When I see a nonprofit share an interesting statistic in its marketing materials, I want to know where they got it, because 1) I want to know how reliable of a fact it is, 2) I need to cite its source properly if I want to use it in a paper. Here are a few of the most common orphan stats I’ve investigated…
1. “There are 140 (or 143, or 147, or…) million orphans in the world”
This statistic, favored by orphan care ministries and international adoption advocates, probably comes from this UNICEF press release.
The press release carefully explains that in this context, the term “orphan” means a child who has lost one or both parents, an odd definition which grew out of the urgent need in the 1990s to direct attention to all the children who were losing a parent (even just one) from HIV/AIDS.
Strangely, this means that an “orphan” might have a living parent. They probably have other living relatives too, or community members who are willing to care for them. This statistic does not mean “140 million children have nobody to care for them,” “140 million children are living in orphanages,” or “140 million children need to be adopted.”
The press release doesn’t say where its “140 million” figure comes from, just that it’s for the year 2015. But I found the source! UNICEF’s 2015 State of the World’s Children report has detailed stats by country available in Excel format (see the HIV/AIDS tab here). The table says 140 million children are orphaned worldwide, without really specifying how it gets to that sum from its patchy country-level data. And the source for the figures is simply, “UNAIDS, 2013 HIV and AIDS unpublished estimates, July 2014.”
Since the numbers are unpublished, we can’t check it any further, but I’d guess that UNAIDS received the data from the various Ministries of Health or Welfare or other government departments. (It’s not so great to keep the source data unavailable, though, when so many NGOs and charities are citing it!)
2. “80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent”
Lumos, Hope & Homes for children, and other groups that advocate for deinstitutionalization frequency cite this figure. They say the source is a 2009 report by Save the Children called Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care.
The number “80%” doesn’t actually appear in this report though–the closest I found is the graphic on page 5, which gives percents for 8 countries in 5 continents. These 8 country percentages come from a range of sources, including one peer reviewed article and six non-peer reviewed reports by governments and NGOs (see no. 33-40 on page 23).
It’s a quick and dirty little sample that gives an okay estimate, and I suppose 80% is a fair average, but it is a tad outdated by now, and I’d love to see someone produce an updated figure produced with the rigor of statistic #3, below…
3. “2.7 million children are in orphanages”
I don’t see this one used all that much, but maybe it should be. This is UNICEF’s best guess at how many children are in alternative care, taken from a 2017 peer-reviewed article in the academic journal Child Abuse & Neglect by Patrowski, Cappa, & Gross.
They sum the data reported by 140 countries to get a figure of 2.3 million children in residential care–then they extrapolate for countries that don’t have data available, coming up with a total of 2.7 million children in residential care worldwide. They explain the process in detail in the article, which is free to access.
[Edit: I should have also mentioned that it’s likely that the 140 countries only reported on the registered residential care homes that they’re aware of. There are likely many unregistered homes, and thus many uncounted children, so 2.7 million is a conservative estimate.]
They tried to make similar estimates for the numbers of children in foster care, but unfortunately, not enough countries reported data to get a reliable worldwide total.
When you put these three stats together, here’s what you get. Something to think about, right?