Frequently Asked Questions

History of Orphanages and Orphans

What does it mean when someone uses the word “orphan”?

The word “orphan” encompasses more than just children whose parents have died. The term can be used to describe any child that has been displaced from his or her natural family through death, abandonment, or inability of the parents to care for the child’s needs. The term “orphan” also applies to children who have been removed from their families when their home situation was deemed unsafe by local governments.

Is orphan a derogatory term? What other terms are there to describe a child who lives in an orphanage or care home?

The term “orphan” isn’t technically derogatory, but it may not be the most accurate descriptor and should be avoided when addressing children directly. The same goes for “foster child” or just “foster” as a label. Children living in foster care and group homes want to be primarily characterized as children. Calling a child an orphan or foster is essentially turning their circumstance into their identity. Rather than calling a child an orphan, call them a child in foster care. This small change in terminology emphasizes who the children are, rather than what their circumstances are, and it helps children to retain their own sense of identity and importance.

Don’t children have relatives who can help?

Each child’s circumstances are unique, as are the reasons they may come to live in an orphanage. Approximately 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent, but the children are placed there regardless because of neglect, abandonment, or abuse by that living parent. Other relatives may similarly be unable to provide for the needs of the child or may feel incapable of protecting the child from his or her parents. In these situations, the orphanage is able to provide something for the child that their family cannot.

What is life like in an orphanage or care home?

Life for children in orphanages or care homes varies with the caretaker-to-child ratio, expected length of stay, ideologies and method of care, and access to resources. Ideally, care homes are able to provide a life that is superior in quality to the life the child would have had living at home. Because many children struggle to develop relationships after suffering the trauma of being separated from their families and thrown into a temporary living situation, an ideal care home gives consistent, personalized care that is most effective in helping children to develop those healthy attachments that will contribute to their overall physical, emotional, and social development. Additionally, children in ideal care homes may have access to physical and educational resources that exceed what they would likely have had in their family situations or on the streets. Some homes are run as boarding schools dedicated to education as a means of overcoming life circumstances, while others focus on providing as close to a normal family unit experience as possible.
At the end of the day, life in a care home is not necessarily the depressing existence often depicted on television. Though obviously not an ideal circumstance, care homes are run by passionate individuals who dedicate their lives to giving resident children the love and attention they crave, the security and resources that they lack, and the opportunity to experience the joys of childhood.

How did orphanages start? How did foster care start?

Throughout history, economic, political, and social upheaval have separated children from their families. The responsibility and method of caring for these children has shifted over time from churches to governments, from apprenticeship programs to children’s homes, and from large scale programs to individualized care. The foster care system that we see today was a method of replacing the traditional orphanage with programs that support children in all kinds of difficult family situations. Foster care aims to place children in the best home situation: it removes children from their parents when necessary, but it prefers to help and heal struggling families.

Models of Care

What are the different models of care for orphaned children?  Why do different countries use different models of care?

