Whether one is in Bangladesh or Belgium, the debate about which is superior—institutionalization of children in orphanages or foster care programs—is a raging one. UNICEF estimates that there are roughly 130 million orphaned children worldwide today.* Most people agree that orphanages and foster care are both generally superior options than leaving orphaned or abandoned children to fend for themselves. But few agree on which is a better option between orphanages and foster care. 

Some argue that foster care programs are better than orphanages because they provide the child with a more real-life family setting in which the child can develop a healthy relationship with “parents.” Foster care programs also make it more likely that the child will receive greater individual attention than in an orphanage, where there is a danger of him/her being “lost” in a sea of children all clamoring for attention and care. 

But foster care programs can have their own flaws. Depending on how the child is treated, he/she may or may not develop a healthy relationship with “parents” and “siblings.” The problem gets accentuated when the primary motivation for a foster parent in taking in a child is the financial stipend provided by the government rather than a genuine love and concern for the child. Abusive foster parents are also not unheard of. Furthermore, the constant uprooting of a child from one foster care family to another can have detrimental psychological effects. The child may not develop a sense of belonging and the emotional scars from being “given up” periodically may take a long time to heal. Constant movement from one home to another negates perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of a foster care program – the opportunity for a child to bond with a “parent” or “sibling.”

Some countries have endorsed one system over the other, but a worldwide consensus is yet to be reached on which is better and why. What has universally been established is that maximum interaction between a child and its birth
family is ideal. The first best option must, therefore, always be that the orphan remains with a surviving parent if there is one, or with relatives—immediate or distant. But what happens when the surviving parent or extended family is unwilling or unable to take on the responsibility of raising the child? Should the child be sent to an orphanage or should foster care be preferred?

Orphanages may facilitate the monitoring of a child’s well being by the government through the routine inspection of a few facilities, instead of having to monitor widely dispersed foster care homes. Furthermore, orphanages may provide children with a group of peers with whom they can relate because of their common experience and circumstances. Abuse may also be more difficult when children possess the power of numbers in orphanages. But orphanages are known to often cause a variety of problems of their own. One study suggests that girls living in orphanages are more susceptible to emotional disorders while boys face behavioral problems.

A consensus has still not been reached on which is better. I would argue, however, that the debate has been wrongly framed. One system may offer advantages over the other in some respects and in some circumstances while the other may be more advantageous in others. The decision of whether to support institutionalization in orphanages or foster care should be based on the specificities of the particular case at hand, especially the quality of the institutional care versus foster care that is available, the psychological condition of the child, and his/her particular emotional needs. Like so many things in life, here too the answer to the question of which is better needs to be “it depends.”

*"UNICEF Data on Orphans by Region to 2010 [Chart]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #293, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/293 (accessed April 24, 2010). The definition of an orphan for statistical purposes is a child under 18 years old who has lost one or both parents; children are no longer considered orphans after they reach 18 years of age.

Article from Empower Magazine 4