When embarking on a volunteering mission, the best interest of local communities should be at the heart of your actions. They should benefit directly or indirectly from your work and there should be no negative interference or consequences for them. For a number of reasons ChildSafe does not support volunteering to work directly with children in another country, for example in orphanages, children’s homes or schools.
Let’s think about it: most volunteers don’t know the local language and cannot communicate effectively with the children they are working with. Short-term international volunteers often have no previous experience of teaching and so lack the skills to teach English as a foreign language. Most volunteers only stay for a short period of time before moving on and being replaced by new volunteers, and the lack of adequate background checks on volunteers contributes to a situation in which child sexual exploitation can occur.
Whilst volunteering with children may represent an interesting and memorable experience for the volunteer, ask yourself what long-term good it does for the children? Bonding with a succession of volunteers who subsequently leave them, being exposed to potential abuses by not so well meaning volunteers, getting poor quality English lessons with no continuity in the curriculum… we wouldn’t want that for our own children, right?
Below are a few more things to think about before volunteering to work in children’s residential institutions:
- Children do not develop well in institutions: Institutions (orphanages, shelters, children’s homes) are never a better environment for children than living with a loving family. In institutions they are denied the individual love and care they need to develop properly. Increasing evidence shows that infant’s brains not only fail to develop fully when placed in institutions but parts of the brain may actually die and this is not reversible. Research also shows that in institutions children are often exposed to abuses from their peers or from caretakers.
- Institutions can tear families apart: Out of 8 million children living in institutions across the globe more than 80% are not orphans. They are separated from their families mostly because these are poor and can’t afford to send them to school. In Cambodia for example, UNICEF is working closely with the government to reduce the number of orphanages and convince those funding and running orphanages to return children to their families and support community-based services instead.
- Volunteering in institutions allows them to expand: by contributing your time and money you are supporting a system that is clearly not in the best interest of children and you are undermining Unicef and many governments’ efforts to reunite children with their families! Some orphanages are taking advantage from volunteers’ genuine desire to help and are more interested in the financial benefit the volunteer might bring than in any benefit he may bring to children.
- Volunteers don’t have a long lasting positive impact: Children need permanent caregivers and teachers with whom they can develop stable and long-term reciprocal relationships. Such attachments form the foundation for other relationships and are paramount to the development of their self-confidence. Volunteers who are only passing through, who are from a different culture and speak a different language cannot function as stable attachment figures.
- Children in institutions are exposed to abuses: Some organizations allow volunteers to have direct and unsupervised access to children, without doing any background checks. This increases the chance of “predator volunteers” to have access to children and these children of being taken advantage of or abused.