Orphanage Options

Study tracks child development in and out of institutions
April 1, 2010
Room to grow:

Room to grow: Measuring height of orphan in Tanzania. Chris Hildreth

The conventional wisdom among children's rights groups is that orphaned or abandoned children ought to be raised in a family setting rather than in an institutional orphanage. Research conducted by Kathryn Whetten, director of the Center for Health Policy at the Duke Global Health Institute, suggests that orphanages might not be as harmful as believed and may, in some cases, actually improve a child's well-being.

For three years Whetten studied more than 3,000 orphaned and abandoned children in communities in Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, and Tanzania. Some of the most influential studies on children's institutions were conducted in Eastern Bloc countries during the Soviet era, but now the greatest burden of orphans and abandoned children is in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern and Southeastern Asia.

The orphanages studied included less formal institutions in Asia and Africa that were not studied before and were not easily recognized. Researchers met with members of each community to identify and map orphanage locations. In Moshi, Tanzania, the research team found twenty-three orphanages after initially learning of just three from local government officials, challenging the definition of what can be called an orphanage. Community-based institutions, like group homes, are often smaller and more caring environments.

Whetten's research team compared the physical health, cognitive functioning, emotions, behavior, and growth of orphaned or abandoned children ages six through twelve, half of them living in institutions and the other half situated in family homes in the community. The study found that children in institutions were significantly healthier and had fewer emotional difficulties than community-dwelling children.

Researchers plan to continue tracking the children into their late teens and early twenties.