Luana Mattos | Writing a better world » Arquivo » A light in the Dark: Interview with Lumos CEO Georgette Mulheir‏
"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Romans 12:2
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Harry Potter was an orphan, so it is no surprise that the non-profit Lumos, founded by J.K.Rowling, would aim to help orphan children. Surprising is the fact that unlike Harry, most of children living in orphanages aren’t actually orphans; more than 80% of them have at least one living parent.  So why do parents give away their children? That’s what Lumos CEO, Georgette Mulheir, explains to us in this enlightening interview.

Luana Mattos: You are one of the 30 most influential social workers in the world – Congratulations for your amazing work! When did you realize that this was your calling? And how you joined Lumos?

Georgette Mulheir: Thank you. I have always been passionate about social justice – as a teenager, I joined the anti-apartheid movement and Amnesty International. During my university studies I participated in a range of voluntary activities, such as working with refugees and survivors of sexual abuse, and teaching English as a second language to women in the local community. I saw the direct impact that this kind of work could have on people’s lives, and wanted to do more.

In 1993, I was asked to work on a project in Romania to prevent babies being separated from their families, and that began the next 15 years of my career, until the chance to join Lumos came along. Working with Lumos gives me a real opportunity to make an impact on the lives of millions of children, and to work with experts in the field.

L.M: What’s Lumos mission? Why is so important that we all embrace this cause?

G.M: 8 million children worldwide are living in institutions because they are poor, disabled or from an ethnic minority and struggle to access services because of discrimination. Together with our partners we replace institutions with community based services that provide children with access to health, education and social care tailored to their individual needs.  This supports families to provide the loving care their children need to develop to their full potential and build a positive future for themselves. This is a serious problem, on a massive scale, but we can solve it – that’s what makes the support of others so important, because it helps us achieve our goal.

L.M: Why are institutions so harmful for children?

G.M: Institutionalisation denies children the individual love and care they need to thrive.  Research has shown that institutionalisation has a serious impact on the early brain development of babies.  Outcomes for children raised in institutions are extremely poor and they have severely reduced life chances.  Of the 8 million children in institutions worldwide, more than 80% are not orphans.  Most have families who love them and want them but they are driven into institutions because of poverty and discrimination on the grounds of disability or ethnicity. This is a violation of their human rights and the effects last a lifetime.  One study found that young adults raised in institutions are 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution than their peers, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record and 500 times more likely to take their own lives.

Georgette Mulheir, CEO of Lumos, and Lumos Founder J.K. Rowling, right, are pictured after lighting the Empire State Building

Georgette Mulheir, CEO of Lumos and Lumos Founder J.K. Rowling, after lighting the Empire State Building

 L.M: How is Lumos working to end the institutionalisation of all children in Europe by 2030, and globally by 2050? How can we help Lumos to achieve it?

 G.M We work in partnership with governments, professionals and carers, communities, families and children, to transform out-dated systems that separate children from families.  We provide training for new services, publish toolkits and best practice manuals, and influence decision-makers around the world, to make sure we are involved in every stage of the deinstitutionalisation process from top to bottom. This is how we proven we can create lasting change.

Another key area, and one which is central to the values of Lumos, is Child Participation. Oftentimes, children are not given any say in the decisions about their lives and care – from where they live to what they eat every day, to what they want to study or what they want to be in the future.  It is crucial to develop our systems with the input and guidance of the children who use them. The best people to explain exactly what children need to develop and thrive are the children themselves.

Our supporters can make a real difference to our mission by helping us to spread the word about our work. In November last year, we launched our new digital awareness platform Let’s Talk Lumos, which helps supporters both new and old get involved. We’ve also seen a recent rise in online supporters fundraising for us, which is fantastic. We’re so grateful to everyone who gets behind us.

Let's talk Lumos

Let’s talk Lumos

L.M: You have visited hundreds of orphanages, is there any specifically episode or experience that changed your life somehow?

