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Millions of Kids with Disabilities Are Locked in Institutions

Disability rights advocates are combatting the institutionalizing of children with disabilities around the world, declaring that facilities, like orphanages, cut millions of kids off from society, disrupt brain development, and violate children’s rights.

Whether the facilities are called institutions, orphanages, schools, or group homes, advocates say they are unsafe because they expose children to violence and dangerous neglect. Children have the right to grow up with a family and be a part of society.

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In addition to meeting the physical needs of children, parents and guardians play a key role in a child’s brain development through bonding and attachment. Children in orphanages are often denied the supportive interactions — like a mother’s hug or a father’s warm words — that would provide a firm emotional foundation.

“Large or small group homes are especially dangerous for children, for whom there is no substitute for the need to grow up with a family,” the UN Disability Committee announced in August. “Family-like institutions are still institutions and are no substitute for care by a family.”

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“Neglect is awful for the brain,” Harvard pediatrics professor Charles Nelson told NPR, adding that a baby’s sensory and emotional development is disrupted — perhaps permanently — when “you're staring at a white ceiling, or no one is talking to you, or no one is soothing you when you get upset” as an infant.

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Disability Rights International estimates that 8 to 10 million children with disabilities are living in orphanages or other institutional settings around the world — left there out of shame, because of discrimination, or due to financial hardship.

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DRI is fighting to shift development funding to community and family-based care. Their advocacy has already helped persuade the European Union to ban funding to institutions for children. The organization proposes reuniting institutionalized children with their biological families and providing additional financial and community support.

But achieving their mission would require a massive shift in the way countries, communities, and families, deal with disabled children.

According to Human Rights Watch, 30% of Russian children with disabilities live in institutional orphanages where they often face severe abuse and neglect. In China, 98% of abandoned children have disabilities.

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Donors fund more than a hundred orphanages staffed by thousands of international volunteers in Guatemala.

DRI says these countries, and the rest of the world, should adhere to the UN Disability Committee’s guidelines for care, which advocate for against the institutionalization of children with disabilities.

“For children,” the UN said, “the core of the right to live independently and be included in the community entails the right to grow up in a family.”