The type of care models used by different countries depends on factors like the amount of need faced by children in the region, resources available to governments and individuals, and their cultural perceptions of family relationships. Cultures that deeply value family relationships would likely be skeptical of the idea that separating families could ever be good for the child and may emphasize family-based care models. Developing countries with many displaced children may be hard pressed to find enough homes to place all of the children in a foster care format—particularly if the people are struggling economically and may not have the resources to care for the children. In these cases, governments and churches must step in to administer institutional care at a very basic level. Family-based care model: Family members care for the child when the parents cannot. This might include a grandparent or adult sibling stepping in as guardian or a stepparent making the legal move to formally adopt the child. Family-based environments, from an emotional standpoint, can be the most beneficial for the child when the extended family members have the financial and emotional ability to care for the child and protect them from their parents if necessary. Family care receives no support or accountability from government, so in many countries where foster care is not established and an extended family member isn’t available, the next option will be institutional care environments. Institutional care model: Government, nonprofit, and religious groups facilitate programs that provide for the basic shelter, nutrition, and social and educational needs of children in groups. These institutions include group homes, boarding schools, residential and treatment facilities, and emergency shelters where living arrangements vary between dormitory, village, and single-family style homes. Dormitory style living arrangements feature many children sleeping in the same room with shared common areas, while their guardians have separate sleeping arrangements in the same building or campus. Village style living consists of clusters of individual living spaces for the children who come together to form “family units” with their “house parent” as they gather for meals and such. Lastly, single-family homes have the children living under one roof with the director acting as the parent; this type of living situation tries to mirror traditional family units with separate rooms for small groups of children and shared communal spaces. While the physical needs of the child are met in these types of care environments, they are often not an ideal situation for the children emotionally. The temporary and transactional nature of institutions managing the basic needs of many children can lead to insecurity among children who are already dealing with trauma. Living long term in group homes means that children don’t have a chance to experience the one-on-one interaction of regular family life and relationship development. Modern orphanage model: An institutional care model on a larger scale, in which many children live together in an orphanage and are cared for by staff. Orphanages are most common in developing countries where there is a large population of children in need. One of the primary concerns of the orphanage approach is that these institutions don’t always provide the individual time and attention that children need; though, many nations are improving their orphanages thanks to foreign assistance and improved training. Funding is another source of concern for these institutions as they struggle meet the children’s most basic needs, let alone providing for their emotional and intellectual development. Foster care model: A hybrid of the family and institutional care models, in which children may live in group homes or be placed with families between placement in a permanent family situation. Foster care agencies work to reunite families when possible by providing care for the children and resources for the parents to ready themselves to care for their child(ren). Agencies can also connect children with families looking to adopt. Foster care is essentially a way for the government to outsource the care of children to private citizens who can give them the one-on-one attention they need while they wait to be reunited with their family.
Community-based care model: A secondary support model that provides services and care for children in institutional and family care environments. These are programs designed to help children stay in family-based care like foster homes and are used as an aid or support to the household who cares for the child. They may provide money to pay for school fees, uniforms, school supplies, food, and emotional support services.

Given the potential downsides of some care models, should orphanages be shut down?

The various care models differ based on the need for short- and long-term solutions and finding the best way to meet the child’s various needs. Family care requires the least intrusion in the child’s life but may find it difficult to meet their physical needs and adequately protect children from harmful family circumstances. Institutional care systems may struggle to meet emotional needs of the many children they serve. The temporary and transient nature of foster care can be unsettling to children. Each system has its own unique challenges, but ultimately the children are often better off than they might have been otherwise.
So, should orphanages be shut down? The answer is no—or at least not right away. Rather, the existing system should be used to segue into a better one. Governments, individuals, and nonprofit donors can work to provide family-based opportunities that increase personal connection within already existing institutions and make sure that the institutions have the funding they need to adequately meet the children’s needs. This provides the best opportunity for children to get the love, attention, and support they need while using the institution to keep them out of harms’ way.

What happens without orphanages?

Orphanages and institutions like them are critical for supporting displaced children. Each country differs in its availability of and government support for orphanages and foster care programs, so we don’t have to look far for an alternative perspective. In places without orphanages—or with facilities that are simply unable to meet the existing level of demand—children can end up living on the streets with limited life skills, limited access to educational opportunities, limited medical supplies, and limited monetary resources. These children often struggle with basic social skills that are learned from the attention, love, and emotional support of a caregiver. They often band together with others in the same situation to simulate that support, but can find themselves caught in cycles of poverty and behavioral problems that leave them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

What can be done about improving the orphanage system? What are some best practices for orphanages and foster care?

These two questions share the same answer: help children develop relationships. Governments, NGOs, and religious organizations can work to shift their care models from purely institutional to family-based in structure. Beyond simply simulating family life in their facilities, governments can work to provide more services to families in a proactive effort to keep them together and keep children out of the foster system in the first place. Orphanage directors can reevaluate their caretaker-to-child ratios to prioritize individual care. They can also work to reduce the number of different caretakers to whom a child is exposed in order to create a sense of security that helps children develop healthy attachments.

