Tag: attachment

HHI Publishes a Paper!

Over the summer, intern Christy Hudson-Myers, compiled a massive amount of research and reports about the issues of early childhood development and created a comprehensive literature review which highlights the complex issues of early childhood and how Hands to Hearts International’s work is in line with the world’s best practices.

This report was published recently, read it for yourself and see how HHI is on target for making the biggest impact for vulnerable children.

Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood e-News Flash (September 2009, Issue 13), “Best Practices in ECD: A Review of the Literature” by Christy Hudson

The Myth of Orphans & Orphanages

It seems that almost every week I receive an email or a call from someone interested in supporting an existent orphanage or who wants to establish new orphanages. While their desire to help needy children is heart-warming, I cringe at the thought of another orphanage. I tell people that orphanages are much like prisons, they are a “build them and they will come” scenario.

I ask people to pause for a moment and ask, where are all those “orphans” living now? The answer is typically that they are living with their family – yes, they do have families. Most children categorized as “orphaned” have one living parent, sometimes both parents are living. And even in cases where both parents are deceased, there are aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Here is a graph created by the Better Care Network Secretariat, which demonstrates the staggering percentage of children who reside in orphanages, while they have at least one living parent.


Estimated percentage of children in orphanages with at least one parent alive









Sri Lanka






The driving force behind most children moving into orphanages is poverty. When as a parent you are barely surviving the day-to-day crush of profound poverty, and you can barely feed the children you already have, you may view the orphanage as a good option. Consider that the children there typically get regular meals, basic medical care and clothing and schooling – even more benefits if this orphanage is supported by Western funding. This can outwardly look like a great alternative to what little the parent can offer. But does a baby or child live on food, medicine, books and toys alone? Can an institution provide what a parent can? The answer to both questions is a vehement “No”.

I have visited many orphanages and I have heard reports from many more. The reality is that they do exist and the reasons they do are complex and often involve multi-faceted — family poverty, disease, a serious medical condition or disability, gender preferences, the stigma of unwed motherhood, etc… — but an institution cannot provide what a family can. Orphanages are simplistic solutions that let parents, family, community, society and government all off the hook. If an orphanage building exists it will be filled with children, but dropping children off at these institutes is much easier than trying to reverse the tide 3, or 5, or 17 years later when it is time to reintegrate these children into the community.

Westerners want to help, but most do not understand the extremely complex dynamics that are at play, and building orphanages for “orphans” is about the most destructive possible action one can take. When a child is removed from his or her family and community and placed in an institution, it is often a one-way ticket, and they rarely leave. Institutionalization typically causes radical developmental delays, impairing physical, cognitive, language and social/emotional development. How can a child learn to love and be loved in an institution? And, when children do not build this basic human capacity, the lifetime consequences for the child and community can be devastating. This is exactly the concern that led HHI to begin our work in orphanages.

While HHI continues to support orphanages with care-giver training and consultations, we now work more within communities, with pre-school teachers, day care workers and directly with parents. We have found that these people are working every day to care for their children, or the children of their community, and every day they are faced with poverty, lack of food and resources, gender discrimination, etc., BUT they are eager to provide for their children and they are excited and honored to have an HHI Trainer teach them how they can best support their children’s health and development.

Since our launch in 2006, HHI has worked with just over 3,000 women, and they are in turn improving the well-being of almost 23,000 children! And, this has been done with less than $400,000, which is pretty amazing, considering the typical results are: children are healthier, gaining more weight, learning language earlier, have improved sleep and digestion and are easier to soothe; and women are more confident, take greater pride in their work, provide improved nutrition, practice better hygiene and sanitation, are more responsive to their children, and more at ease in their care-giving.

Sadly, a recent CNN article recently trumpeted the building of a new orphanage in Uganda. The article outlines that the cost of the construction was roughly $800,000. It will accommodate 180 orphans at capacity. At the opening of this institution, “Local dignitaries and the orphans’ relatives, who couldn’t afford to care for them, attended…. It was a rousing celebration of song and dance, ceremonial ribbon-cuttings and speeches…” REALLY? Exactly what was to be celebrated?

