Post #15 - Orphanages & Institutions: Good or Bad?

By Courtney Marsh

I recently came across this article published by the Huffington Post:  Please this ARTICLE first.

In this article, I read that 8-10 million children worldwide live in orphanages or some type of institution, much like the care center I volunteered at and filmed Chau, beyond the lines in. I found much of what this article said to be true: "Children growing up in congregate care settings [can] suffer greatly, especially those who enter facilities between infancy and three years old. Normal brain development cannot be achieved in babies without a one-on-one caregiver, with frequent touch and regular contact - rarely if ever available in an institution...Despite being fed, without the love of a family setting, many times children will stop growing and even die - a condition known as "failure to thrive.”

During the making of my film, I was asked to donate money to the center and then I was allowed to volunteer - a way, in my mind, to come to understand the center before the actual filming began. Keep in mind, I am not a registered nurse and actually have had no prior experience caring for anyone disabled before I volunteered. I also did not speak a word of Vietnamese. So in retrospect, it is very interesting I was allowed to handle or care for kids at all. Much of it was no big deal: feeding a kid or helping them put clothes on. But when it came to helping lift children onto metal carts to wheel them to the showers, that is where things got a little tougher. Only because I was confronted with a world I felt morally conflicted about (on top of the fact that this was a center for children disabled by a controversial chemical). What I first observed was a level of coldness (or lack of love) between the children and caretakers. However, I had to keep in mind that I was in a completely different culture from mine, where it was very odd when I offered people hugs on a regular basis. Maybe this was custom, and partly it was.

Looking back and thinking of the way the children were handled, sometimes tied up so they wouldn't run around (the hospital was understaffed) seems terrible. But then I recall having to do so myself just so I could bath the rest of the kids I was designated to. There was one kid in particular (we called him Cá) and he would run around naked all the time. I was presented with the situation to tie him up or not. It was the only time I felt so sure about something. And I did. I had watched the nurses tie these kids up repeatedly and I was appalled by the sight, but then you have to realize that in order to bath 25 disabled children (under the age of 10), there have to be some who are fastened to a table or bed for the workers to do their job properly. Are they better ways? Yes, of course. But even I, who find myself an over-compassionate person, in the course of a workday, rushing to ensure that all 7 of my kids get clean and sanitary (many have diapers that haven't been changed regularly), you resort to options you may have never previously considered. Sometimes I believe morals are a luxury.

As a volunteer, and after my stay of 2.5 months, I might as well become a full time employee. I started to understand why the caretakers couldn't give love. They had a job to do. They had families of their own. It reminded me of a teacher/student relationship, except these children never went home or had summer break. It was 24/7. I dont blame the caretakers—although I believe some to be much harsher and unnecessarily rougher than others—but I think it is the system that is broken. 

I ask myself, are they better off in an institution than the streets? Are they better off at home with a family that considers them a burden than in an institution? I see the pros and cons to both sides. It pains me that until we have enough qualified workers (and the proper funds to pay for them) can we happily employee caretakers that care for a child one on one. Seems like a far off dream, but one that is definitely worth striving for. They are the future, these kids. But this is even a system that is almost uncontrollable. Humans are prone to emotion and individual personalities, and they will act as they want on those who are helpless. It seems big brother needs to be instated, but then it gets into an entire conversation about liberty and control. The cycle seems endless, but one thing I have come to know is that parents caring for their children is the best. It is the one true option. 

In the case of Chau, his parents bribed the hospital to take him in (a relative donated a large sum of money). He was able to grow up in an environment that allowed him to draw (even though it told him that his dream was worthless). When he went home, his parents weren't really even his parents it seemed to me, him having been away from home for his first 18 years of life. However, the fact that he knew he had a family seemed to me, to the most important thing. He knew where he came from. He had someone when all else failed. Many of the kids, who were orphans, who grew up in that institution, have nowhere to go when it’s done. One of my favorite kids in the camp—"favorite" meaning, I was very close to him and his personality was magnetic—was forced to leave the camp when he was 18 and couldn't become efficient enough to be placed into society. He now resides in a camp where most of these kids go to live out the rest of their days. No cameras allowed, I might add. And I completely understand why. It was a poorly cared for "prison camp" in my opinion. When I saw the kid I was so close to, it seemed the life was sucked out of him along with the personality I grew so much to love. 

I asked Chau, if he thought that his own "luxury" of having family attributed to his success and he very confidently replied yes. (And keep in mind, Chau never really speaks to his parents and never acquires any type of income or help from them. He has had a bad relationship with them for a few years now). But what I realized was that, no matter who your family is - if you love them, hate them, or if they love you or hate you- you have someone, something to define yourself by. To have anyone in your life who gives you any emotion or energy at all makes you feel alive. Apathy, in the case of these children growing up, tends to breed a sense of “What’s the point?” And they give up. Imagine growing up in a world where you have never had anyone love or care about you. I think often about it and I believe that is the hole in the system. Parents abandoning their kids. Then the caretakers, who replace them, not being able to give them the love they need.