CHIANG MAI, Thailand - More than 500 orphanages dot the countryside in northern Thailand's Chiang Mai province - a huge number for this region of 1.5 million people.
Child advocates say it's a tragedy: thousands of kids growing up without a parent, separated from their culture.
Many orphanages are loving places, like Agape Home, which serves kids who have or may have HIV or AIDS. But even founder Avis Rideout is quick to admit that the situation is far from ideal.
"This is a great place," Rideout said. "You can see it. But it's not a home. It's a family, but it's not a family. And if I had the chance today, I would not bring in anybody."
A Last Resort
Tim Daniell, who manages Orphan's Promise in Asia, said it's heartbreaking to see kids who have family, living in institutions.
"In orphanages in Thailand you'll find many children who do have one or both parents," he said.
Families in low-income communities will seriously consider orphanages, he explained, especially if they're raising an extended family member like a sister's daughter or a son's child.
The reason: orphanages will care for the child at no cost.
"If an orphanage offers to provide free care, shelter, free food, free clothing, free education, that is going to help alleviate the financial pressure on the family," he said.
Government officials like Khun Rossukon, Secretariat of the Chiang Mai Coordination Center for Protection of Child and Women Rights, said orphanages should be a last resort for Thai families.
She said she's concerned that many operations tolerate abuse, especially those not registered with the government.
In recent years UNICEF and USAID have documented what happens to kids who grow up in institutions.
They found delays in mental and physical development and children more at-risk for health problems and abuse. Many struggle as adults to re-enter society.
The bottom line: kids suffer when they don't have an adult who loves and cares for them permanently.
"The caregivers there [in orphanages] are sometimes there for a short period of time," Daniell said. "They're there because they're paid to be there. They love the children, but they're paid to be there."
Keeping Families Together
Such concerns have led Daniell and some others in the international community to begin advocating for what's called family-based or community-based care.
In Thailand it looks like this: 10-year-old Faa lives with her grandparents. She could have easily ended up in an orphanage because her father is in prison and her mother left the family.
As her grandparents financially struggled they discovered the Orphan's Promise program called Keeping Families Together, or KFT. They received parental training, support, and encouragement through what are called "Family Fun Days." They also received financial help with a simple investment.
KFT bought the family a bigger wok, allowing Faa's grandma to double her business selling pork on the streets. A new roof also ensured she's protected from monsoon rains while she cooks.
"For us that's a great example and we want them to be an example to their community as well that, hey, it is possible to keep orphans and vulnerable children in a safe, loving, happy family but perhaps they need just a little bit of a step up, a little bit of support," Daniell said.
Preferring the Family
At Agape Home, Rideout is also helping families who want to keep their children.
"We are paying for their school fees, for their uniforms, their lunches if they're poor, and a bike to ride to school if it's possible," she said.
It's a no-brainer for Rideout, who said all the children at Agape Home would prefer to be with family.
"If you had to ask everyone of my kids today where would they rather be - in the village with a relative or with somebody out of here as a foster child, off the grounds, or here," she explained, "They would choose to be in the Thai culture."
It's also less costly to support these families than to put children in orphanages. Advocates of family-based care also believe these children will grow up much more secure and with a better chance of finding their way in life as adults.