What's J.K. Rowling Doing to Help Vulnerable Kids Avoid Institutional Care?

It appears that Harry Potter books bring the power of "Lumos" to the world in more ways than one. While research suggests that young people who read the Harry Potter books are more tolerant and compassionate, and while the books have sprouted a millennial-style fandom nonprofit called the Harry Potter Alliance, the greatest contribution to human progress may be coming directly from the author, J.K. Rowling, and her profound understanding of the disservice that institutionalization does to childrenand how we need to move away from it as a model to address emotional, behavioral, and social problems.

Rowling recently came to New York to announce the start of Lumos USA, the new U.S.-based outpost of the nonprofit she founded in 2005. The goal of Lumos is to redirect the care of disadvantaged children away from group homes and orphanages, and find more ways to support them, and their families, in the community. Its target is the 8 million children worldwide who are cared for in institutions.

Named for the light-giving spell featured in the Harry Potter books, Lumos has been working over the last decade in Central and Eastern Europe to reduce institutionalization of children, and is now expanding to Latin America and the Caribbean. The organization will focus particularly on Haiti, where it is estimated that 80 percent of the 30,000 children in orphanages and institutions actually have parents who are unable to care for them due to financial and social constraints.

J.K. Rowling writes passionately about why this mission is so important to her and to the future of children everywhere. She talks about the visits she made to orphanages, and how the memories still haunt her: "I was shown into a room full of totally silent babies. They had learned that crying brought no comfort and their lack of interest in eye contact was eerie. The photographer wanted me to smile. I wanted to cry."

As a social worker, I know the feeling. The damage done to children in institutions is hard for most people to fathom, and is palpable when spending time with children who have suffered abuse or neglect in institutional care. As the Lumos website states: "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."

But Rowling sees a light at the end of the tunnel, and as Lifetime President of Lumos, it is her goal to end institutional care of children by 2050. "The good news is that this is an entirely solvable problem."

Rowling describes the work Lumos has been doing for the past 10 years to address this issue, particularly in former Soviet bloc countries like the Czech Republic, Moldova, and the Ukraine. She believes a "tipping point" has been reached, as most countries in that region now have a plan to end institutionalization of children. To address the problem, Lumos advocates retraining institutional employees as community-based health and social workers and the repurposing of institutional building to house community services. 

By coming to the U.S., Rowling said the organization is hoping to tap into America's generous charitable giving, as well as to impact its overseas giving on children's issues. "America gives a phenomenal amount of money," Rowling recently said. "We would love to see that aid and that philanthropy channeled toward systems that support children within their families rather than the separation of families."

The staff of Lumos USA will direct its efforts toward building relationships with American policymakers, donors both within the U.S. and internationally, and foundations, encouraging them to invest in strengthening families and preventing unnecessary family-child separation. Influencing international funding streams and policies is a vital part of the mission for Lumos.

Lumos has published an impressive number of papers on the the problem of child institutionalization, and Rowling recently wrote to the United Nations to propose that it incorporate the value of family and maintaining family ties into its Sustainable Development Goals, which will be discussed and established in September of 2015. The nonprofit is currently leading a campaign to advocate that the United Nations make ending childhood institutionalization a global priority. 

Among other things, this story is a great example of a major donor being super-strategic about her philanthropy. Rowling has zeroed in on a very specific and solvable problem, and she has the resources to have a real impact. That approach stands in contrast to many funders we see spreading themselves too thin and not committing enough money to really ensure impact.