What if this concerted effort (which raised $800,000) was focused on helping the families of their children who “couldn’t afford to care for them”? What if they were given support with some extra food, school fees and health care? I doubt that would have cost almost a million dollars, and would be considerably less expensive than the monthly operating costs will be to care for all of these children in the orphanage.

FACT: In Eritrea, the average economic cost for one child in residential care averaged about $1,900; in Benin about $1,300. The corresponding cost of a child’s integration into a family in Eritrea was about $100. (World Bank, July 2004)

I think it’s time that we think more deeply, become more informed, and meet people where they are. Orphanages are not the solution, at best they can offer a temporary safety net. There are much better ways to help. Find ways to invest in options that keep children where they belong, in the community. This is healthier for the children, the families, communities and future global society.

A Story from Calcutta

I recently received this email which sadly, yet exquisitely illustrates why HHI’s education is in such dire need.

Dear Hands to Hearts,

I am so impressed with your work. HOW important and wonderfully successful! Whoever thought this up is a genius and a saint. Several years ago, I visited Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta. (She had passed away before I was there.) I was astonished at the total lack of eye contact, nurturing, and almost deliberate focus to avoid touch or interaction of any kind. I was in the toddler room and it was here
that I observed this. The toddlers were either craving attention as if their life depended on it or they would have nothing to do with us. Turned their faces away with total indifference. I was so shocked but now am starting to understand that the “natural” nurturing of infants is either not always natural and/or is impaired by no nurturing of the mother by her parents, tremendous fatigue from far too much work and malnutrition, as well, and who knows what other factors.

Unfortunately this story does not come as a great surprise to me. I have heard the same story from orphanages around the world. Working as an orphanage caregiver is very challenging, exhausting and under-valued job. It is emotionally overwhelming, and when caregivers do form bonds to the children in their care, it is heartbreaking for them when a child dies or is adopted and leaves. Often, caregivers are told to not form emotional attachments with the children and the consequences are tragic for the caregivers, and even more so for the children clinging to life and desperate to be loved.

I do not choose to believe that these caregivers are heartless, but rather that they shut-down a part of their own humanity to be able to function in a orphanage situation. They work in institutions where they are bombarded with dozens or even hundreds of babies/children who are thrown away, who are often ill or dying, and whose needs they feel incompetent to meet. They have mouths to feed and diapers to clean; water to carry and food to prepare (often after they go to market to buy it); hospital visits to make and medicines to give; noses to wipe, baths to give; toileting to teach and floors to mop; laundry to wash and bugs to shoe away… and the list goes on and on. Over and over and over again!

HHI has a piece of the solution. By empowering women with knowledge, acknowledging the value of their caregiving, teaching how their everyday actions build brain development for a lifetime… these women can and do rise to their best, and the children rise with them.

I look forward to the day when we reach Calcutta, and more to the day when we are not needed at all.

Love is the Answer

(blogged by HHI Public Information Officer Liz Kimmerly)

I recently stumbled upon an episode from This American Life called “Unconditional Love“. I found it to be so interesting and it really helped to open my mind to the broader history of childhood bonding and its significance in America and Hands to Hearts International’s work.

The episode’s intro discussed the research of Harry Harlow. Between 1963 and 1968 he ran a series of tests that took baby rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and put them in a cages, each equipped with one mother made of terry cloth and one made of wire which provided food. Please watch the experiment in the video below:

As you can see from this video, even baby monkeys need to be nurtured. I was especially intrigued when Harlow said that the baby monkey would spend 17-18 hours with the cloth mother as opposed to the wire mother.

This might not seem surprising, but as Ira Glass said, before the 1950′s, American doctor’s, psychologists, and the government believed that too much childhood bonding was a bad thing. Public messaging would discourage mothers from kissing and holding their babies too much. Influential Psychologist of the time John Watson even said that “Mother Love is a dangerous instrument”.

Ira’s monologue was shocking to me and made me think on a grand scale. One thing was obvious; I knew that not all mothers listened to this messaging, but I shivered when I realized how many mothers did listen to the society’s ignorant warnings about bonding. Who out of my 20 something generation would think that the American society was against mother and child bonding until the 1950s.

This made me wonder how this affected the childhood of my grandparents and their generation. I found myself thinking if I could connect this story to some of the more dysfunctional traits of my family.

