While there are unfortunately many candidates to select from, below are the worst orphanages in recent history.
1. Tekakwitha Orphanage (U.S.A., 1940s-1970s)
Though the Tekakwitha Orphanage was demolished in 2010, victims like Howard Wanna remember their experiences there vividly. According to Wanna, “The cruelty at [Tekakwitha Orphanage] was strangely inventive.” He reports being sexually molested and raped throughout the 1950s, both by the head priest, John Pohlen, and by the nuns who cared for the children. “It was like a horror movie in which people walk by each other but can’t communicate.”
Another former Tekakwitha resident, Mary-Catherine Renville, recalls being repeatedly punished and raped, until leaving the orphanage as an adolescent. At the age of 8—and again when she was 10—Renville was placed with families that also sexually assaulted her. After being returned to the orphanage, Renville “didn’t know where to turn or who to tell. None of the adults in my life ever noticed anything about me.”
Tekakwitha was not an isolated case, either. Until the late 1970s, thousands of Native American children were sent to orphanages and boarding schools, where many of them experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Though the abuses perpetrated in places like Tekakwitha are well-documented, the U.S. government has been reluctant to officially acknowledge the victims.
“No one has apologized,” said Mary Jane Wanna Drum, who was a resident at Tekakwitha. “Nobody has admitted that this even went on. Nobody has admitted that it happened…Nobody has ever listened to us.”
2. Nanning Orphanage, Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute, Etc. (China, 1990s)
In the 1990s, Chinese orphanages came under international scrutiny, after a wave of reports were released documenting the inhumane treatment of the children there.
One such orphanage was the Nanning Orphanage, located in China’s Guangxi region. It became infamous in 1993, after the South China Morning Post reported that 90 percent of the female girls who came to the orphanage died there.
Other Chinese orphanages became the subject of the 1995 documentary, The Dying Rooms. In addition to abuses elsewhere, the undercover British film team managed to record the final days of a two-year-old girl named Mei-ming, who starved to death in a Guangdong orphanage four days after being filmed.
Even China’s showcase orphanage, the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute, was found guilty of abuses by the Human Rights Watch. The report issued in 1996 claimed that over 1,000 unnatural deaths occurred at the orphanage between 1986 and 1992, due to an “apparently systematic program of child elimination.”
According to Tom Hilditch, a journalist based in Hong Kong at the time, such orphanages particularly specialized in the “holocaust” of female infants. In the wake of China’s 1979 one-child policy, the proportion of female infants abandoned, aborted, or murdered by their parents rose. Those who survived wound up in these orphanages, where they then reportedly died of neglect.
Though orphanages like Nanning have been overhauled since the 1990s, an estimated 1 million baby girls are still abandoned each year.
3. Ungerini Home for the Incurable (Romania, 2006)
Ungerini Home for the Incurable made headlines in 2006, after an adopted Romanian orphan drew attention to the terrible conditions from which he had escaped. According to Patreascu Peberdy, his early childhood in the orphanage had been a nightmarish experience. He was left tied to a cot that he shared with another boy, Iulian, who later died from the long-term abuse he had suffered.
After Peberdy was adopted, it took 13 surgeries to correct the deformities he sustained during his years at the orphanage. When his adoptive parents found him, he was suffering from polio and malnutrition, and had been confined to a “dying room.”
Ungerini is just one of the many Romanian orphanages that became flooded with children after former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu banned abortion and contraceptives, and imposed a “celibacy tax” in the 1960s. Initially, the birth rate soared, and by 1989, 170,000 children lived in orphanages.
After Ceausescu was deposed, the abuses perpetrated at these state-run institutes came to light, leading to censure from the international community. Romania attempted to address these concerns, going so far as to allow a study by United States investigators into the long-term effects of institutionalization on children. However, as Peberdy’s story demonstrates, many of Romania’s orphans continue to suffer.
4. Mazanovsky Orphanage (Russia, 2013)
The Mazanovsky Orphanage gained notoriety this past May, after footage emerged showing orphans being brutally beaten. In the clip, two adolescent “carers” are seen whipping and kicking seven young boys. The video, believed to have been filmed by one of the offenders on their mobile phone, was anonymously released to the local media.
This is not the first time that Russian orphanages have been accused of systematic abuses. Some of the Mazanovsky staff claim that their earlier warnings about the abuse were ignored by authorities. Meanwhile, orphanages in other areas make headlines, too. A month before the Mazanovsky video, two nurses were arrested at an orphanage in the Khabarovsk region, for beating three young children so severely that all three—ranging in age from seven months to three years—were hospitalized.
When asked about the abuse by another employee at the Mazanovsky orphanage, one of the offenders allegedly said, “I was beaten in the orphanage, and I’m going to beat them too.”
– Jordanna Packtor
Sources: Indian Country Today, BishopAccountability.org, South China Morning Post, Human Rights Watch, Huffington Post, The Telegraph, Scientific American, Siberian Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, Russia Today
Photos: Bad Eagle, Myspace, James Natchwey