Institutions and Child Development
An ugly, brutal word that calls to mind ideas of pain, blood, death, fear, discord, anger, and scars.
What if I were to tell you that the neglect infants often face in large institutions causes psychological damage so significant it is deemed equivalent to physical violence committed against the child? Well, that’s exactly what UNICEF’s Report on Violence Against Children reported, noting that early privation of parenting (for children ages 0-3) puts these children at a significantly higher risk of attachment disorders, developmental delays, and neural atrophy.
Another report noted a study in Eastern Europe which found that more children leave large-scale orphanages with disabilities than enter them. This same report notes the “Children raised in large-scale orphanages often have pervasive growth problems, including stunting (severe growth delay), and impairments in fine and gross motor skills and coordination.” We know it to be true, for we saw the delays and damage in the children leaving the “baby room” at a local children’s home. A dimly lit room with the cold, electric glow of a television is no replacement for the loving attention and embrace of a family.
While the dangers are greatest for young children, no child living in an orphanage or group home escapes the inherent dangers that accompany large-scale residential care. Often, these facilities have tall, imposing walls with barbed wire to keep the children “safe” or to keep them from escaping. In reality, what happens is that children end up isolated from the greater community. Children who already find themselves in a situation without family who love and care for them have now had relationships in their community stripped away as well.
Most of us had people we could go to during the seasons of pain, joy, and learning as we grew up. These people are vital for mental and emotional health, as well as identity formation. Many children living in institutions and orphanages do not have this luxury due to lack of consistent caregivers or high child/caregiver ratios. Now imagine having experienced significant trauma, growing up separated from family AND the greater community, and not having people to turn to that can help you figure life out? It’s no wonder many children and teens in institutions struggle with their sense of self and their sense of self-worth.
There are many forms of violence, and while children are certainly at a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse in institutions, psychological violence is another unfortunate reality with impacts that are not immediately obvious. Emotional and psychological neglect leaves profound scars on the heart and the mind. The scars that are invisible, and often go unnoticed until far too much time has passed. Apart from a miracle from God, these scars will leave many institutionalized children with permanent damage mentally, emotionally, and even physically.
Neglect, isolation, and lack of healthy connection make for a grim outlook for many orphans and vulnerable children. While many efforts are being made to change these realities in institutions, the reality is that the system needs to be completely transformed, not just corrected. The answer to developmental delays, isolation, and identity crisis is not going to be found by improving existing facilities. Permanent, loving family is where children thrive. It is what God intended for children, and it is what we must pursue, because when children thrive, the future thrives.
There is always hope though. We can always take steps, we just need to make sure those steps are forwards. Informed action prepares us to take steps forwards, and not backwards or sideways, while we seek to improve the situation for vulnerable children and orphans around the world. We hope you’ll join us as we continue to educate ourselves more and more, so that together we can fight for what is best for every child and every family.