These more organic orphanages were largely outside the purview of government record-keeping. Simply finding the 83 institutions that the researchers eventually studied took half a year in each community. An initial inquiry to the government in Moshi, Tanzania, for example, turned up only three orphanages, but researchers later found 23.
Much of the research literature on orphanages has come from eastern European areas, where Whetten doesn't deny that conditions for children can be downright disheartening. Other work, in East Africa for example, has been done in areas that happen to have a deep tradition of taking in children. Many countries and cultures, however, can have very different attitudes toward orphans, she notes, either shunning them or giving them substandard care. So, "making policies around the world based on what we've seen in Africa" doesn't always work, Whetten says. She and her group wanted to see what was happening to these children in countries where there was a large orphan population—in places that were "as politically, historically, religiously and culturally diverse as possible," Whetten says.
There may be several reasons why these children are faring just as well in orphanages as in private homes. The study authors point out that the continuity and stability of care is often better in institutions, as are opportunities for child-centric activities and education. And, McKenzie notes, from his research and personal experience, the simple support from peers in group-care settings can be a booster of security and comfort. He also points out that in developing countries, something as basic as proper nutrition—often more easily obtained and monitored in institutional settings—can make a big difference in physical and cognitive development. Additionally, when orphaned or double-orphaned children are foisted off on relatives, they can fall to second priority over biological children and even end up in abusive or forced labor situations.
Although the authors do not advocate for sending all orphaned or abandoned children to institutions, "it is not an option that should be taken off the table—and it could be very appropriate for children who don't have another place to go," Whetten says. Evaluating what is best for these children should not be based on a type of building where they live, but instead on the care that is being given inside, Whetten says. "There's such a policy push to say institutions shouldn't exist…[but]…some of the care that's happening in the community is really horrific."
The ultimate goal of Whetten's ongoing research is to develop what she describes is a "guidebook" for assessing various community dynamics and finding the best method for caring for the children.
In the meantime, she and her colleagues hope to follow some of the children in the study through their teens and beyond. "My assumption is that we'll be able to look not just at institutions versus family living, but we'll be able to look at the characteristics of care that help kids," Whetten says.
Certainly, evaluating and monitoring care for orphans can be a daunting task, especially where the numbers are great and resources are limited. But, says Whetten, creating community awareness and even an expectation for quality orphan care might be easier in the places where it is needed most.
If the children from orphanages end up with a better quality of life down the road, neither Whetten nor McKenzie will be surprised. From McKenzie's research of U.S. orphanage alumni, he says, he found his subjects to have outpaced not only those who were adopted or went into foster care, but also their peers who grew up with their biological parents.