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Charity or commerce? Hidden home truths about orphanages

Sunday October 14 2018

It is preferable that well-wishers support poor families of the children rather than orphanages, to prevent fraudsters using the children to mint money. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

It is preferable that well-wishers support poor families of the children rather than orphanages, to prevent fraudsters using the children to mint money. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The festive season is approaching and, in a few weeks, many Kenyans are expected to throng children’s homes with lavish donations as has been the tradition.

Bales of foodstuff, bundles of clothes, loads of toiletries and tonnes of motivational words and prayers will accompany the visits as Kenyans actualise their desire to celebrate with the less fortunate.

But while many people think having children at orphanages is a brilliant idea, an American rights organisation that investigated such facilities in Kenya for two years is questioning the impact of this model on children’s well-being.

Disability Rights International (DRI) says it is preferable that well-wishers support family members of the children and not orphanages, noting that the children centres can cause psychological damage to minors and that they are often money-minting schemes.


In a report it released on September 27, the 25-year-old organisation based in Washington DC starts its argument by repeating a sentence from an opinion article written by its president, Laurie Ahern, that was published by theWashington Postin August 2013.

“In many developing countries, it has been observed that orphanages have become a booming business. And children are the commodity,” Laurie had written.

The rights group further argues that most children in orphanages are, in fact, not orphans.

“They have living parents and extended families. Poverty and the belief by families that their children will be better off in institutions … drive them to give up their children,” says the report written by eight foreigners and the head of the Kenyan Association for the Intellectually Handicapped.

The findings were as a result of visits to various orphanages in Kenya between 2016 and 2018.

“By supporting orphanages rather than parents — many of whom are desperate to keep their children — donations are effectively splitting families apart and leaving children exposed to neglect, abuse, and trafficking,” warns the organisation.

But months before the American lobby released its findings, a team sanctioned by the State to look into the operations of children protection services had also recommended the abolition of facilities where minors are raised communally in favour of family-based approaches.

The team started its work after President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a moratorium in 2014 that halted inter-county child adoption and stopped the registration of new children’s homes.


Which raises the question: Are we witnessing the last days of children orphanages as we know them?

Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani toldLifestyleon Thursday that “it looks unlikely” that the government will register new orphanages again.

“We are looking at ways of integrating these children’s families and society as they grow up, so that they are not detached from the day-to-day matters facing families and society,” he said.

Mr Yattani agreed with DRI’s assertion that orphanages do more harm than good.

“At the centres, the children might get physical support in terms of food, shelter and clothing. But there is the other bigger challenge of socio-psychological support that is required, which can only be found within the family or the society,” he said.

“Once you put them in homes, you isolate them from the society. So, that is the psychological stigma that they will experience when they grow up.

“Re-integrating them to the society is not very easy if they are kept in institutions. It is because of that that we are no longer registering children’s homes,” added Mr Yattani.

The government may have one more reason to forever halt the registration of new orphanages following the scathing criticism from the Disability Rights International researchers, who visited 21 facilities around Kenya — some housing disabled children and others with normal ones.

Labour and social protection Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani.

Labour and social protection Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


One aspect they pointed out is the misappropriation of donor money.

“DRI found orphanages supported by thousands of dollars through mission trips and volunteers. Yet at the same facilities children are still living in squalor or worse,” they write.

They named a children’s home in Nairobi that asks for $50 (Sh5,045) to sponsor a child.

“According to the director, 35 children are being sponsored thus far. Yet there are only two non-professional staff for 60 children,” the investigators write.

They add: “In every single institution DRI visited, we found that there were few staff taking care of the children. Moreover, staff was not trained and in several places we found teenagers taking care of other children.”

Then there is the curious case of a child with hydrocephalus (liquid accumulation in the head) who had not been taken to hospital for a long time because the management of the orphanage — located in one of Nairobi’s sprawling slums — said they had no funds to get him medical attention.

When the team revisited the facility a few days before releasing their report, they found the boy missing.

“Staff reported that the child had received treatment and was ‘cured’, but they could not account for where the child was now residing,” states the document.

The eight-member team that conducted the investigations comprises lawyer Priscila Rodríguez who is the associate director of DRI, the organisation’s president Laurie Ahern, human rights investigator John Bradshaw, Arlene Kanter who is a professor at the Syracuse University College of Law, lawyer Milanoi Koiyiet, Colombia University adjunct professor Robert Levy, disability services specialist Melanie Reeves, lawyer Eric Rosenthal who is also DRI’s executive director, and Fatma Wangare who is the director of the Kenyan Association for the Intellectually Handicapped.

Their report is titledInfanticide and Abuse: Killing and Confinement of Children with Disabilities in Kenya.


