Helping End the Orphanage Era

“30,000 Haitian kids live in private orphanages. Officials want to shutter them and reunite families.” This was the headline of an Associated Press article published this summer in over 600 media outlets around the U.S. It shares how Haiti’s orphanages and children’s homes have long served as a band-aid to more complex problems, such as extreme poverty and lack of access to quality education.

The assertions in this article are not unique. Global attention on the inappropriate use of and over-reliance on residential care, such as orphanages and children’s homes, is increasing around the world. Decades of research have proven that residential care negatively affects a child’s developing brain. Yet, family care positively affects brain development and provides the love, belonging, and identity that children need to thrive into adulthood.

Around the world, there is a growing movement to replace orphanages with family-based care. In 2019, the United Nations’ formally adopted the Resolution on the Rights of the Child in which every member country committed to both eliminating the institutionalization of children and prioritizing family-based care for children. Since then, the global movement has continued to grow and a vision was sparked to see the end of the orphanage era.

Reforms on how vulnerable children are cared for are underway, and Christians have a critical role to play.

The Role of the Church in Reforming Care for Children

Christians have generously cared for orphaned and vulnerable children since the early days of the church, taking children who had been abandoned outside the walls of Jerusalem into their own families. However, in recent decades our response to a biblical mandate to serve the orphan has focused on the building and support of orphanages.

A recent study from the Barna Group found that the vast majority of Christians in America believe  orphanages and children’s homes are either a good solution for children (86%) or a necessary solution (91%). In fact, the study found that US Christians contribute $2.5 billion annually to residential care facilities, such as orphanages and children’s homes! These perceptions are often based on misconceptions regarding the real reasons children end up in orphanages and, in turn, have spurred the proliferation of orphanages and deterred progress toward family-based solutions.

Material Poverty is the Leading Cause of Placement in Orphanages

The reality is that material poverty is the most common underlying reason a child ends up in an orphanage. Commonly, a family living in poverty experiences a hardship that leads to a child being placed in residential care, like the loss of a job, an illness, or disability, where a family is unable, or believes they are unable, to protect and care for the child.

Most children in orphanages are not orphans at all. The overwhelming majority of children in orphanages have at least one living parent, many of whom could care for their child if given support to do so. Children who don’t have parents who can care for them often have extended family who can, or they could transition into family through foster care or adoption.

When churches, faith-based organizations, and Christian individuals direct their support to address the underlying reasons children end up in orphanages, we see families strengthened to care well for their own children.

Strengthening Families as the Alternative to Orphanages

Christian organizations are transitioning the services they provide in residential facilities to care in communities and families. Helping Children Worldwide supported an orphanage in Sierra Leone for decades thinking they were providing the best care possible for vulnerable children in the community. However, one of the individuals who grew up in their orphanage returned to work there after graduating college. He reflected on his own experiences growing up without a family and ended up leading  the orphanage to reintegrate all the children back into families. They started a program to support the families, as well as other vulnerable families in the area. Today, they are helping other organizations make the same change.

Shifting to a family-based approach includes strengthening families, increasing alternative family care options, such as relative care, foster care and adoption, as well as empowering communities.

Western Christians need to expand our definition of orphan care. Families in crisis need a continuum of services to respond to their challenges. Family strengthening is about building families’ resilience and addressing their unique challenges. It includes livelihood support, material support, cash payments, food and agricultural support, access to education and health care, daycare, after-school programs, mentoring, special education services, counseling, parent education, support groups, resource centers, youth centers, temporary family shelters, and spiritual support.

Step Ahead provides a program for struggling families in Thailand, appropriately called “Keeping Families Together.” It takes a relational approach with an 18-month program where parents attend workshops on how to build a strong family as well as financial literacy. Parents also receive weekly home visits for coaching, goals setting and planning with a social worker.

In Mexico, Familia Lightshine has partnered with the government to create a foster care for children who were not able to stay with their families. They recruit, train, and support foster families from local churches. Their diligence to engage the government along the way has led to providing significant guidance in their states’ child welfare policies.They were even asked to support implementation of their model in two other states in Mexico!

Change is Happening!

Christians play an important role in reforming the way children are cared for around the world and we need to do more. As such, we should be educated financial supporters, investing in quality family-based solutions for children. Sharing the message that orphanages aren’t the best or only solution for orphaned and vulnerable children is also important work, addressing the misconceptions that have caused the current situation.

The orphanage era is coming to an end, and you can be a part of it.

Elli Oswald is the Executive Director of the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition educating and mobilizing Christians towards best practices in care for orphaned and vulnerable children around the world. Learn more at

Elli Oswald

Elli Oswald

Elli Oswald is the executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition of organizations focused on promoting best practices in care for orphans and vulnerable children.


  1. Carolyn Klaus on September 21, 2023 at 3:26 pm

    Excellent! We have seen the benefits of supporting community-based care of orphans and vulnerable children in Ethiopia. For $40/month (far less than costs in an orphanage), we provide nutritional support, tuition and tutoring, medical care, social services, and spiritual discipleship for all of our sponsored children–and self-help savings groups for their remaining parents or guardians. It has been transformational; many a beggar woman with toddlers on the street has been able to start her own business, find housing, get her children into school, and begin making loans to other beggar women! After 16 years, we are seeing our sponsored children develop good character, graduate from college, get jobs, support their families, and come into leadership positions in their communities. We strongly affirm what is said in this article!!!

