In 1993, Georgette Mulheir went from working with teenage mothers in the north of England, to project managing the development of a ground-breaking program in Romania. One of the most shocking revelations of the December 1989 revolution was the estimated 200,000 children living in horrific conditions in the country’s so-called ‘orphanages’ – the residential institutions established ostensibly to provide care for Romania’s ‘orphaned’ and ‘abandoned’ children. When Georgette arrived at Institution Number 1 in Bucharest, where 550 infants lay staring into space, or rocking back and forth in cramped, dirty cots. The main focus of most agencies was on improving material conditions – fixing heating and sanitation, ensuring better food supplies and warm, winter clothes. Georgette began asking questions that no-one else seemed to. It became clear that most of the children were not orphans, yet nobody seemed to ask: where are the parents and why did they give up their children? Why was the government spending so much money on poor quality institutions, when it would be much cheaper, and better for the children, to support families to raise them?
Georgette’s first project in Romania was to set up a support service for young mothers that helped them to keep their children. The project was quickly able to prove that it was possible to keep children with their mothers in most cases; that the developmental outcomes for the children were much better than for those raised in the institution; and that family-based support was much cheaper than institutionalisation. So why did the institutions continue to exist? The answer was a combination of bureaucratic inertia, a lack of vision of alternative ways of doing things and vested interest in the status quo.
Over the next decade, Georgette worked closely with communities, local authorities and governments in Romania, pioneering a model of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ that shifted resources away from institutions towards community-based health, education and social services that make it possible for all children to remain in their families. She helped the government develop an approach that has reduced the numbers in institutions by more than 95%. Once the tipping point had been reached in Romania, Georgette realized this must be possible anywhere.
Since then, Georgette has worked in 23 countries, adapting the model to local situations. In Sudan, she led a project that helped turn around the situation in a baby institution where the mortality rate was 82%. This was a race against time. That project alone has saved the lives of thousands of babies and made sure they were placed with loving Sudanese families who would give them everything they needed. Here, it became clear that even in a country recovering from war, with high levels of poverty and social need, institutions were not necessary and basic systems could be established that supported families and communities to care for their own children.
In 2005, J.K. Rowling founded Lumos to address the problem of institutionalisation. Soon afterwards, Georgette was asked to lead Lumos’ programs. She assisted the founder and directors to develop a mission and strategy, not only to address institutionalisation of children, but to end it completely. There are an estimated eight million children living in institutions around the world. More than 80% are not orphans (in Europe, more than 90%). The primary reason for institutionalization is poverty in the family, yet an institutional placement costs up to ten times the amount needed to support a child to stay in their family.
Lumos decided to focus on the European region to start with and, over the past nine years, a tipping point has been achieved. In addition to delivering country programmes that demonstrate how to close institutions and replace them with community-based services, Lumos spearheaded advocacy and training work that persuaded the European Commission to change the rules about how it spends its money. Instead of pouring billions of Euros into renovating and building institutions, EU rules now prohibit this and state that countries must support the transition from institutions to community-based services. As a result, most countries in the European region now have deinstitutionalization plans in place.
Under Georgette’s leadership Lumos is putting in place the infrastructure necessary across the world to reach a global tipping point by 2030 to will ensure that, by 2050, no more children are living in terrible institutions that seriously harm their health and development and expose them to risk of all forms of abuse. All vulnerable children will be raised in families and communities, giving them the chance to develop to their full potential.
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