 G.M: There are so many images that remain with me forever.  In one institution for teenagers with intellectual disabilities, the heating and water systems were barely functional, with children having one cold shower a week (when it is minus 20 degrees Celsius outside you can imagine how terrifying that is for a child); hepatitis B and lice were rife; behaviour was controlled through extreme physical punishment.  One of the boys came to me with a pair of scissors.  He told me an older boy had stuck chewing gum in a little boy’s hair, but he was afraid to cut it out himself in case he hurt him.  He asked me to help, which I did.  Afterwards he said, “thank you for not minding touching us when we are so dirty and smell bad”.

Another institution, in Europe, for children with severe disabilities.  We discovered a 16 year old boy – my height when standing – who weighed only 15 kilograms.  We introduced an urgent feeding and therapeutic programme, but it was too late – he died about two weeks later.

Another institution in a village in the middle of nowhere.  All the villagers – adults and children – had brand new shiny bikes.  It turned out a truckload had been sent to the institution by well-meaning people from abroad.  The children never saw the bikes, which were sold by the institution director.

Another institution in Khartoum, where the babies were dying every day.  It seemed a desolate and hopeless place.  Yet the new Director was determined to turn it around.  He managed to persuade many organisations to help with nutrition and care – and I was asked to help put in place foster care and family support.  It was a race against time, but within months we had established a foster care system and children who had been at death’s door were thriving in families.  The team of social workers involved were like private investigators, tracing birth parents.  I witnessed countless extraordinary reunifications of ‘abandoned’ babies with their mothers.

The children for whom our interventions are too late are always with me – if I ever lose sight of why we are doing this, they are a very sharp reminder.  But I am truly inspired by the children whose lives are turned around – and the amazing adults who make it possible – courageous Lumos personnel working in difficult conditions, dedicated government employees and civil servants, amazing human rights activists.  In every country in which we work there are thousands of local champions who take on the vested interests, resistance, suspicions and fears of the societies they live in, to make them a better place for children.

L.M: After 20 years working in orphanages, what was the biggest challenge you faced?

 G.M: The biggest challenge we face is the lack of coordination of all people involved in transforming services for children.  Although the scientific evidence proves orphanages are harmful to children (and unnecessary), this message is not understood well enough by politicians, funders and members of the public.  Because of this we see contradictory practices – such as one donor building orphanages while a government is trying to close them and develop community based systems.  So our biggest challenge is getting as many people as possible to understand the harm caused by orphanages and the better alternatives that exist and then to agree the way to solve the problem.

L.M: Orphanage by definition is: “A public institution for the care and protection of children without parents.” But your experience shows otherwise, if you could redefine the word ‘orphanage’, how would describe it?

 G.M: What a question. I do often wish that we could redefine the word orphanage, so that people could understand the true meaning – many people in the world still think they are good things. Many well-intentioned donors give money to orphanages, and many young people want to volunteer to work in orphanages. All this reinforces the orphanage system. Changing their understanding of orphanages is a global challenge for us. We often use the expression ‘so-called orphanages’, because as I mentioned before we know from research that at least 80% of the children who live in them are not orphans – they generally have one or more parents, or extended family, who they could live with if given the right support. So that is the first part that would need to change in the given definition. The second area of concern is the level of ‘care and protection’ provided – when research has shown that not only is the care inadequate and harmful, but that these places actually leave children more susceptible to abuse, and less protected.

L.M: What advice would you give to the young women that share the same passion as you for social work?

G.M: Social work is an incredibly rewarding field.  It is not easy and is not for the faint-hearted.  But if you choose to dedicate your working life to transforming the lives of the world’s most disadvantaged and marginalised people, you will never regret it.  You will never wake up in the morning wondering ‘what’s the point?’.  Social work is a field where women are over-represented – and yet still in senior management roles we see far too few women.  So I would urge all interested young women to get a good grounding in field work, but also to aim to become involved in management.  Although I miss the direct work on the ground, as Chief Executive I can achieve so much for many more children.

A special thank you to Vicky Gillings, Kate Timbrell and John Steele for making this interview possible and to Georgette for taking the time to do this interview.

UPDATE: In this film J.K. explains why children need families not orphanages!