Myth #1: Orphans are inherently resilient and institutionalised children can easily reintegrate into society.
Last post we introduced the idea that orphans are a central part of Western popular culture. If you missed it, you can find it here.
We talked about how the words often used to talk about orphans evoke a strong sense of resilience.
The resilient orphan.
People love orphan characters because:
They overcome lots of adversity. They are imperfect and need friends. They are brave and kind, resilient and decisive. They are gutsy despite their circumstances and makes the most of life’s opportunities. They are innocent no matter what happens to them. They can see through the bad to the good in people. They have the ability to dream past their circumstances.
That’s one of the key myths about orphans in western culture: orphans are inherently resilient, and institutionalised children can easily reintegrate into society.
The effects of Institutionalisation
However the research into orphan care tells a different story. Children who are institutionalised are more likely to develop mental illnesses, attachment disorders and developmental delays (Cline, 1979; Kaler and Freeman, 1994). Building on this work, a study in Russia, concluded that adults who had grown up in institutional care are “10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record, and 500 times more likely to take their own lives than their peers.”
Why is that?
Not all institutions are the same. While many institutions are run with the greatest intentions and care for children, institutions have differing levels of care, different staff to children ratios and different outcomes for children. Not every child from every orphanage will show these symptoms, but for many, the low ratio of caregiver to children and the cultural and social isolation created by institutionalisation means that children in institutions often experience disordered attachment. This is because they do not have a primary carer who gives them the secure love and boundaries they need to understand future relationships. This, and the fact that they are mostly only interacting with other children, means that they don’t know how to build healthy relationships. This disordered attachment leads to them seeking attachments elsewhere.
Furthermore, children in orphanages often rely solely on adults for all their daily routines. This means they do not experience the preparation for society that family life provides (UNICEF). A 1995 study by researchers at Kaiser Permanente has linked childhood abuse and traumatic experiences to alcoholism, drug use, promiscuity, and heart and liver disease. This study is the basis of many of the approaches to child wellbeing around the globe today. Understanding these effects has caused most western countries to close all, or at least most of, their own orphanages. The European Union in fact passed a law in 2013 to close all remaining orphanages across the entirety of the EU.
Interestingly, there is one orphan in popular culture who does displays the disordered attachment, isolation and addiction, that might be expected of children who have suffered such significant trauma. James Bond’s parents were killed in a climbing accident when he was a child. What’s even more fascinating is that in his case, all the psychological damage he has suffered is often portrayed as a positive thing, making him coolly violent and able to detach from the hard parts of his work.
Reintegrating Orphans into families: Lessons from ‘Anne with an E’
Other symptoms of the difficult upbringings of orphans are also often ‘repackaged’ as positive things. ‘Anne with an E’ explores this, drawing on ideas from the books. Many of us who grew up on the Anne books love her talkativeness and her desire to find “Kindred Spirits” and “bosom friends.” In this retelling of the story, Anne’s desire for Kindred Spirits is shown as a direct response to the loneliness, abuse and trauma that she has experienced in the past. This is particularly clear in her dedication and promises of loyalty to Diana. Anne gives these lavish promises to someone she only met half an hour earlier. We see how deeply she is wounded by the reactions of others and what she will do in order to gain the acceptance of others. The desire to belong motivates Anne in all her interactions. This is explored over and over by the writers in the first half of the series. And for the first time we clearly see that this isn’t Anne being inherently friendly; this is Anne seeking to attach and form a secure bond to whoever is available.
(People who visit orphanages often have a similar experience. We often hear people say, “The kids at the orphanage were so loving! They wanted to hug us, and they just connected with us so quickly!” What we don’t often consider is that children are naturally shy, hiding behind the legs of their parents or carers when they meet new people. And this is normal. Children being too quick to form bonds with people they don’t know isn’t just dangerous – it’s a sign that they don’t have a secure attachment in their day-to-day life who they can rely on.)
The way society reacts to Anne and Marilla is another way that ‘Anne with an E’’ shows the difficulties of reintegration. Anne is bullied for being an orphan. Marilla is looked down upon for daring to bring an untrustworthy orphan into the neighbourhood. The scene where the minister expresses his opinion that Anne would never be suitable as a wife, or to receive an education because she did not have any family connections is particularly heart-rending to watch. And yet, social stigma, lack of friends, poverty and homelessness is a reality for many young adults who leave orphanages once they’ve grown up (IOFA report, March 2011).
The importance of a good education
The writers of the TV series are keen to point out the value of education for Anne. This is one of Montgomery’s key themes: orphan children deserve an education (they are not cheap labour) and are just as capable as doing well academically as other children. This is an important part of Montgomery’s protest of how orphans were treated at the start of the 1900s. All children deserve an education, a belief ratified under the UN Convention of the Rights of a child in 1989, and one that we at CIF hold tightly to be true. However, the link between education and orphanages also influences us today. When first learning about the challenges facing children who leave orphanages, people often respond by pointing out that “at least they are getting a good education.” In fact, Cambodian parents, often told this by orphanage directors, agree. Over 40% of Cambodian children in orphanages are there because their parents view it as a way for their children to get a good education (IOFA report, March 2011). Globally, “91.9% of family members agreed/definitely agreed that a poor family should send a child to an orphanage for education if they cannot pay for the child’s education themselves.” UNICEF
However studies in Cambodia have shown that a higher education level (which kids often do achieve) and an ability to speak English, do not help them socially when they leave the institution. They still face discrimination.Their experiences leave them more prone to experience violence, labour exploitation, homelessness and emotional distress. In fact, “Their institutionalization – a childhood of emotional neglect, social isolation, disorganised attachments and repeated traumas – has negated the value of the education for which they were placed in orphanage care.” (IOFA report, March 2011)
So, while it is true that all children should receive an education, it is not true that having an education can overcome the obstacles created by institutionalisation. Repairing disordered attachment requires learning healthy attachment. There is no better place to do that than within the love and care of a family.
Children belong in Families
One of the strengths of Montgomery’s work is that as the books progress we can see that secure attachment and bond grow between Anne and the members of the Cuthbert family. In Anne of Green Gables, we see not only a celebration of Anne’s character, but a story of the difference that growing up in a family can make in a child’s life. We see how being part of a family helps institutionalised children reintegrate well into society. We see the influence that Marilla, Matthew and other significant adults in her life have in guiding her, and giving her the foundation she needs to be part of society. At Children in Families we believe that is worth celebrating.
View one of our stories of celebration here:
One question that often comes up when we talk about orphanages is this one: “But isn’t it better for children to grow up in an orphanage than in an abusive home?” Well, that may be true (the research is actually not clear) but less than 2% of children in orphanages in Cambodia are there because of abusive home situations. So where does this question come from? We’ll get into that next week in Part 3 of the series. Thanks for reading!