About

Georgette Mulheir is a leading global expert on transforming systems of care and protection for children. Over the past three decades, she has worked in 33 countries, advising governments, major donors and the international community on transforming care. She has led programmes that have directly saved the lives of more than 15,000 children and transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands. She has helped build a global movement to recognise the severe harm caused, every day, to millions of children in orphanages around the world and to compel governments and international decision-makers to take action to end the institutionalisation of children. She pioneered a model of transforming systems of care used by many governments around the world. Together with her team, she has trained more than 50,000 professionals and politicians from more than 70 countries on how to transform care

Active since her teenage years in social justice campaigns such as the Anti-Apartheid movement, Amnesty International and refugee support work, Georgette Mulheir began her professional career in residential social work in the North of England. She realised early on that residential care, even in a wealthy country that invests considerable resources, is rarely a positive, healing experience for children. At best it is damage limitation. At worst, separating children from their families results in serious harm and exposes them to increased risk of all forms of child abuse, including trafficking. Children raised in institutions are at a higher risk than their peers of early death.

In 1993, not long after the Romanian revolution exposed the concentration camp-like conditions of the country’s orphanages, Georgette worked inside Bucharest’s largest baby institution, where she helped develop a service to keep mothers and babies together. She discovered that, despite the title ‘orphanage’, most children in institutions globally have living parents. Families are usually separated because of poverty, discrimination or a lack of access to services. Moreover, institution care is more expensive than family-based care.
 

Over the next decade, Georgette Mulheir led progressively larger programmes to transform care in many countries – including Belarus, Ukraine and Albania – and developed a robust model of care transformation, now followed by governments and practitioners across the world. From Japan, to Russia, Kenya, Colombia, Haiti and Malaysia, this model is transforming the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children and families.

In 2003, Georgette was asked by the Sudanese government and UNICEF to assist in addressing an emergency in Khartoum State. At that time, each year, approximately 1,400 new-born babies were left on the streets of Khartoum. Roughly 50% died on the streets. Those who were rescued were taken to the Maygoma baby institution where the mortality rate was over 80%. Georgette Mulheir supported a group of local government officials, NGOs, lawyers, police officers, doctors, social workers and religious scholars to transform the situation. First, a system of emergency foster families and local adoptive families was established, whilst Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF) worked on reducing the mortality rate in the institution through improved nutrition and medical care. Next, the team worked behind the scenes on the root cause: young single mothers were being punished under Sharia law with one hundred lashes. Working with progressive Islamic scholars, the police, local human rights lawyers and journalists, the team achieved a reinterpretation of Sharia Law that decriminalised being a single mother in Sudan. This made it possible for grassroots organisations to start supporting single mothers to keep their babies. Today there are more than 10,000 children living happily in families who would have died.

During her thirteen years at Lumos, Georgette built a team of global experts who have taken the approach to care transformation across the globe. Simultaneously, she worked to influence global decision-makers and funders. Results of her work, in cooperation with many others, include: forming a coalition that helped persuade the European Commission to change its funding regulations. This has resulted in shifting more than 3 billion Euros away from renovating institutions, spending that money instead on community-based services that help keep children in families; persuading global leaders to focus on family-based alternatives for unaccompanied refugee children, rather than keeping them in detention; achieving a UN Resolution on ending institutionalisation and promoting family-based care.

In 2003, Georgette was asked by the Sudanese government and UNICEF to assist in addressing an emergency in Khartoum State. At that time, each year, approximately 1,400 new-born babies were left on the streets of Khartoum. Roughly 50% died on the streets. Those who were rescued were taken to the Maygoma baby institution where the mortality rate was over 80%. Georgette Mulheir supported a group of local government officials, NGOs, lawyers, police officers, doctors, social workers and religious scholars to transform the situation. First, a system of emergency foster families and local adoptive families was established, whilst Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF) worked on reducing the mortality rate in the institution through improved nutrition and medical care. Next, the team worked behind the scenes on the root cause: young single mothers were being punished under Sharia law with one hundred lashes. Working with progressive Islamic scholars, the police, local human rights lawyers and journalists, the team achieved a reinterpretation of Sharia Law that decriminalised being a single mother in Sudan. This made it possible for grassroots organisations to start supporting single mothers to keep their babies. Today there are more than 10,000 children living happily in families who would have died.

During her thirteen years at Lumos, Georgette built a team of global experts who have taken the approach to care transformation across the globe. Simultaneously, she worked to influence global decision-makers and funders. Results of her work, in cooperation with many others, include: forming a coalition that helped persuade the European Commission to change its funding regulations. This has resulted in shifting more than 3 billion Euros away from renovating institutions, spending that money instead on community-based services that help keep children in families; persuading global leaders to focus on family-based alternatives for unaccompanied refugee children, rather than keeping them in detention; achieving a UN Resolution on ending institutionalisation and promoting family-based care.

In 2015, Georgette began working in Haiti. Her work brought to light a shocking fact: that many children in Haitian orphanages were there because of a particular form of trafficking. Most of the orphanages were unregistered, privately-run and funded predominantly by US-based Christian churches who wanted to help children and often sent young people to volunteer in the orphanages. To satisfy the demand for volunteering experiences, unscrupulous people established orphanages then filled them with children by deceiving or coercing poor parents into giving up their children. Often, parents were promised the child would receive the education they could not afford to provide. They thought they were doing the best for their children. Once in the orphanage, the conditions were usually appalling (so as to raise more funds) and education was rarely provided. Similar patterns of trafficking are common throughout Africa and Asia, in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Thailand and Cambodia.

 

Georgette Mulheir led a programme that demonstrated this was a new form of trafficking – orphanage-trafficking. She spearheaded research into the finances that found at least USD 100 million was donated annually to orphanages in Haiti, housing 30,000 children. Most of the children had been trafficked purely to receive these donations. That same money could fund 770,000 children to attend school each year.

Georgette presented the evidence from this programme to the Australian Parliamentary Inquiry on Modern Slavery. Following evidence given by Georgette Mulheir and other activists around the world, Australia became the first country in the world to legislate against orphanage-trafficking.

In 2018, Georgette led an emergency response programme to assist organisations responding to the family separation crisis on the US/Mexico border. The programme helped reunite hundreds of children with their families, including complex cross-border reunifications of children whose parents had been deported to Guatemala. The programme also helped strengthen the American Bar Association’s response by introducing trauma-informed social work to the practice of defence attorneys.

Throughout her career, Georgette Mulheir has worked tirelessly to empower children and young people to take leadership roles in transforming care. She led the development of a new approach to child and youth participation, which has ensured hundreds of children and young adults – many of whom have intellectual disabilities – have taken a lead role in influencing change in their countries and on the international stage. Young people supported by this programme have spoken at the UN in New York, the European Parliament in Brussels and in national dialogues with their own governments.

In 2015, Georgette’s work in Moldova won the overall Charity of the Year award at the prestigious UK Charity Awards. In the same year, Georgette was given a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation award. These awards “acknowledge and uplift those who have challenged social norms to present world-changing inventions or ideas. These changemakers often live at the intersection of technology and culture, encourage advances in society, and raise the bar for a thriving humanity.”

 

Her work has also received the Zero Project award and she was named as one of the world’s 30 most influential social workers. Her TED talk, explaining the harm of institutionalisation, has been viewed nearly 900,000 times. She is the author of four books on children’s and women’s rights.

Media Inquiries, General Contact: