Hidden away in orphanages, who can you turn to? Who can you tell?

One of the most shocking, and least discussed, consequences of the system of orphanages globally, is the prevalence of sexual abuse. In thirty years working to end institutionalisation, I have encountered thousands of girls – and some boys – sexually abused by the very people paid to protect them.


In Romania, I was leading the closure of an orphanage. We were moving 7-year-old Marius to a foster family, when we discovered his older sister, living in another orphanage. Marius missed her terribly. The foster family said they would take both children and Gabi settled into her new family. The children could not stop hugging each another. Gabi was thriving at home and in school but, after a few months, the family reported a sudden change in her behaviour. Gabi came home late in the evenings, angry and disruptive, refusing to cooperate with her family. She even stopped spending time with Marius.


I asked a psychologist to help Gabi – only just in time. In the orphanage, from the age of nine, Gabi said, she had been forced to have sex with men. When she had moved into the family, she had finally felt safe. But some older girls from her orphanage, visiting the city, had spotted her leaving school. They coerced her back into the trafficking ring. Now, the man in charge was taking her to Italy the following week. She showed us the false passport he had arranged. She was scared she might be pregnant, so we took her to a doctor. Thankfully, she was not pregnant, but the doctor said the physical damage proved she had clearly had “sexual relations” hundreds of times. She was just 11 years old.


Wonderful as Gabi’s foster parents were, she was no longer safe, as the traffickers knew where she lived. Quickly, we arranged for her to be moved to a new family and school, much further away. It meant separating from her brother, but there was no other choice. Within months, Gabi was top of the class in her new school, aspiring to become a botanist when she grew up.


But Romania is not unique. Thirty years ago, in the UK, I worked with several thirteen-year-old girls in care homes who disclosed they were being sexually exploited. Taxis waited for them outside the care home and nothing we could say would stop them from leaving. The recent reports on sexual exploitation in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Telford, show that the traffickers continue to target girls in children’s homes. It has only recently been taken seriously by the police and local authorities.[1]


In Kenya, international missionaries establish orphanages so they can sexually abuse children. Gregory Dow from the USA pleaded guilty this year to sexually abusing four girls in the church-funded orphanage he established.[2] And Simon Harris from the UK, had been asked in the 1980s to leave his post in a boarding school in Devon, because of complaints of sexual assaults from boys. He moved to Kenya where he set up a charity to provide access to children, for which he was jailed in 2015.[3]


In Haiti, I helped the government research approximately 600 of the country’s orphanages. In almost all, we found physical or sexual abuse. Most of the orphanages were unregistered, acting unofficially. Nearly all used self-styled pastors to deceive and coerce parents into giving up their children. And most were funded by well-meaning volunteers and churches in the USA. More than $100 million is donated to Haitian orphanages annually, where children are trafficked, beaten and sexually assaulted in the name of care and protection.[4]


And on International Women’s Day 2017, girls locked into the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala set light to mattresses in protest. As fire engulfed the building, forty-one girls died. Survivors said they were placed there because of abuse at home, but the sexual abuse in the orphanage was much worse. The institution had a long history of complaints of sexual assault by staff.[5]


Why are girls in orphanages at an increased risk of sexual abuse? Once children are removed from their families and communities, the natural mechanisms that would defend and protect them are gone. They are viewed as ‘difficult’ or the product of ‘bad parents’. Isolated from the community and blamed for their victimisation, they are rarely believed, making them easy targets for traffickers.


If you are being abused by the very people paid to protect you, where can you turn? Some children endure abuse for years on end, because the only other alternative is the street.


How can we better protect children – and particularly girls – in care from endemic sexual violence? The single greatest solution is to stop investing in orphanages and redirect the money to family-based care. When we stop removing children because of poverty and instead invest in the families, most do a great job of protecting their own children.

[1] See for example: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/29/how-did-childrens-homes-become-centres-of-profit-making-and-abuse and https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/may/14/oxford-gang-guilty-grooming-girls [2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53067259 [3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35976313 [4] Funding Haitian Orphanages at the Cost of Children’s Rights. (2017) Lumos. https://lumos.contentfiles.net/media/documents/document/2018/01/Funding_Haiti_Orphanages_Report.pdf [5] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/world/americas/guatemala-shelter-fire-trial.html

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