I visited an orphanage last week and discovered a new piece of information about that type of institution in my country (Indonesia). Quite a trip, actually. Enough to make me wanting to write about it.
It was on a late afternoon. Not my first time to visit the orphanage, but during this second visit I was able to see and learn a great deal more about orphanage in general. My first visit was a quick one on one early morning about a month prior. It was to help an internal staff meeting for the orphanage, and during that first visit I did not get a chance to interact much with the children.
On my second visit last week, which was also accompanied by the same friend who introduced me to the orphanage and accompanied me on the first visit, we took with us four students from the class that we co-teach together. We wanted to get the students the first hand experience from the field about societal problems, and this orphanage happened to be on our list of possible sites. The students seem to get the lessons we intended them to learn on that day, but they weren’t the only one. I too got a few new lessons as well.
First, I found out the differences between institutions that provide social services to children in Indonesia and the ones in the U.S. Not surprisingly, social services in the U.S. are more organized. Services for children and teenagers are also more organized, but it does not mean that the system in the U.S. is without flaws. Even within a very organized system, flaw exists. Anyway, I’ll try my best to describe what I know about the two places, and hope I’m close to accurate.
Orphanage in the U.S. are meant typically for children who lost their parents. Children in that institution therefore usually do not have parents or know their parents. In the U.S., however, the system of keeping them under one roof in a residential place is fading away and replaced by a system that allows children to live in a family structure and environment. The goal for all children who are being helped by the Children Social Services in the U.S. is to find a family who will raise them as one of their own family member. This type of family is called foster family. Thus, less and less orphanage type of residential housing exists nowadays in the U.S. If there is such thing as a residential place for children and adolescents, they tend to be divided by its purpose.
For example, there are residential places for immigrant children who are caught being smuggled into the U.S.; I used to work at one of them. There are also residential places for older children and teens who have committed some kind of criminal activities, and this type of placement is usually divided again into what type of level of security needed to control the children. Usually, the more serious the criminal activities (i.e., gang-related, murder, serious type of assault, firearms-related assault) are given a higher level of security and treated almost like a prison. Children/teens who have committed less serious criminal activities or only juvenile delinquency type will be placed in a less secured place that looks more like a house than a prison. The type of intervention given to each place will also be different, of course. Based on its purpose, orphanage in the U.S. therefore, if it still exists, is truly made for children who do not have any parents or family members anymore who can take care of them and orphans are given services that fit them. Their living environment is also unlike the residential places for children with a history of juvenile delinquency.
Now let’s compare the description above to what I observed and learned last week. First of all, there are still a lot of orphanages in Indonesia. Secondly, not all of those children in the orphanage have lost their parents. Many of them still actually have their parents around, who for one reason or another, could no longer support and raise them. The main reason that made these parents finally gave up their parental support and rights of their children, as you can probably guess, is poverty. However, there are also special situations where the parents did not completely give away their parental rights. Instead, they made an agreement with the orphanage so the children can live and go to school there, with the tuition and living costs paid somehow by the parents (a very considerably low rate and sometimes subsidized by some kind of funding) while the parents live somewhere else in the city, work full-time to get income for the family and save some money to get a living arrangement in the future. These kids will get a chance once a week to see their parents for a day and then return to stay at the orphanage again.
Then there are situations where the children were uprooted from their family due to violence in the family or living conditions that are just too poor and unbearable for their health and safety. For example, there have been some children, where in some situations there are perhaps siblings, who used to live on the street with their parents, working as beggars. They are usually known as ‘street kids’ or in Bahasa Indonesia, anak jalanan. Some of them already have a history of minor criminal activities, such as pickpocket or stealing, taught by their parents or other adults. These children are taken from the street due to the dangerous and dire living conditions on the day to day basis, but because the country has no system of housing specially made for these children, they’re then put inside an orphanage. Indonesia also does not have a foster-care system. Hence, orphanage becomes the only institution to house and serve all types of children with nowhere else to go.
The organization already has a pretty good system of placement. It is run by a private funding and there is no governmental involvement or funding. It does still lack a great deal of services; one of them is psychological or mental health services for the children. The children already has a good school system because the organization is connected to a school ready for them with a curriculum that follows the national education standard. The orphanage itself also has a pretty adequate facility for the children to live, study in the evening, play and run around, a chapel, a computer room, and so on. They also have a futbol field. Overall, the place is adequate enough to live. It provides safety and comfort for the children.
The orphanage I visited, however, is considered a pretty good orphanage compared to some of the other ones that are run with less funding and staff resources. In the same city where I live, there is another orphanage located close to the ‘red light district’, a very well known place for sex industry. An unquoted source told me once that this red light district has just recently been described to have the highest number for HIV/AIDS cases throughout the whole Indonesia. Children in this orphanage mostly were born from mothers who are part of the red light district industry. This particular orphanage is funded by private funding. It is not a compound like the other orphanage nor it has facilities like the other one. It consists of a two-floor building only that is attempting to accommodate way too many children. The bedrooms don’t even have beds anymore for a reason. Children sleep on mattresses on the floor, laying next to each other, in order to be able to accommodate more bodies. I have not been to this particular orphanage, but I may check it out myself in the future. It is not clear to me what services these children receive other than to cover their basic needs, such as food, drink and shelter.
In a quick capture, I attempted to share some of my new experience and knowledge about orphanage and the lack of an organized social services for children in my country. I am aware of the fact that this essay has not captured a comprehensive view of orphanage system in Indonesia, but only about the few ones in the city where I live. I’d like to mention that there is a third and bigger orphanage in the city that houses children from babies to college-age young adults. The college-age young adults have the responsibility to provide some care for the younger children in the orphanage. The college-age ones are also given scholarship to attend college, and one of those young adults is actually a student of mine. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be one particular rule about how orphanages work in Indonesia. Each runs by itself, probably with very small control or influence from the government, and each makes its own rules on how to use its funding as well.
I realize that my country still needs a lot more to improve in terms of services for children, but I am happy to see that attempts have been made by some responsible individuals and organizations to provide the best care possible for the children. Things are not perfect and may never be perfect, even in a developed country like the U.S., but striving for better is the message that I try to convey to my students. Perhaps in the future, these students are the ones that will think about new ways, new interventions that work. Let’s always stay hopeful.