Around the world, there are millions of children growing up without the love and care of a family. United Nations estimates that there are 8 million children living in institutional care across the globe, and the actual number is projected to be even higher. Surprisingly 80% of these children have at least one living parent or relative. Children are institutionalized at the highest rates in rural and semi-urban areas where there is scarcity of resources, and where poverty is most prevalent.

While the very foundation of institutional care is to provide care and education to abandoned and orphaned children, the standard of such facilities varies between being the optimum level of care to being highly inadequate. Many children living in institutional care are subjected to an extremely limited nurturing and stimulating environment that is necessary for their healthy growth and development. Furthermore, due to inadequate child protection measures cases of child abuse are often reported. Advocacy organizations that work with vulnerable children have learned that no matter how well-managed and caring an institution is, it is no substitute for a family. Children who are raised without their families are more likely to undergo limited positive impacts.

Poor sense of attachment& psychological trauma

Being raised in an institution can make it challenging for young adults to build long-lasting and stable relationships. As these children witness their caregivers frequently changing, they are unable to develop strong attachments. Moreover, due to a lack of love, care and attention, many children raised in an institution also tend to suffer from depression and associated disorders to a great extent. Experience shows that children live with trauma and are often not able to concentrate on their studies.

Delayed physical development

Children living in institutions are observed to have delayed physical development. There are several reasons to this, from poor nutrition and lack of hygiene to overcrowding and minimal access to medical care. This, oftenresults in stunted body growth. Moreover, these hindrances have the ability to cause an irrecoverable physical damage to children staying in institutions that they will maybe destined to suffer from for the rest of their lives.

Inadequate cognitive abilities and brain activity

Because of a substantial delay in physical and mental growth, manychildren in institutional care suffer from various issues including poor cognitive development, and below average intellectual performance. According to a research titled ‘The science of early adversity: Is there a role for large institutions in the care of vulnerable children?’ by Anne Berens and Prof Charles Nelson, the average IQ of children raised in institutional care is 84, whereas that of children raised in birth or adoptive families is 104. Therefore, a lack of brain activity resulting in lower IQ has also been observed in children who were brought up in institutions.

Post-institutional effects

Institutional care has been observed to lead to ‘generations gone’ of young adults who are not able to fully participate and function well in the society. Sometimes children have to also face social discrimination. These young people are often not prepared for leading an independent life, and seeking employment opportunities or a shelter. Moreover, since they have never experienced ample love and care, their own relationship with their families may suffer.

All these factors make it apparent how institutional care may result in a negative long-lasting impact not just on young people, but on their future families and communities An overwhelming number of studies have concluded that institutional care should be the last resort for a child.
Family-based care should be the first option under alternative care for children to have a promising and secured future. In case a child is abandoned or orphaned, immediate family member or kin could provide care, support and resources whenever possible. When not, foster-care could be opted for, for a secure and stable relationship.

UN agencies and NGOs also need to actively involve themselves in raising awareness about the importance of family-based care, encouraging adults to volunteer in fostering and adoption programmes. The government has also taken into consideration the impact of such an institution and hasbegun seeking measures to promote alternative care. Through several schemes supporting this cause, additional support and capacity-building initiatives, the government is actively striving to monitor and determine that every child gets a minimum standard quality of care, thereby serving as an integral element towards the noble cause.

By creating an effective ecosystem of government, institutions, care providers, donors and social workers, childcare and protection structures should undergo a complete transformation. An environment where children get all the love, care and attention is what they need and deserve. Together, we can change the world!

The author is India Country Head of Miracle Foundation.