Philip Mudge writes his final blog post for Comhlámh on international volunteering, orphanages…and the Blues Brothers??
It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses… but that don’t make orphanages a good place to raise children.
Those of you familiar with my previous blogs on international volunteering for development and orphanage tourism will know that I have a point of view. Put quite simply it’s that orphanages are bad for children and volunteering in orphanages is bad for the kids that live there and for you as a volunteer too.
My opinion on orphanages and orphanage tourism is supported by pretty much all the respected child safeguarding experts worldwide, people like (Kathryn E. van Doore of Griffith University, Queensland, Australia; Save the Children, Unicef , Tearfund and Better Volunteering Better Care a global campaign against orphan volunteering.
What’s frustrating is that the people who benefit from the orphanage tourism industry: the unscrupulous orphanage owners making a profit out of children’s misery, the child traffickers who recruit fake “orphans” (yeah, most kids who live in orphanages either have a living parent or an extended family member who could look after them given the right levels of support) to populate the orphanage, the child abusers who take advantage of slack child safeguarding procedures to volunteer and gain unfettered access to the most vulnerable children and (most frustrating of all) the travel industry providers who mistakenly believe that they know better and promote their ‘better and safer’ orphanage volunteering experiences feel able to dismiss all these child safeguarding experts as
“not having the grassroots understanding” and “out of touch with the real world”.
Which may make sense, until you hear the local grassroots organisations like Next Generation Nepal (who rescue kids from dangerous fake orphanages in Nepal and reunite them with their families) or The Irish based NGO The Umbrella Foundation who develop and support alternatives to orphanage care for vulnerable children. But the rogues’ gallery of deniers don’t want to listen to these grassroots activists either:
you need to step away from the everyday to see the bigger picture” they say “that’s not possible when you are so heavily personally involved”.
The author JK Rowling isn’t personally involved: she can step back and look at the bigger picture. She has invested millions of the cash she made from the Harry Potter books and films in her Lumos Foundation which promotes deinstitutionalism and family based care. In August 2016 she said
“Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses,”
But what would a well meaning children’s author know about such complex issues?
So in short, child safeguarding experts including Save the Children , the Better Care Network, the people actually getting their hands dirty fixing the problems and a wizard master all agree that orphanages are bad for children and that orphanage tourism adds to and perpetuates this damage but many tourism and volunteer programme providers including both commercial and not for profit providers persist in providing this product because either they think they know better, or that the evidence is not conclusive, or they simply don’t care.
I believe that human rights (and children’s rights too) are universal: rights that you expect to apply to you, apply to everyone: wherever they were born and live. Rights that you expect and demand for your children you must expect and demand for all children. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of the rights of the Child, the US Declaration of Independence all support this view. If we believe that rights are universal than we have no option except to demand that children are treated the same in the developing world as they are in Ireland the UK or the USA.
As I leave my post as Volunteer Quality Project Officer with Comhlámh, this is my final attempt to convince you that orphanages are bad for kids, both here in the ‘developed world’ and for all kids everywhere: this is my mission from God!! IF YOU AGREE, THEN JUST DON’T VOLUNTEER IN OPRPHANAGES.
The 1980 John Landis’ 1980 movie The Blues Brothers was widely heralded as a ground breaking expose of the immediate and long term lasting harm caused to two orphans Jake and Elwood Blues. Fresh from the success of the comedy Animal House starring John Belushi, Landis’s documentary shows how the brothers cope with the lifelong impacts of their cruel upbringing at the Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage in Chicago and their attempts to deal with the guilt, anger and negative emotions associated with their young lives. It documents their abuse at the hands of the cruel orphanage owner, their lack of learning opportunities and subsequent inability to cope with basic literacy as adults, their involvement in petty and more serious crime, their exposure to substandard and dangerous housing, the risk of being exposed to sexual predators, Jake’s inability to form lasting adult relationships, the ongoing exploitative labour of the “orphans” in the orphanage and the expectation that the ‘orphans’ will continue to provide a revenue stream for the orphanage and those who benefit from it.
In the movie’s opening sequences we are introduced to Jake Blues as he is released from Joliet Prison. Jake is illiterate, unable even to sign his name on receipt of the meagre personal belongings returned to him by the prison authorities we are left in no doubt that he is a frequent Joliet resident. Jake is met at the prison gates by his brother Elwood. We are shown that Elwood has a profound and sustained lack of respect for the forces of law and order or the safety and welfare of members of the general public. He has a string of traffic and driving violations and within minutes has caused significant damage to numerous police vehicles and endangered the lives of families shopping at a nearby mall.
Elwood convinces Jake to visit the orphanage where they were raised. Jake’s fear of the orphanage manager is justified as she inflicts unjustified physical punishments on the two men. The long-term effects of their childhood psychological abuse is apparent as they are no more able to resist or defend themselves as adults than they were as children. The brothers are then pressurised by the manager of the orphanage to fundraise for the orphanage largely to preserve the manager’s job and home comforts, under threat of eternal damnation.
At this time we are introduced to Curtis who turns out in fact to be Cab Calloway, as Elwood says:
“the only one who was ever good to us: singing Elmore James tunes and blowing the harp for us down here”.
Like all children, the brothers need sustained; long term relationships with significant adults who can act as appropriate role models, not intermittent here today, gone tomorrow figures more interested in CV building than in genuinely caring for them. The brothers found this figure In Calloway hwo continues to give long term care to the current ‘orphans’. However even he is exposed as a contradiction; forcing those current “orphans” into unpaid labour in order to keep his own job when the Blues Brothers put the band back together as a fundraiser to keep the orphanage open.
After visiting a local church, the brothers return to Elwood’s ‘home’. Like many children brought up in institutional care, Elwood lives as an adult in vulnerable and dangerous housing: a single room in a shelter for homeless men and ex-offenders comprising only a single bed, single ring cooker and a few blues greats on vinyl. The building containing Elwood’s room collapses under nothing more than the impact of a rocket propelled grenade exposing the brothers, all the other residents and staff as well as two police officers and a probation officer to the risk of injury and even death.
As the film progresses Landis shows us the true and life-long risk of an orphanage up bringing: Jake’s inability to sustain meaningful relationships even with Carrie Fisher (yeah, that Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia dumped Harrison Ford and remained celibate for Jake and he treated her so badly: jilting her at the altar that she ended up trying to kill him); the brothers’ exposure to inappropriate sexual behaviour, being forced to meet a rich and powerful entrepreneurs in a sauna in exchange for the promise of a contribution to their fundraising project; and their blasé exposure to the risk of physical harm, being shot at by Ray Charles whilst trying to buy musical instruments for the band. These are all risks associated even today with life in residential institutions.
The most heart wrenching scene in the film shows the Brothers’ successful fundraising event for the orphanage. Jake, Elwood, Calloway and their few friends perform in front of thousands of tourists and travellers. At the height of their success and fame at the Empire State ballroom, singing and dancing for the crowd, what message does Jake give us? A desperate cry for help: Solomon Burke’s “Everybody needs somebody to love”
So, in conclusion, there’s a reason why we don’t have orphanages like that in the west anymore. They brutalise and cause damage to children in so many unimaginable ways, damage that sustains throughout their adult lives and that’s why orphanages shouldn’t be in the developing world either. The Church no longer supports orphanages either at home or in the developing world. So don’t support orphanages, don’t volunteer in orphanages and don’t fund orphanages.
If you don’t believe me, or the child care experts throughout the world, or the grassroots NGOs reuniting fake orphans with their families, or JK Rowling, or the church, then just watch The Blues Brothers: then you’ll get it. Just don’t laugh: it’s just not funny.