Media CenterNew Opinion Poll Shows Americans in the Dark about Orphanages; Unwittingly Fueling ‘Orphan Industry’ with Grave Effects on Children

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Tom Price
Catholic Relief Services
[email protected]
(410) 951-7450


Accompanying Research Review Underlines the Damaging Effects of Orphanages 

BALTIMORE, MD, November 29, 2017 – At a time of year when Americans are making their charitable giving decisions, a new poll and research review shows a high level of misinformation about an industry receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in donations every year: orphanages. With the best of intentions, many Americans are sustaining orphanages that research clearly shows can lower children’s IQs, stunt their growth and increase child abuse.

The poll was commissioned by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to assess public understanding of orphans and orphanages in developing countries, and it showed widespread misunderstanding, perpetuating the spread of the global “orphan industry.” The United States eliminated orphanages approximately 50 years ago in favor of family care, but the poll shows 87 percent of people surveyed believe they still exist here. Ninety percent believe they provide a vital service for children in poor countries, and six in 10 Americans say they would consider providing financial support to an overseas orphanage. Indeed, close to half of those surveyed, 47 percent, agree they would rather give money to an orphanage than to a family living in poverty.

Decades of research show the damaging effects of orphanages on children, summarized in a new report titled, The State of Residential Care for Children and Implications for Human Development. It shows the negative effect on children’s health and development that often lasts long into adulthood. Orphanage care can result in:

  • Lower IQs, poor learning skills and stunted physical growth.
  • The loss of one month of physical growth for every two to three months spent in an orphanage.
  • A higher prevalence of mood and attachment disorders.
  • Much greater risk of abuse and neglect.

“A child is a like a flower. They need love, care and attention to bloom. The research review is evidence that orphanages are hurting children’s growth,” said Shannon Senefeld, CRS’ senior vice president of overseas operations. “We need to stop funding the orphanage industry and spread the word that family care is the way for children to bloom.” 

Importantly, the research review confirms that there are better ways for well-meaning donors to spend their money. Children removed from institutional care and placed in families at an early age rebound and within a few years are able to catch up physically and emotionally with their peers. Reunifying children with parents or placing them in supportive family settings is highly effective at reversing the harm of institutionalization and leads to healthy, vibrant young adults.

Other surprising results from the opinion poll include: 

  • While poverty is the No. 1 reason that children around the world end up in orphanages, only 26 percent of respondents believed this to be the case. Instead, nearly half, 46 percent, said the top reason that children are in orphanages is the loss of a parent, and two in three, 68 percent, rank the loss of a parent among the top two most common reasons. The reality is 80-90 percent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent.  
  • A physical or mental disability was ranked lowest, after abuse, as a reason for children entering an orphanage, even though disability is a leading reason children end up in orphanages.
  • More than seven in 10 Americans, 75 percent, correctly recognize as true that orphanages in some countries are used for human trafficking, and 71 percent correctly recognize as false that a child is less likely to experience abuse in an orphanage than in a family setting.

“As a way forward, the research tells us that instead of giving to orphanages, donors, including individuals and faith-based organizations, should support systems that reunify children with parents, kin or supportive families,” said Senefeld. “We should help families challenged by poverty or disabilities, so they will not be tempted to turn to such institutions in desperation.”

Donors can help ensure these institutions are providing the best services possible and are helping transition children back to family-centered care as quickly as possible. 

Busting these orphan myths and redirecting donor funds to family-based care and services is a major part of CRS’ proposal to change the way we care for vulnerable children. CRS is a finalist in the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition. The winner will receive $100 million to address a major problem of our time. CRS’ proposal, in collaboration with our partners Lumos and Maestral International as one of four finalists, lays out ways in which CRS proposes to go about ending the institutionalization of children in the developing world. 


Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. The agency alleviates suffering and provides assistance to people in need in more than 100 countries, without regard to race, religion or nationality. CRS’ relief and development work is accomplished through programs of emergency response, HIV, health, agriculture, education, microfinance and peacebuilding. For more information, please visit or and follow CRS on social media: Facebook, @CatholicRelief@CRSnewsYouTube, Instagram and Pinterest.

Tags: children


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