Common Challenges

What are some of the common challenges that children in institutional care experience?

Children in institutional care tend to experience more physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, and social challenges than their peers who experience traditional family life. A lack of resources and care can lead to stunted physical growth, while the children’s limited interaction with their caregivers can inhibit educational development. While these are very visible limitations, the emotional impact on the children can be less so; without consistent, attentive care, children can develop attachment disorders that prevent them from developing healthy relationships in the future.

What is Attachment Theory? What is Attachment Disorder and who suffers from it?

Attachment is the natural, emotional bond that develops at birth between a child and his or her caregiver, which prefaces our intimate adult relationships. This attachment stems from an infant’s dependency on someone who is nearby, accessible, and attentive to meet his or her basic physical and social needs. The attachment styles we develop as children carry into our adult relationships: Children who develop healthy attachments with their caregivers experience security and trust that allows them to successfully engage in positive relationships with other adults as they develop. Conversely, children who fail to develop healthy early attachments may struggle to connect with and trust others. There are four identified categories of attachment: secure, anxious-resistant, avoidant, and disorganized. These attachment styles are often patterned after the relationships children have with and observe between their caregivers. Insecure attachment styles can be a defense mechanism against the negligent, abusive, and erratic behavior of the adults in their lives. The four attachment styles were diagnosed in a study of parent-child interactions called the “Strange Situation,” in which the caregiver would leave the child alone in a room and see how the child responded upon their return. In secure attachments, children turned to their parents for soothing when they came back. Anxious-resistant children showed mixed signals of distress and wanting to punish the parent for leaving, while avoidant children actively avoided their caregivers. Children with disorganized attachment demonstrated confusion or contradictory patterns of interaction with their caregivers. Unfortunately, a majority of children in institutional care demonstrate disorganized attachment styles as a result of the trauma of loss and insecurity of impermanence, as well as a lack of personal interaction. Attachment disorder is a psychiatric illness that can develop in children who have a hard time connecting and forming meaningful relationships with others. It is characterized by behaviors, moods, and social dysfunctions that stem from a lack of appropriate connection during infancy that can range anywhere from intense clinginess to intense apathy for caregivers. Children without sufficient care from a caregiver are more likely to develop attachment disorder because they perceive adults as unreliable.

What are some best practices for caring for babies, children, and/or adolescents with Attachment Disorder?

Attachment disorders can be overcome, and it is better if treatment measures are taken as early as infancy to help children overcome their prior relationship traumas. These measures depend primarily on the qualities of the caregiver: If the caregiver cannot become more responsive and attentive to the child, then it should be replaced with someone who can not only meet the child’s physical needs, but facilitate that social-emotional development as well. Best practices for caregivers helping children to feel secure include: - Avoid aggressive behaviors, such as cleaning up or feeding them in a harsh or exasperated manner; - Refrain from yelling at them; - Interact with them by taking them out and making sure infants aren’t spending too much time alone and on their backs; and - Respond with empathy to their emotions and needs.

Barriers to Adoption

What are some of the barriers to domestic and international adoption?

