Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting children out of orphanages: A bright idea from Lumos

The British charity Lumos has come up with an idea that's every bit as brilliant as one would expect from an organization founded by J.K. Rowling.

Today, International Children's Day, Lumos is urging people to light a birthday candle for the thousands of children who don't get to celebrate their own birthdays - sometimes don't even know their own birthdays - because they're warehoused in orphanages and other institutions. Across Britain "birthday parties" are being held to raise funds for Lumos to continue its excellent work.

Lumos works primarily in Eastern Europe, helping governments reform the system that existed before the fall of Communism.

But there are plenty of children in the United States who could use the same kind of attention. The same is true in Britain itself, which, at the moment, is enduring a nationwide foster-care panic that any American child welfare administrator would recognize.

They're the children – sometimes even infants - dumped into parking place shelters, or the young people doped up on powerful psychiatric medications to keep them docile for overwhelmed staff at "residential treatment centers." The birthday candle is a wonderful symbol of the fact that even when the institutions have lovely grounds and are well run, they are not families – where birthdays are celebrated because the family wants to do it, not because the staff has to do it, or not at all.


And while Eastern European orphanages apparently have not yet learned the trick of rebranding themselves "residential treatment centers," in other respects the politics of child welfare "over there" can be remarkably similar to what happens over here. In Russia, for example, the main reason so many children are trapped in orphanages is not financial, it's political. As this New York Times story makes clear, Russia has a "foster care-industrial complex" very much like ours.

According to the Times:

The Russian government spends roughly $3 billion annually on orphanages and similar facilities, creating a system that is an important source of jobs and money on the regional level — and a target for corruption. As a result, it is in the interests of regional officials to maintain the flow of children to orphanages and then not to let them leave, child welfare experts said. When adoptions are permitted, families, especially foreign families, have to pay large fees and navigate a complex bureaucracy.

"The system has one goal, which is to preserve itself," said Boris L. Altshuler, chairman of Right of the Child, an advocacy group in Moscow, and a member of a Kremlin advisory group. … "The system wants these children to remain orphans."

Sound familiar?

And the defense of orphanages, by someone who runs one in Moscow, sounds as though it was written by the Child Welfare League of America:

"It would be a lot better if there were no orphanages, and every child were happy in the family that he or she has," said the director of Orphanage No. 11, Lidiya Y. Slusareva. "But if there are bad families, then it is better that the children are here."

So while it's too late for this year, I hope that by next year's International Children's Day, this bright idea from Lumos will have caught on here, and Americans will be lighting birthday candles for our own needlessly-institutionalized children.