“It’s a hard world for little things,” says Lillian Gish in “Night of the Hunter” (1955), and six decades later the situation hasn’t improved.
Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s “Finding the Way Home” investigates the worldwide proliferation of exploitative orphanages which take in children — many with disabilities — from needy parents. Such institutions promise to improve the kids’ lives but instead neglect and abuse them, pocketing the funds provided for their care by governments or nongovernmental organizations. Many of the children are sold to human traffickers.
Approximately 8 million children are victimized in this way. Alpert and O’Neal focus on a few whose stories end happily, thanks to the work of agencies that find foster homes for them or restore them to their parents.
In Moldova, 11-year-old Maria was born with cerebral palsy. She was abandoned at birth by her family and placed in an orphanage. There she was fortunate enough to receive an operation that helped her to walk, but essentially she was warehoused and isolated. Then an older woman, also named Maria, whose grown children had left and who missed “noise around the house,” took her in. The girl seems stunned with her good fortune, but her foster mother admits that “there were issues.” For a long time Maria would thrash in her sleep and wake up screaming in terror.
In Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. An earthquake in 2010 killed 200,000 people. Hundreds of unregulated orphanages have sprung up, run by con men out to get a share of the millions in foreign aid intended to help children in need. Diego, a silent child with haunting eyes, had been sent to one such place by his mother, who was told he would be cared for and given schooling. He was one of the lucky ones who was rescued and sent back home.
The filmmakers investigate the orphanage, since closed down by the authorities. They are given a guided tour by the owner, who calls himself a pastor and freely admits that the conditions at his facility are appalling and that he’s in the business for the money. He shows the squalid rooms into which he crammed dozens of children and the open latrines they used for sanitation. Then he takes the filmmaker to the orphanage he has since opened, equally squalid and overcrowded, and proudly points out that it has a toilet.
Like Diego, Bishnu in Nepal was taken from his family by people who promised they would provide him with a good life and an education. Instead he was sold into slavery and for four years worked at a hotel where he was beaten and forced to wash dishes. He had forgotten who his parents were and where he was from by the time the authorities found him. After a protracted search, he was returned home and placed in a good school. But his eyes fill with tears when he recalls his trauma.
These are heartbreaking, Dickensian tales about innocents victimized by greed, injustice, indifference, and cruelty. They also have Dickensian happy endings. But there are millions of other children who are still lost, abandoned, or orphaned, subject to the whims of institutions and the powerful.
“Finding the Way Home” premieres on Dec. 18 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.