Adoption allows parents to legally and permanently make that child a part of their family, as opposed to providing temporary care in a foster format. Whether the adoption takes place internationally or domestically, and whether it is arranged privately or through the foster care systems, the process is still riddled with barriers. The first obstacle in any adoption is vetting the prospective parents for their ability to care for the child. Parents must be physically, mentally, and financially fit to care for the child. Although there is no technical requirement of wealth or education, potential parents must demonstrate their ability to support themselves and the child without additional support. Because many of these children have experienced trauma or abandonment as a result of their special needs, it is also assessed whether a potential home would be the best fit to meet those needs. Additional issues faced by those adopting internationally may include the following: language barriers or delays in learning a new language, special health issues, medical history checks, and cultural issues. Additionally, the U.S. has actually forbidden adoption from certain countries like Vietnam, Nepal, and Guatemala. The next obstacle is cost. Adoption can be an expensive process because it can require the assistance of attorneys, social workers, physicians, government administrators, adoption specialists, counselors, and more. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway (a joint service of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Children’s Bureau, and the Administration for Children & Families), adopting privately or from another country can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000, while foster care adoption averages $2,744. Adopting from the state foster care system may require families to take a class and get certified to foster before they can adopt a child through that avenue. Adoption laws vary by country and programs may further vary by state, so it is recommended that potential parents perform region-specific research. Those seeking to adopt can contact the appropriate adoption and foster care agencies for more information.

How Can I help?

A Child’s Hope Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing hope and healing to children living in orphanages in developing countries by connecting orphanage directors with the funding, training, and professional and volunteer support they need to support the children’s physical, social, and educational development. The foundation provides many opportunities for volunteers to get involved with short- and long-term service programs to improve the orphanage facilities and surrounding communities, and to interact with the children in a meaningful way. Volunteers can participate in service trips, summer camps, or volunteer as orphanage or foundation staff. Service trips involve traveling to the developing countries to do construction and other service projects that improve the family-style orphanages and the surrounding communities. Volunteers also take time to play with the children to help them feel connected and cared for. Summer camps involving traveling to the orphanages where volunteers hold cooking, sports, music, and other classes for children throughout the summer. Extended service programs allow volunteers to work with the orphanage staff as part of the team caring for and mentoring individual children on a daily basis. Behind the on-the-ground support that the extended service program provides, there is a small local team that manages the day-to-day operations of the foundation. Finally, the Aunt and Uncle Program allows individuals to help via donations, knowing that while they’re not able to help in person, they can still be part of a program that’s changing children’s lives. Donors can choose where to send their recurring donations and will then receive regular updates from the children and orphanages to whom they choose to donate. This feature of the program allows donors to personally see the impact of their donations.
Donors can also “adopt” and fund projects through the Adopt A Project Program, in which they can choose a specific critical need for their donation to fulfill. Whether donors choose to donate their time or resources, they are helping A Child’s Hope Foundation to make the greatest difference in children’s lives.

Samantha Clive - Adoption and Life in an OrphanageIt Takes a Village
00:00 / 35:01
Kent White - CEO of A Child's Hope FoundationIt Takes a Village
00:00 / 21:06
Robert P.K. Mooney - A Foster Kid's Road to SuccessIt Takes a Village
00:00 / 35:16
Emma Brown - A Therapist's View on Attachment TheoryIt Takes a Village
00:00 / 29:03

It Takes a Village Podcast Episodes

This podcast focuses on topics in international care for children and teens in crisis.  Our goal is to spread awareness about the orphanage and foster care space and provide meaningful information and practical actions to help children have a meaningful and bright future. 

Want to learn more?

Check out the infographics below!


Consulting projects completed for

A Child's Hope Foundation Winter Semester 2021

in connection with


Learn more about attachment theory, ATD challenges, and best practices for kids struggling.

What is Attachment Theory?


Learn more about different options for donation or volunteer service to support children in these circumstances.

How can I help?


Learn more about other ways  children can become orphans and be placed in an orphanage.

Who is an Orphan?

Who is an Orphan?

Samantha Clive shares her perspective on international adoption and about living on the campus of an orphanage with her family in Mexico.

Kent White provides insight into his experiences as the CEO at a Child's Hope Foundation and what people can do to help in the orphanage space.

Rob Mooney aged out of foster care and became a successful lawyer. He shares advice and tips from his personal experiences directed to children in the foster care system and to those who love them.

Emma Brown, Child & Family Therapist,  shares information about attachment disorder and provides practical and meaningful solutions to parents and caretakers working with kids with ATD.