They describe, rather unapprovingly, the trend whereby orphanage owners convince poor families that they can nurture their children and once they are allowed to have them, they house them in places where volunteers are allowed to visit them anyhow, regardless of the fact that some may be sex pests.

In their research they spoke to an unnamed government official from the Social Protection ministry who admitted that sexual exploitation is a reality in children’s orphanages.

“People are paying to come, people are paying school fees for children and they are sexually exploiting them,” the government official is quoted as saying in the report.

Moreover, DRI spoke with a chief in Murang’a County who was brutally honest on the topic, admitting that “orphanages are not good places”.

“Orphanages realised that if they had more children they could get more donations. At first, they only had local donations but now they started getting international donations. As they received more money, they realised they could use it for themselves,” the chief said.

“They receive donations from people and misuse the resource, buying the most expensive cars for themselves while the children remain isolated from their families,” he added.

He also informed the investigators that several children in orphanages go home during school holidays, which led DRI to make an inference that “the great majority of institutions do not try to reach out and support children to remain with their families”.

But Mr Paul Gitari, who is the director of Oasis of Peace, a Children’s Home in Gachoka, Embu County, that houses 40 children, argues that there is a noble reason why children have to be housed under one roof.

“Most of our children are orphaned and come from poor backgrounds. We take them in and care for them because we know how difficult it may be for a grandparent to raise them — financially and also because of age,” he toldLifestyle.

Mr Gitari added that having children at an orphanage until they are adults ensures they have emotional stability.

“Moving them from one home to another plays with their emotions, and they are often left insecure emotionally. Children should be allowed to grow up in safe and secure places for their own good,” said Mr Gitari.

Mr Gitari’s is one of the many orphanages giving refuge to vulnerable Kenyan children. Some are more than two decades old and they offer interventions to breakdowns in parenting as a result of HIV, family conflict, outdated cultural practices, neglect, among other reasons.


DRI estimates that there are 1,500 orphanages in Kenya.

“But there are no reliable estimates of the number of children in those orphanages,” it states.

Whenever one visits each of these care centres, those running them often provide touching justifications for what they are doing.

At Mr Gitari’s Oasis of Peace, for instance, there is a unique way of ensuring that children grow up as well-rounded individuals.

“Instead of dormitories, we have normal bedrooms for the children. This tends to change their mentality about the situation and make them always feel as if they are home. We also have meals at the same time and we take this time to interact with them on a one-on-one basis,” said Mr Gitari, whose organisation takes in children aged between eight and 18.

He also blasted those who use the plight of children to make money.

“Sadly, pocketing money from donors is a common occurrence with children’s homes owners in Kenya that should stop,” he said.

While individuals like Mr Gitari might be meaning well for the children under their care, DRI thinks the better way out is to empower societies to nurture the children at their homes.

“Kenya must create support programmes for at-risk families so that no child is placed in an orphanage or institution of any kind,” it says in its recommendations.

It adds: “All children with and without a disability need the love and care of a family. Extensive research now shows that placing any child in an institution (or residential programme of any size) can cause psychological damage and lead to increased developmental disabilities.”


At more than half of the institutions they visited, they write, they were told that most children had parents.

“In one institution [name withheld] the director told DRI investigators that more than half of the children were from single mothers,” says the report.

“In another institution [name withheld] the director told us that they received several children from teenage girls who would not or could not keep their children. In this institution, DRI found one child that was one-week old who had just been given up by his teenage mother.”

Another recommendation from DRI is that Kenya should ban foreigners from volunteering at orphanages, given the many well-documented cases of foreign citizens who sexually abused children in the guise of giving a helping hand.

The most recent case happened in July when Keith Morris, a British national, was found guilty of four counts of rape.

For about 20 years, Morris befriended families at a remote Kenyan village where he financially sponsored several families. He would take groups of children on day trips and on several occasions in 2016 and 2017, he defiled girls.

Mr Yattani, the Social Services minister, said some of DRI’s recommendations are similar to those raised by the team appointed by the President, adding that discussions are ongoing on how to actualise them.

But even as Mr Yattani was confident that the government’s move to pause registration of children’s home will check against the free fall, the other sad reality uncovered by DRI was that the current ones are housing far more than their capacity.

Furthermore, they found out that “children are in unregulated and uncounted institutions”, meaning some could be cropping up without the regulators’ knowledge.

An orphanage in one of the Nairobi slums was a glaring example of overcrowding when the researchers moved around.

“In one room, there were 10 beds for 30 children. By 5pm all the children were being put to bed. According to one volunteer, they are left in their beds from 5pm until 6am the next day,” says the report.

So, as you head to that orphanage to share gifts and hugs, spare a moment to think about the environment in which the child is growing up.