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Being clear about orphans

  • 22 August 2017


In the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 August Lindsay Murdoch reported on the public hearing by the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee investigating a Modern Slavery Act. The proposed legislation is broad but this article focused on one aspect—the institutionalisation of children.

The article detailed the concerns of witnesses that an industry has developed around so-called orphanages that exploit children for the sake of commercial gain. People are duped into giving donations, or volunteering, in circumstances that exacerbate the plight of children rather than serve their best interests.

On July 12, 2017 in the international journal Crux Sean Callahan, Georgette Mulheir, and Philip Goldman exposed the same concern in an article The orphan myth: Exposing the truth about orphanages

Sadly we are now all too familiar with the harm that institutionalisation can do to children. The child migrant program of the 1940s and 1950s involving the British government and Australian charities was well-meaning – giving vulnerable children a new start in the sunshine of the colonies.

In 1992 the NSW Government appointed Sydney priest and social worker Fr John Usher to head a committee to examine the care provided to state wards.

The “Usher Report” as it came to be known strongly recommended a move away from residential care as the default position for children separated from parents.

The sad truth is that separation from family and culture has caused great distress for many.

As National Director of Catholic Mission (the Pontifical Mission Societies in Australia) I take very seriously the responsibility not to support or encourage institutions that do more harm than good to children.


"The right approach is to understand the traditional orphanage as the last resort, as a place for children with no other available living situation."


It is an issue that is recognised in the Australian Council for International Development Resolution on Residential Care (2016/1 Approved at the ACFID AGM 26 October 2016):

ACFID noted with concern that there are an estimated 8 million children worldwide living in residential care, despite 80 per cent of these children having one or both parents living. In consideration of the proliferation of residential care in developing countries and the damaging effects it can have on children’s development and wellbeing.

ACFID calls:

1. On members to take measures to ensure they are not, directly or indirectly, contributing towards the unnecessary institutionalisation of children through programming, funding or volunteering activities.

2. On the Australian Government to work with NGO policy and practice experts to address the issues contributing to