Against Orphanages: An Impassioned Plea

by Professor Andrew Turnell

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The over-developed, over-commodified, colonising rich world is playing out its shadow side and desire to feel good about itself in orphanages across the developing world. Well-meaning people like ourselves through our desire to make a difference in an unjust, polarised world get suckered into the idea we can somehow do good by funding and supporting institutions that seem to rescue the poorest children in the poorest countries. It’s a ruse. It’s a story about us not about them and it decimates traditional cultures and traditional ways of care in the poorest countries.

Orphanages leverage and commodify the most vulnerable children in the world in a business model that enriches a whole raft of unsavoury criminals who run and utilise orphanages in poor countries. There are no good orphanages — their net impact is devastating in developing countries and to traditional cultures. The people running orphanages exploit the naïvety and shadow side of westerners who ‘want to give back’, want to feel good about themselves in an unjust world by making a difference and saving the iconic ‘damaged child’. This urge is often naïvely reinforced through our institutions such as our churches, our service clubs and schools.

This is the same naïve paternalistic child rescue logic that is still the embedded and still largely unquestioned culture of our western child protection systems. This is the logic that saw indigenous children across Canada, Australia, USA, Greenland, Scandinavia and elsewhere stolen from their families. And this is not just a story of the past in the overdeveloped world. This missionary zeal for child rescue continues to this day in our western systems — as people from traveller communities anywhere across Europe and from indigenous communities tell us in Canada and Australia. In Australia the proportion of indigenous children in care has doubled in the 10 years since 2008 when our Prime Minister apologised to indigenous people for the stolen generation.

I have partnered my organisation, Resolutions Consultancy, and to the extent I have leadership of the Signs of Safety community with the Cambodian Children’s Trust and Children’s Future in Battambang, Cambodia as an act of solidarity with their fight against child slavery and exploitation alongside Save the Children, US Aid and Unicef. I have also done this so we in our community can perhaps look at ourselves and learn more from them about the dynamics of colonisation that exploit the most vulnerable people and children in the name of doing good. This is not comfortable to think about; in fact it is ugly to contemplate. Looking at our shadow side always is. In my view, the orphanage child slavery problem is a sharply convex mirror in which we in our rich world can dramatically see the shadow side and the f#@*ed-up nature of the perverse lie that is the child rescue story.

Whether you are in Dublin or not, please make sure to watch the two Cambodian presentations at the November Gathering.

Andrew Turnell is Social Work Professor of Practice at Cumbria University. Andrew is a co-creator of the Signs of Safety approach to child protection casework which is the most well-known participatory approach currently available in the international child protection field. Andrew leads a 60 strong international community of licensed Signs of Safety trainers and consultants hailing from Japan, New Zealand, Europe and North America. Andrew is also partner with Professor Eileen Munro and Terry Murphy in Munro, Turnell and Murphy Consulting, which works with governments and children’s services agencies around the world to transform child protection practice and organisation. More information at and