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Q. What is Whole Child International’s mission?
A. Our mission is to apply proven, low-cost techniques that significantly improve cognitive and psychological development for the tens of millions of institutionalized and otherwise at-risk children worldwide.
Q. What problem does Whole Child seek to solve?
A.. Whole Child International’s programs meet an acute and poorly understood humanitarian need in the world’s orphanages. Millions of children languish in institutions on every continent, and their number is only expanding in the face of war, disease, and famine. Most often, the care available to these children is woefully inadequate. As a society’s last defense against street life for children, institutions generally provide for such basic needs as food and shelter, but lack the knowledge necessary to address the fundamental child development need for meaningful, consistent human relationships. It is not unusual for children in institutions to have 70-80 caregivers, all of them emotionally disconnected, by their fifth birthday.
Yet research shows that children who lack caring, sustained relationships in their first years have limited prospects for healthy integration into society. They tend to have poor psychological, emotional, intellectual, and physical development; many are at significant risk of psychopathology. As adults, they have difficulty developing meaningful relationships. Many fall into lives of crime and become a burden on society. Those who bear children lack the capacity to connect with and care for them, and thus they perpetuate the cycle by sending another generation to institutions.
Many key children’s aid organizations and national governments have subsequently withdrawn support for orphanages. But while alternate systems may be preferable in an ideal world, in reality most developing countries are many years or decades away from deploying a viable system to replace the institution. Today, many have no choice but to add institutions, despite the deprivation of resources that ultimately hurts the children and isolates the well-meaning individuals who care for them. This is true in El Salvador, whose institutions house thousands of children and whose ranks have seen a growth in number over the past year, in the wake of the food crisis.
Q. Does Whole Child International run orphanages?
A. No. Whole Child works with existing orphanages, helping them restructure their care systems and re-train existing staff members. We do not advocate for the construction of new orphanages, the expansion of orphanages, or other forms of capital investment in them. Where children live in orphanages or other troubled forms of care, we work to ensure the children receive high-quality care from administrators and caregivers who are trained to meet their well-understood psychological and emotional needs.
Q: Does Whole Child assist in international adoption?
A: While we are very much in favor of adoption, and the placement of children in families in general, we do not work directly in international adoption. Our experience has taught us that we are better able to build government partnerships and work toward sustainable change in child protection if we are not involved in any issues related to adoption. However, our work, which focuses on the implementation of best practices in childcare in orphanages and other limited-resource settings, helps children improve their prospects of successful integration into a family if they are placed in one through adoption, reunification, or other means.
Q. Whole Child initially worked in orphanages only. Why does it now work in childcare centers also?
A. Whole Child’s program was designed with orphanages in mind, and our initial interventions and research were carried out specifically in orphanages. As we conducted this work, our teams discovered profound similarities between children living in orphanages and children being cared for in limited-resource childcare centers, and found that even children with parents suffered some of the same symptoms from poor childcare in care centers.
At the same time, we were approached by childcare administrators hoping to conduct our work in their centers, and we also became aware of the elevated potential for leveraging resources among programs across the childcare programs of a country. Finally, since our work includes extensive training both in centers and in our university certificate programs, it has ultimately made much more sense to train many more caregivers who tend to move between childcare centers and orphanages.
Q. How do we select partner orphanages and childcare centers?
A. Whole Child International’s program is designed to work with a country’s or region’s entire system of care. Our model is designed to begin by partnering with government, academia, and a network of orphanages and childcare centers (generally state-funded and others in its influence) to change the culture of care as broadly and effectively as possible.
We care deeply about children in all institutions and care systems, in all countries, and wish for best practices in childcare to reach all institutionalized children as quickly as possible. However, for the foreseeable future our existing resources require that we continue to reach children through the current model described above.
Q. How do you measure success toward solving this problem?
A. Many new nongovernmental organizations emerge every year with miraculous solutions to intractable problems. Unfortunately, many of them do not conduct the due diligence to ensure their work is needed and that it is an effective solution. Almost since the beginning, Whole Child has committed a significant proportion of its operating budget to the rigorous third-party evaluation of the programs it has developed, in order to ensure that its practices are as meaningfully helpful as they seem to be.
This commitment has not been inexpensive, but it has paid off. Please see our Evaluation & Research page for a summary of the evaluation results we have seen in our work, and the Publications & Resources page for more detail. By any measure, we achieved proof of concept in our work in Nicaragua, and are replicating our model in El Salvador and potentially in Ecuador and Peru.
Importantly, however, these programs too, and all others in the foreseeable future, will be rigorously third-party evaluated in order to ensure that the program is just as effective in other settings and wider scales as it has been in our initial settings.
Q. Many organizations, including UNICEF and Save the Children, have policies discouraging work in orphanages. Why does Whole Child commit resources to children’s institutions?
A. In the 21st century, many major humanitarian organizations and national governments have operational philosophies discouraging institutionalization and calling for the replacement of orphanages by programs of foster care, adoption, and aggressive family or community reunification. These are noble goals, but the fact remains that tens of millions of children live in orphanages today, and countless millions more live on the streets due to insufficient availability of resources and beds in institutions. As long as there is war and poverty, orphanages seem to be an inevitable part of reality.
Whole Child International strongly supports alternatives to orphanages, but as long as children are institutionalized we will endeavor to improve childcare and conditions in the orphanages and the prospects of the children who live in them. These children are among the world’s most unfortunate inhabitants, and they deserve a chance at happiness.
Q. Does Whole Child International host volunteers from other countries or sponsor a “voluntourism” program?
A. Whole Child’s core focus is on the relationship between the child and his or her primary caregiver. All prospective volunteers should know that we do not create situations in which volunteers might interact with children. Whole Child’s primary focus is very specific: we work to create an environment in orphanages where children can develop meaningful relationships with their caregivers. As we know from numerous scientific studies, young children need to learn how to build relationships over the long term, creating the capacity to rely upon and trust the adults who provide them with care. This specific ability can make all the difference in their lives. Therefore, we do not have programs that insert additional, short-term relationships into the lives of these children.
Q. Does working in orphanages support the future existence of orphanages?
A. Many stakeholders in the world community have committed to a strategy of “deinstitutionalization” for abandoned, abused, and orphaned children who either do not have parents or cannot live with them. Whole Child agrees with this solution in principle — all people would rather see a child live in a family setting. However, despite more than two decades of international commitment to deinstitutionalization, the number and population of institutions has only grown. In the 10 years since Whole Child was established, we have not seen the numbers decline.
With this in mind, Whole Child’s strategy is to provide children with high-quality childcare without regard to the sort of facility they are being raised in.
Generally speaking, all children have the same primary needs, and one of those is a strong, reliable, supportive relationship with an adult who cares for them. As long as orphanages exist, we will work to provide children who live in them with this need. We hope that in the meantime other organizations, with our support, will work to make this work unnecessary.