Published On: Tue, Jul 20th, 2021

Georgette Mulheir: Ending the Institutionalisation of Children in Residential Schools

There is a myth about ‘boarding schools’. Here in the UK, most people think of boarding schools as an elite option when it comes to educating children, where young people usually receive dedicated attention in small groups. They often go on to study at prestigious universities and thrive in high-flying careers. At the same time, there is historical evidence of abuse even in the most elite boarding schools. George Orwell famously evoked the terror and disorientation he experienced when separated from family and brought to a boarding school – the rituals, rigid regime and random, arbitrary punishments. Around the world today many residential schools – that purport to provide education to children who would otherwise not be in school – are severely harmful, especially for children with disabilities, and children from indigenous or minority ethnic communities. This often comes down to the fact that some countries use residential schools to control and segregate communities. That’s why Children’s Rights Activist, Global Systems Change Expert, and author Georgette Mulheir works with child protection organisations around the world to end the institutionalisation of children. The campaigns and programmes Mulheir leads spur vital change in several countries. But there’s still much work to do if every country is to offer safe, inclusive education for all children.

Historical Abuse in Residential Schools

Our global history of residential schools that institutionalise and discriminate against children is terrifying. Only last month (May 2021), Canada’s Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced the discovery of a mass grave at the site of a former residential school. This school, like many nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canadian boarding schools, had been set up to assimilate indigenous people. The grave contained the remains of 215 children. 

Since this finding, United Nations Human Rights experts have called for an investigation. They’re asking Canada and the Catholic Church to search for all missing children from Canada’s former residential school system. And such investigations are vital – there are many more schools like this around the world, even today.


Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Georgette Mulheir Explains Why Families Send Their Children to Residential Schools

Georgette Mulheir is currently writing a guidance manual on transforming care systems, in which she explains that parents send their children to residential schools for various reasons. Some live in poverty and can’t afford the costs associated with education. Others live in war-stricken areas where local schools have closed. Some can’t access nearby education services because their community schools turn away children who have disabilities, children from minority groups, and children whose families can’t afford shoes. The parents of these children must make a choice. They must deny their children an education or send them far away to live in residential schools.

To put this into perspective, in Kenya, education is free, but many families can’t afford school uniforms, supplies, and meals. These families have little choice other than to institutionalise their children in faraway boarding schools. In other countries, like the U.S., many families opt for boarding schools because they don’t have access to essential community services. Often, these families’ children need support to manage behavioural or mental health issues, but local services simply aren’t available. 

Though there are cultural and economic differences between countries like Kenya and the U.S., families tend to place their children in boarding schools because of a lack of resources and services in their local communities. But these families often aren’t aware of the irreparable damage institutionalism can cause to a child.

The Damage Residential Schools Can Cause

Many parents believe the lesser of two evils is to send their children to a residential school. Why keep their children at home when, with a formal education, these children could have better chances in life? Parents tend to opt for the boarding school route because many of these schools promise children the education and specialised care they otherwise wouldn’t receive. 

But the unfortunate reality is that many of these institutions are overfull, distanced from the children’s communities, and even abusive. Children who live in these institutions don’t receive the love and care that nurturing families offer without a second thought. They lose the emotional family bond that is key to cognitive development and brain health. Plus, when children lose connection with their families, they often experience trauma that damages their cognitive ability even further. 

To make matters worse, these institutions often label themselves ‘schools’, not ‘residential institutions’, so they’re not included in reform programmes. This means the protection system doesn’t monitor these schools, and they often share the characteristics of dangerous institutions.

Indigenous and Minority Children

Children from minority backgrounds and indigenous communities have consistently made up huge proportions of institutions around the world. For example, in 1860, U.S. boarding schools flourished as part of the government’s policy of forced assimilation of native children into the ‘American way of life’. This practice lasted for over a century. In the 1970s, over 25 per cent of native American children attended boarding schools away from their families. Abuse in these residential schools was rife. Meanwhile, Canada ran government-funded, compulsory boarding schools for indigenous children. These children had a 1 in 25 chance of dying at school. This death rate is higher than the death rate for Canadians who served during the second world war. First Nations communities today believe the intergenerational trauma that resulted from their treatment in the residential schools is directly responsible for high suicide rates among young people.