It also reminded me of my travels in Asia when I felt my own frustration for a lack of bonding. I remember when I lived in Nepal and I had several children who I spent time with. I used to bring them crayons and teach them games like leap frog and how to build a kite. We had fun and it was a precious time. Then, when I had to leave for America, I wanted to hug them goodbye but it wasn’t acceptable by the Nepali cultural standards. It made me a little sad to leave without a proper hug, but there wasn’t much I could do.

The radio program went on to discuss an example of attachment disorder. Heidi and Rick adopted a child from a Romanian orphanage named Daniel. Daniel lived there for 7.5 years and didn’t remember much from the experience. He didn’t go to school and just stayed in his crib during most of his days. Daniel did remember never having a desire for family.

Heidi and Rick recalled how they enjoyed the first 6 months with Daniel but that period unexpectedly came to a screeching halt. Out of thin air, Daniel became a violent child. He would throw things in the house and intentionally aimed physical attacks at his mother. The attacks brought police to the house twice a month on average. One day it got so bad that he held a knife to her throat.

Heidi had tried so many therapies with Daniel along the way, but this tragic and frightening incident pushed her to search harder. Thankfully, she found what she was looking for, and for the first time, Daniel was officially diagnosed. He had attachment disorder and the remedy for this was for him was to be treated with love and nurturing as if he had gone back to being a one year old again.

That’s right. The attachment therapist prescribed that Heidi and Daniel would have to spend 3 months together, side bye side, with no more than the distance of three feet apart. Also, even though Daniel was 10, both of the parents were ordered to cradle him like a baby every night for 20 minutes, while looking deep into his eyes and holding him tight.

This sounds crazy to most, but it changed Daniel dramatically and his violence toward Heidi ceased to exist. At the time of this interview, Daniel was a teenager and he had just been awarded as a model citizen in his local synagogue. Quite a change from the day when he held a knife to his mother’s throat. The love and physical bonding cured him.

So, I’ll bring it back to my work and my own environment. I now work with Hands to Hearts International. Laura Peterson is its executive Director, founder, creator etc. and she has just reached over 10,200 children with her message of the importance of childhood bonding. From what I have seen of her work, of the video footage, the photos, the stories, and people such as parents who adopted a child from an orphanage where HHI’s program is strong, I am convinced that HHI is the answer to all of the problems that I have just mentioned. I have seen a lot of disasters in this world. I have worked as a humanitarian aid worker in war-torn countries. I have worked in non-profits big and small, and I have to say that HHI is the most effective thing I’ve seen. Why? Because it starts at the core of children’s lives, with love. It’s so simple that I’m afraid that not everyone can grasp it. It’s true though. Just imagine how things would have been different for Daniel if he had HHI trained caregivers at his orphanage in Romania, singing him songs and cradling him to sleep as a baby. Is it resonating yet?

I don’t think healing people, a country or the world is about a new democracy, newly elected presidents, the greatest new technology, or fancy billion dollar aid packages. It’s just about love and I’m waiting for the day when more people understand this. HHI gets this and it gives me hope.

Returning Sathya to Her Childhood

Fact – orphanages exist in most countries because of lousy conditions that exist in the world.

Fact – orphanages are lousy places to raise babies and children.

Fact – many orphanage children take care of orphanage babies.

Fact – hope exists, resiliency happens!

Sathya is 6, she lives in the orphanage and helps care for the babies

Here is a story of the above facts, illustrated by Sathya….. In an orphanage where HHI has given a training, Sathya was acting as a caregiver for a 3-day-old baby, holding and feeding her without support. While she may enjoy acting as a big sister, she wasn’t having her own childhood.

During the HHI training, I invited Sathya to come and get her very own “baby massage”. She was initially reluctant, but she was too curious to pass up the chance. She very soon was laying down, playing with a bumpy pink ball and soaking up the loving touch of her caregiver.

After the first lesson, both Sathya and her caregiver were beaming with joy and connection.

When the caregiver asked Sathya if she wanted to come in each day to the HHI Training to be her massage partner, her answer was pure and clear… may this continue long after HHI’s Trainers leave the building.

Hope does exist, resiliency is abundant and Sathya’s life will never be the same.