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Becoming an adult in institutional care

Growing up in institutional care can affect physical and emotional development in many ways, making the transition to adulthood hard for some
Growing up in institutional care can affect physical and emotional development in many ways, making the transition to adulthood hard for some

When guest blogger Jennifer visited Belarus, an encounter with a young woman her own age prompted her to consider what impact institutional care has on young people as they transition to adulthood.

Recently in a children’s home in Belarus, I was talking and teasing a young woman about her boyfriend (another young man in the home) in my basic Russian. It then transpired that this young woman was my own age, leading me to really consider the impact of growing up in institutional care and the life of a more mature young person in this kind of environment.

Not all but some institutional settings continue to look after children up to the age of 25 and beyond. Research has shown that puberty is delayed by an average of 2 years in girls and 1.5 years in boys in institutional care, and children and young people’s emotional and educational development also varies in these settings. However there are a number of young people in orphanages who are aware of changes in themselves and feel different as a result. This raises several issues relating to the appropriate care and education of young people as they are reaching an age of maturity.

Changing bodies, changing minds

It is worth noting that very serious neglect occurs in some settings and obviously the primary focus should be sufficient food, care and safety. However, there is additionally a widespread situation in which institutions are an established, accepted and maintained form of childcare for children and young people, many of whom have disabilities or additional needs. It is here that puberty, hormonal changes and development should have increased importance within day-to-day practice.

Perhaps the most obvious concerns relate to the body physically changing upon reaching puberty, but too often, this is not a consideration in institutional care. Physical changes are not provided for with appropriate clothing and underwear in institutional care. For example, girls can be uncomfortable or in pain without a bra. One young woman approaches volunteers to the orphanage at every occasion possible and asked the same thing - to help her get a bra.

Four young people sitting together on a sofa at the Children's Village in Minsk
Those in institutional care range from young children all the way up to
adults of 25. Their needs are dramatically different – but these
changing demands are not always reflected in care settings

Personal hygiene is also not of primary importance. Settings I have visited hold a bath day once a week, and often each young person only has one or two changes of clothes. Young men might have very sore and cut skin resulting from the desire to shave their facial hair without cream and reusing razors.

Allowing dignity and establishing boundaries

There is a question over dignity, appropriate care and living environment. It is a fact that in most institutional care settings, young people have limited space and shared rooms with many others who have different levels of self-awareness and knowledge of boundaries. This can lead to some distressing experiences.

There are also more serious consequences of failing to address changing need. Young people with additional needs in institutional care can and do form relationships, but carers provide no information or education. Issues relating to relationships and sex are largely ignored. There are instances of children being born in institutional care, and in these cases the child will likely be placed in a baby home or orphanage themselves. Some institutions have sterilised the young people in their care, which is difficult to think as accepted practice.

Safeguarding against abuse

The lack of education and close parental care additionally heightens the needs to safeguard and protect these children and young people from exploitation and abuse. Those with disabilities or additional needs are at an increased risk. Studies have recorded various abuses in institutional care, including rape and sexual exploitation. In a survey of 3,164 children in residential institutions in Romania, more than a third knew of children who had been forced to have sex (2000).

Shaving and underwear might seem like trivial considerations in the context of a repressive system of childcare, but they do highlight the need for better transitional care for children reaching young adulthood. Examples such as the suppression of normal biological development and the lack of protection add to the horrific practices reported in institutional childcare. This contributes further to the overwhelming evidence that institutions are a harmful environment for children and young people. Furthermore, taking the viewpoint of transition through puberty ‘makes real’ the intricacies of growing up in institutional care that we can only imagine.

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