It’s great that Australian schools want to encourage their students to help others and gain perspective on their privilege. But visits to orphanages overseas are not the answer. To quote from the Friends International campaign, “Children are not tourist attractions”.

The first thing to understand is that orphanage life is damaging to children.

Children in orphanages are cared for as a group rather than as individuals. Life is regimented – each child has many different caregivers and little individual attention. Such care hurts children and may result in psychological damage and developmental delays.

Rates of physical and sexual abuse are also high in orphanages. The detrimental impact of institutional care closed all orphanages in Australia decades ago.

Short-term orphanage volunteers who play with and care for children are just adding to this harm. They increase the number of caregivers a child experiences and are just more people who abandon them.

Most children living in orphanages around the world have at least one living parent.

Visiting students may not see these harms. Necessity has forced children in orphanages to act cute to get scarce attention – something called “indiscriminate affection”. School students easily mistake this for genuine happiness. Some of those who run orphanages will also encourage children to be friendly to the visitors in the hope this will increase donations.

Donations are a big problem. In some cases “orphans” are actually created by unscrupulous organisations who pay families to hand over their children in order to collect visitor donations. In Cambodia, orphanage numbers have doubled during a time when the number of children without parents has declined.

Australian schools sometimes seek to improve conditions in orphanages by funding education or medical resources. This can also draw children into orphanages. It’s a dire state of affairs when a loving family sends their child away because an orphanage is the only option for their child to go to school or get medical care.

This is what happened in Aceh, Indonesia where 17 new orphanages were built for “tsunami orphans”. However, 98% of the children in these orphanages had families and had been placed there to gain an education.

Most children living in orphanages around the world have at least one living parent.

Child protection authorities in Australia would not allow school students to go into the homes of vulnerable children so that they could gain an understanding of their situation. Schools should not take advantage of lower standards in other places to give their students a good experience.

What I know from talking to those involved in orphanage volunteering is that they often believe what they are doing is somehow exempt from these problems. Is it possible for school orphanage volunteering trips to be OK? What might harm mitigation look like?

Due diligence may reduce the possibility of working with orphanages that are exploiting children for financial gain.

Schools should resource orphanages in a way that avoids drawing children away from their families. They can do this by making the education programs or medical care they fund equally available to poor children in the community.

Schools can ensure their students do not interact with children. This prevents the harm to children arising from having too many caregivers. Students can instead take on tasks that free up caregivers to spend more time with children, such as cooking, cleaning or maintenance work.

Child protection authorities in Australia would not allow school students to go into the homes of vulnerable children so they could gain an understanding of their situation.

When visiting the orphanages, school staff might educate their students about orphanages. They might talk about children having at least one parent who could care for them if given support.

Perhaps they could discuss the high rates of physical and sexual abuse within orphanages. Or explain child development principles and the importance of one-on-one care for young children. They can help their students understand why keeping children in families and out of orphanages is important.

Theoretically, it might be possible for schools to do all of these things but I am not aware of any school that has. In particular, not allowing students to interact with children removes what schools seem to consider an essential component of these trips.

Schools should develop sister-school relationships with overseas schools or even schools in disadvantaged communities in Australia. It’s great to see that some schools are already leading the way on this front.

Such arrangements foster understanding in a situation where there is more equality in the relationships and fewer pitfalls. If Australian schools are genuine about cross-cultural exchange, they shouldn’t be fostering last century’s model of child welfare.

Read Rev Dr Richard Umbers‘ counter-argument here.