Sean Callahan, Georgette Mulheir, and Philip Goldman in their article The orphan myth: Exposing the truth about orphanages (July 12, 2017) raise an important issue. How should we best care for vulnerable children?

In Australia, there has been major scandal about the child migrant programs of the 1940s and 1950s. The intention of the British government and Australian charities was well-meaning – giving vulnerable children a new start in the sunshine of the colonies. The sad truth is that separation from family and culture has caused great distress for many.

As National Director of Catholic Mission (the Pontifical Mission Societies in Australia) I take very seriously the responsibility not to support or encourage institutions that do more harm than good to children.

It is an issue that is recognized in the Australian Council for International Development Resolution on Residential Care (2016/1 Approved at the ACFID AGM 26 October 2016):

ACFID Noted with concern that there are an estimated 8 million children worldwide living in residential care, despite 80% of these children having one or both living parents.

In consideration of the proliferation of residential care in developing countries and the damaging effects it can have on children’s development and well-being,

ACFID calls:

1. On members to take measures to ensure they are not, directly or indirectly, contributing towards the unnecessary institutionalization of children through programming, funding or volunteering activities.

2. On the Australian Government to work with NGO policy and practice experts to address the issues contributing to the overuse of residential care overseas within Australia’s aid program, charities sector and volunteering and tourism sectors.

There is, however, a problem about terminology and categorization. We have to look at exactly what we classify as an orphanage.

Our Director of Programs travels extensively, mostly in South East Asia.

He has reported that many institutions described as an orphanage are really just a boarding school, where the students come to stay and receive an education before travelling back home for holidays.

Another institution we support would be classified more as a student hostel, where the girls go to a government school during the day before returning to the center. While there are some girls who live in the center permanently who are truly orphans, or it is unsafe for them to return home due to abuse, all the rest of the students return home during the holidays.

He agrees that there are ‘true’ orphanages run by the church, and one example is children suffering from HIV/AIDS who have nowhere else to go. They face stigma attached to them because of their condition, with relatives unwilling to accept them into their homes and sending them out on the streets. In this instance the church is one of the only places these children can go, and it would be classified as an orphanage in the traditional sense.

Another tragic situation is the plight of children who are separated from extended family due to violence and civil disturbance.

For many foster care is not an option. In many places this is due to issues of extreme poverty. There may be a lack of resources to properly screen and train foster carers with the risk that children placed into such care are vulnerable to abuse.

In some cases with children with severe disability it is only in the institutional setting that they can receive the care they need. The move, common in the developed world, from larger congregate care to smaller group homes with a more familial setting, is preferable but not always possible in other places.

The right approach is to understand the traditional orphanage as the last resort, as a place for children with no other available living situation. It should only exist where it is necessary and not merely because it is expedient. Certainly, one should not establish or promote an orphanage because of its capacity to attract sympathy and donations from visitors.

We need to make the distinctions between the three types of institution: Orphanage, boarding schools and student hostels as they each cater to a different group. Their value and the support they merit needs to be assessed accordingly. In every case, however, what is non-negotiable is that the children receive the best care, and be safe from every kind of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. This requires much more resourcing than is usually available.

Having alternative residential care to meet children’s needs can provide a perverse incentive for family separation. A family’s decision to send a child away to access a better education or health care is not necessarily abandonment. Parents’ desire to give their children better opportunities than those which exist in their community is laudable in one sense. It would be much better if those facilities were provided locally.

Father Brian Lucas is national director of Catholic Mission (the Pontifical Mission Societies in Australia).