by Joy Casey

Sweeping generalizations are problematic.  In my experience, there usually is not just one right way to do anything.  Therefore, when I heard about the world’s largest adoption agency making broad declarations of the best way to tackle our world’s orphan problem, I was taken aback.  Their premise is that all orphanages are harmful and will cause significant brain alteration and social impairment.  Only a country-wide foster care system coupled with local adoption (when it can be achieved) is the answer.

For decades, research has shown the harmful effects institutionalized living has on children.  One cannot help but take notice of multiple studies on the subject done by highly regarded organizations.  My personal study of these results is precisely why orphanages I have had anything to do with were designed deliberately small and intimate with the goal of providing family permanency for each child as quickly as possible.

I absolutely agree that it is detrimental for children to languish in impersonal institutions.  But is a foster care system in every country of the world the ultimate answer for parentless children?  I suggest it could be one way of providing a more homelike upbringing for orphans in selected situations.

If adoption cannot be the answer, then a small, group home with house parents has proven a good alternative or small orphanages with a high caregiver/child ratio.  Contrary to this agency’s assertion, there are some wonderfully run orphanages throughout the world.  There are horrible ones, too, that need to be dismantled or overhauled.

There are so many issues to be addressed when considering foster care as a solution in developing countries… the first of which would be how does the society view orphans and how will that perception affect the quality of foster care?

  • Who is going to pay for it?
  • Who will conduct the substantial screening, training, ongoing education and follow-up for foster families?
  • How will a healthy ratio of trained social workers to foster families, both of whom need remuneration, be maintained?
  • Since money will likely be involved, how is monetary gain as a motive to foster to be avoided?
  • How is the trauma of moving from one foster home to another dealt with when a family decides the placement isn’t working out or when it is discovered to be inappropriate or harmful?



The U.S. is a wealthy, developed country and I think most can agree that our foster system is rife with problems that oftentimes fails to address the needs of the children in its care.  Most social workers are good people trying their hardest, but the systemic social service philosophies and laws keep children in less than optimal situations far too long.  Credible research points out the extreme detrimental affect a life in foster care has on children.  Is foster care dysfunction better than orphanage dysfunction?

The adoption agency that is pulling out of all international adoptions to build foster care systems is receiving large sums of money to do this in countries where previously they facilitated adoptions.  This sends a strong message that international adoption is bad for children and foster care is the better option.  The bright side of this new initiative is that more emphasis and resources will be dedicated to bolstering local adoptions.  But I am dismayed that this highly influential organization is putting all its eggs in one basket.

I am less than enthusiastic about foster care as the only way to care for orphans, with strong reservations about the likelihood of a stellar program being sustained long-term, especially in some of the poorest countries in the world with high orphan populations.   I vote for a whole spectrum approach to orphan care that includes foster care in some places, group homes and orphanages, local and international adoption.  My mantra over the years remains the same:  children need family permanency for optimum development.  There are several ways of approaching this ideal, so let us use all the tools in the toolbox, not just one.