  2. V. S. Lynn on September 23, 2023 at 11:24 am

    Hi Elli, I would love to talk with you about some of the things you share in this article. I have have close connections to the devastating flip side of the premature push to close children’s homes in a majority world country. These shifts take years and years to implement in-country if they can be achieved at all without worsening the plight of many vulnerable children. In some cases, the government agencies tasked with overseeing such changes are corrupt, lacking information, disconnected from one another and ill-equipped to implement reform on the same timeline as the UN would have it. The sheer numbers of street children can make a foster/ adoptions-based child welfare system completely inadequate. Cultural norms regarding whose responsibility it is to care for “other people’s children” vary as well. While Christians should certainly support ministry efforts which strengthen families all over the world, this help needs to be shared before a family, or mother, falls apart. The church is best suited to do this. Rather than uniformly dismantling all existing children’s homes, the UN would do well to work with individual countries to develop a criteria for a multifaceted approach, recognizing and leaning in to the the assets in place. Since there are many local charitable institution directors making a steady difference in their villages and communities, resources would be better spent helping them achieve even higher becnhmarks of care. They could influence change for good where outsiders cannot if they are made part of any new solutions in family and child protection.

    • The Chalmers Center on September 26, 2023 at 10:21 am

      Thank you for highlighting some of the significant challenges in pursuing this global change. We have certainly seen the negative impacts of overzealous attempts to shift a system too quickly. I would love to hear more about your experience and perspective. This is an area of active global learning. We need to work together to ensure that children are not the ones who suffer. These discussions can lead us towards creative solutions. While the challenges in care reform are many, I agree that the local church plays a vital role and is stepping up to play it in so many countries around the world. Looking forward to connecting with you.

  3. Andrew (Drew) Smith on September 23, 2023 at 5:54 pm

    I normally strongly support all the biblically inspired efforts of Chalmers Center. Sadly this appears to be written by someone well read on the topic but lacking comprehensive “on the ground” experience on multiple continents. As an example in Cambodia- which is a state sanctioned Hindu society the culture considers orphaned/abandoned children condemned to that condition as a result of Karma. As such there is not a driving force to integrate them into any family setting or receive any community support. Only Christian groups such as the expansive Foursquare Church mission in Cambodia have taken on that role by planting Churches blended with church homes staffed by widows and managed by the church pastor and wife typically serving 50 or so abandoned children. They are schooled and discipled in this setting many grow up to be pastors, evangelists, medics and other community influencers. It is NOT a safe assumption to assume one solution fits the entire world in spite of what UN agencies might proclaim. PLEASE CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS!!

  4. Andrew (Drew) Smith on September 23, 2023 at 6:02 pm

    Please see more detailed info at [email protected]
    Tens of Thousands of orphans served Thousands of churches planted

  5. The Chalmers Center on September 26, 2023 at 9:07 am

    The culture, systems and context are so important in care reform. Each country and context has unique opportunities and challenges in moving towards a systems that enables more children to find or say in safe and loving families. I would love to learn more about your experience in Cambodia. Your point regrading that fact that no one solution will work is so important. Vulnerable children and families need a continuum of care options, and the local church are the first responders for families in crisis. We definitely need to check our assumptions in every new context and support creative locally lead solutions.

  6. Lisa Hyatt on September 26, 2023 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you for publishing this important article that will hopefully deepen the understanding of the harm of orphanages. While sometimes the message that orphanages are harmful to children seems to be redundant, it is clear that we need to continue saying it! Especially by those working in various countries – but witness the same devasting outcomes for children, their families, and communities. Unfortunately, faith-based funding is one of the biggest challenges to ending the orphanage system. God did not intend for families to be broken but to remain intact and work together to glorify Him and build stronger communities.

    Through our work with Haitians, we’re seeing incredible transformations take place in one of the most challenging regions in the world. This transformation includes moving hundreds of children out of dangerous orphanages over the last few years, reuniting them with their families and providing the information, tools and training they need to create safe, nurturing homes and communities.

    While Haitian children face challenges even when living with their families, their risk of being harmed increases exponentially when they are turned over to an orphanage. That’s why we believe that orphanages are NOT the answer!

  7. Enel Andre on September 26, 2023 at 2:34 pm

    I am a Haitian Social Worker and have extensive experience in child protection and family preservation in Haiti, especially with the Haitian government. I can agree with this article that the time has come to end the orphanages that are causing great harm to children. But I want to challenge one point made about poverty. It is important to understand that poverty is not a reason for the separation of children from their parents. The main cause is the lack of education. If we can fill this gap, closing orphanages in Haiti will be a simple process because parents will take their children. In my experience, after a family reunification and training, parents are unanimous in expressing that if they were aware of the consequences of separation and institutionalization of their children, they would never agree to give their children to orphanage owners – whatever the promises they make to them.

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