And the problem persists today. For example, Roma children make up 80 per cent of the children in Slovakian institutions. But these children also make up only 10 per cent of Slovakia’s overall population. Meanwhile, in Colombia, children from ethnic minorities are also over-represented in residential schools. They’re less likely than other children to achieve average grades for their ages. And they’re more likely to live far away from home.

Children with Disabilities

Children with disabilities are also at a huge risk of abuse through the education system in many countries. In fact, UNICEF has found that children with disabilities are almost 17 times more likely than other children to live in institutions. Even in countries where the numbers of institutionalised children have declined, numbers of institutionalised children who have disabilities rarely fall.

Georgette Mulheir’s Work with the Moldovan Government

Georgette Mulheir works with child protection organisations throughout the world to reform the educational systems that result in abuse and discrimination. In particular, she has dedicated much time to working with the Moldovan government to transform the country’s care system. 

During her time in Moldova, Mulheir found that around 50 per cent of the country’s institutionalised children had disabilities and lived in residential special schools. Most of these children came from loving families who hadn’t been able to access inclusive schools. These families believed their only option was to send their children to ‘special’ schools. Unfortunately, for many children, living in a special school meant living in extremely poor conditions. Many endured abusive practices that staff used to control behaviour.

‘I was almost six years old when I was separated from my family because of my disability,’ one child told the United Nations. ‘The mainstream school in my community was not prepared to accept children with disabilities, so, for my family, the only solution was to place me in a residential institution. I was deprived of my family. I was taken to be with another 10 children in a big and cold room… I felt like time stopped. Life without my parents was full of sadness and that made me suffer. I lived like this for five years.’

The Ministry of Education was reluctant to close residential schools because the country lacked alternative inclusive education facilities. While the cost required to run these residential schools soared, the Ministry of Education struggled to secure funds to adapt community schools into inclusive establishments. 

Mulheir worked with the Ministries of Education, Social Policy, and Finance to undertake a situation analysis. Together, they developed a joined-up plan to establish inclusive education, reduce residential care, and transfer the funds from institutions to community services. Under Georgette Mulheir’s guidance, the ministries then developed a national group of volunteer children and young people. These volunteers fight for children who have disabilities to receive an inclusive education and encourage communities to reform societal views. 

Within five years, the number of children in institutions had dropped by over 90 percent. Moldova now has new legislation, new curriculums, and new teacher training. Most importantly, says Georgette Mulheir, “Moldova has inclusive schools across the country, more than tripling the number of children with disabilities receiving education. It has now become the norm for children with disabilities to live with their families, be included in their communities and educated alongside their peers.” 

Georgette Mulheir’s Work with Child Protection Organisations

Children who attend these residential schools often share the same experiences. They live in large groups of unrelated children, away from their families and communities. The majority only receive limited care – and only from paid staff. Most live in poor, crowded conditions with a high student-to-staff ratio. Many experience physical and sexual abuse. 

As the glaring similarities between boarding schools and other institutions loom, Georgette Mulheir is pushing to include residential schools in global plans to transform systems of care. This way, it won’t be possible for institutions to rebrand themselves as boarding schools to continue operating. 

The plan is to guide more countries as they revolutionise their education systems and offer safe care for all children. With programmes well underway in many countries, governments and child protection organisations are now taking more steps to prevent institutional abuse. “We cannot keep separating children from their families and placing them in institutions that subject them to the risk of physical and sexual abuse, in the name of education,” said Georgette Mulheir. “No child should ever go through this – and no parent should never feel they have to make that choice.”

Georgette Mulheir

About Georgette Mulheir

Georgette Mulheir plays a key role in the global movement that protects institutionalised children. She has worked closely with governments and organisations in 33 countries to transform care systems and eradicate abusive practices. Over the past thirty years, Mulheir has managed programmes that have saved the lives of over 15,000 children – and hundreds of thousands more from unhealthy living environments. 

In 2012, Mulheir gave a widely acclaimed TED talk on ‘The Tragedy of Orphanages’, which spotlighted the worrying issues surrounding the institutionalisation of children. Since then, she’s published several works on children’s rights. Her new global guidance manual is due for release in the coming months.

Author: Digital Solutions

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