their peers and receive an education and live with their family at the same time.  By developing these services and training special educational needs teachers for this generation, we can help end the cycle of institutionalisation for future generations of children born with disabilities.

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  • Isn’t this the only way that some children can be protected if they are at risk of abuse at home?
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    • A significant number of children in Europe are admitted to institutions because they are being abused or neglected in their families.  Even countries with the best community services in place have to protect some children from abusive families.  But the definition of neglect varies and in many countries parental neglect is directly linked to poverty and a lack of support services.  Can institutionalisation possibly be the right response to the abuse of children?  In fact, research shows that placing children in institutions exacerbates the trauma they experience and exposes them to even greater risk of abuse and harm to their health and development.  Of course, children must not be left in situations of serious risk, but any intervention must surely start from the premise that we do no harm.

      It is easy to understand why, in many countries, social workers remove children from families where they are being abused or neglected.  There are far too many horror stories in the press of severe abuse and even deaths of children who have been left with abusive families.  However, if we consider the numbers of children separated from their families because of child abuse or neglect across the region, we find a striking picture.  One study that considered the institutionalisation of children across Europe found that the number of children institutionalised because of abuse and neglect was significantly higher in the countries that rely heavily on institutional care to look after vulnerable children.

      But the picture of ‘neglect’ itself is not straightforward.  There is a significant difference between the parent who has enough resources to live and wilfully denies food to their child, and the parent who does not care for their child properly because of an addiction to alcohol or drugs.  And there is a world of difference between this and the parent who is unable to provide their child with sufficient food, clothing or shelter due to grinding poverty.  This presents a huge challenge for social workers to identify the cause of the harm and neglect, in order to propose the response that will best meet the needs of the child.


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  • What is the alternative? How else can vulnerable children be best cared for?
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    The alternative to institutionalisation is to provide quality family and community based services. This includes the development of inclusive and accessible universal services, so that children with disabilities can receive health and education services whilst remaining in their families and communities. Further targeted health, education and social services are also required for children with specific needs.  This allows children to grow up in a caring family environment where their individual needs are taken into account and met. Evidence shows that babies can recover completely from the damage caused by institutionalisation as long as they are placed in families before the age of six months.

    There is considerable expertise in the field, based on experiences in countries which have already undergone this process. These are gathered together in Common European Guidelines on the Transition from Institutional to Community Based Care, produced by the European Expert Group on the Transition from Institutional to Community-based Care. The Group was convened in February 2009 by Vladimir Špidla, then Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, in order to address the issues of institutional care reform in the European Union.  These Guidelines can be downloaded in several languages at:

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  • What happens if you close these institutions? Where would the children go?
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    The process of de-institutionalisation (DI) is a complex and lengthy process and the closure of institutions and orphanages, particularly those where Lumos is working, does not happen in isolation from the local and national authorities.

    In the process of closing an institution, all the children are assessed individually as each child’s situation and needs are different.  There will be a case conference to decide the best placement for each of the children and the support they need. Children and their families will be invited to attend these case conferences.

    In these case conferences, a multi-disciplinary team will first consider if it is possible for children to return to live with their families, their parents or other members of their family, like an auntie or uncle or grandparent.

    If it is possible and in the best interest for the child to return home, a social worker will then work closely with the child’s family to identify what support they need and develop a plan to prepare the family and the child to return home.

    If it is not possible for the child to return home to his family, then a foster care placement will be considered. A foster carer is a person who has been approved and trained to care for children in their own home.

    For a small number of older children or children who have complex needs a placement in a small residential home may be best. These homes should be small and provide a family environment and be located in the community.

    All the children will be involved in a preparation programme to help get them ready for moving to their new family placements.

    Our Lumos teams work in partnership with the local authorities in each country to ensure that the most appropriate family placements are found for each individual child and that they are supported once they move.

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  • How do you define 'families'
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    Appropriate, protective, and permanent family care involves a nurturing, lifelong commitment to a child by an adult or adults with parental roles and responsibilities. These family relationships should provide physical and emotional support, a sense of belonging, and generally involve legal recognition of parental and child rights and responsibilities.

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  • What about adoption?
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    Research from across the world shows that the majority of children within institutions and orphanages have a living parent or parents [see here our factsheet with figures from around the world here]. Lumos’ experience suggests that, with the right support, most children should be able to return safely to their own birth or extended families.   Where it is not possible to return a child to their parents or extended family – because they do not have relatives, because it is not in their best interests, or because all efforts to return them have failed – appropriate, protective alternative family care is likely to be in the child’s best interest.  
    Any decision to place a child with a family should be made on the basis of a comprehensive individual assessment of the child, carried out by suitably qualified professionals, mandated by an appropriate authority.  This requires professionals who are well qualified, coordinated, and sufficient in number, as well as a suitable range of care options from which to choose.  Where these elements are lacking, the child’s best interests are often compromised leading to poor decisions and poor outcomes for children. 
    Where the child’s assessment suggests that adoption is in the child’s best interests, the child should be placed for adoption in their country of origin. Exceptionally, where placement in another country is considered, it should be strictly in accordance with article 21(b) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Lumos also acknowledges The Hague Convention, which seeks to protect children and their families against the risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad. It also seeks to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children. 
    The Hague Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.