“Lumos” is a spell that produces light in J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but it is also the name of an NGO that sheds light on the problems of institutions for children. The organization, founded by the Harry Potter author herself, aims to reduce the number of institutions and ultimately end the institutionalization of children. Although their work is not focused on South Korea, through their activities, we are able to recognize some of the problems of institutions and their related systems in South Korea.
The term “orphanage” has long been replaced by other terms such as “children’s home” or simply “institutions” in South Korea. In the past, many orphans went to orphanages as a result of the Korean War; today, however, only 28% of the children who live in institutions are orphans by definition. Indeed, many children who have parents are being sent to institutions, in part because of the inability of Korea’s social system to support those parents and encourage them to raise their children in their own homes.
In South Korea, only a maximum of 150,000 won ($150) a month is offered as child care support for a single-parent family, and even this drops to 100,000 won ($100) when the parent reaches the age of 25. The average monthly income of an unwed mother is 1.17 million won ($1042), while the cost to raise a child until his or her first birthday is an average of 800,000 won a month. This situation leads parents to make extreme decisions such as sending their children to institutions. In fact, approximately one thousand single mothers are compelled to abandon their children each year, which shows just how much we are in need of more financial and social support to enable parents to raise their own children.
Since many children experience traumatic events prior to their institutionalization – events such as the relinquishment of parental rights, divorce of parents, or child abuse, it is not uncommon for them to develop psychological problems. Even though the basic requirements for institutions and their ways of caring for the children have greatly improved over the past 20 years, one quarter of adolescents in institutions still suffer from serious psychological problems that require specialized care. However, institutions are not fit to deal with such problems, as the number of caregivers is limited. Also, institutions normally organize their groups into horizontal structures based mostly on peers, which hinders the formation of open and intimate relationships, unlike vertical family structures commonly found in the home.
The ultimate purpose of institutions is to ensure that the children have a smooth and secure start to their lives. However, helping teenagers stand on their own feet remains an unresolved issue. When children in institutions become of legal age (18 years old), they are no longer supported by the institution and instead must start fending for themselves. They face numerous challenges in the period after they leave the institution because they lack the systematic and consistent preparation needed for an independent life. They are literally “thrown into the world” when they leave, which makes them experience abandonment a second time, once by their families and again by the institution.
Becoming independent is not a simple unilinear process, but rather one that requires steady nurturing even after they have left the institution. This requires consistent support backed by the law and self-support policies within the institutions. Legislation should allow at least 3 to 5 years of follow-up management. This kind of support should be given by the child’s “home” institution rather than by a new organization because caregivers at the home institution have already have developed a relationship with the child, thus enabling a more efficient support system.
The “Middle House”
Policies and systems that can better support children should be carried on even after they leave their institution. In order for this to happen, I propose the “Middle House.” Each children’s home can group 5 to 7 members into one group home, which would then function as a family. One group home (the middle house) would include differently aged groups of children, a social worker and children in institutions who have become of legal age. This type of system can provide protection for the children who are getting ready for independent lives and can also provide a household environment that is common to most children. Also by making full use of the extra hands supplied by the adolescents, in the middle house, personnel can be supplemented to meet the needs of social workers, not with outside assistance, but in a self-sustaining manner. Since children in institutions usually are not very socialized, they need a sort of mentor who can provide information and advice for their life outside of the institution.
We can expect positive interactions between the institutionalized children and the adolescents who are discharged from the institution by creating an environment that is conducive to interaction between them.
In Korea, about 4,500 children are sent to institutions every year. As the first line of the Children’s Charter of the Republic of Korea emphasizes, children should grow up in heart and home, and institutions should only be a last resort for children without a family from which to receive care. So, institutions must provide an environment where children can feel as if they belong to a family unit and eventually become a healthy member of society.
By Yoon Jung-won (Chung-ang University, Architecture)