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Helping Orphans and Vulnerable Children without Hurting

At the Chalmers Center, we work to equip local churches to address the broken relationships at the root of material poverty as a key piece of their calling to live out Jesus’ Kingdom today.

One of the primary ways many American Christians regularly interact with those suffering in extreme poverty around the world is in caring for orphans and vulnerable children (referred to in community development circles as the “OVC” sector) through child-sponsorship programs, adoption, and foster care. While OVC ministry is not Chalmers’ focus as an organization, we believe that “helping without hurting” is a call to all of God’s people in every walk of life. As a former foster mom, I can attest that many of our organizational principles speak directly to OVC care.

Julia’s Story

Julia stood in a bright-pink BarbieTM T-shirt waiting in the social worker’s office speaking rapid-fire Spanish to workers who understood none of it. Her five-year-old athletic frame reminded me, her soon-to-be temporary foster mom, of how out of shape I was. I said “Hi, what’s your name?” in Spanish and watched her body language question whether I could be trusted. So I backed up, sat on the ground, crisscrossed my legs, and began to ask her questions.  I described my family: my husband Andrew with his big beard, my son who was a year older than her, our daughter who was three years younger, and another girl her same age who lived with us for the time being.

My family’s faith in Christ, expressed through a famous Bible passage got us involved in this—”Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV)—and God in His faithfulness showed us a path home for Julia.

Julia wasn’t likely to stay in the jurisdiction of my county’s social services department, and the plan was to return her to federal custody in a few days. But the federal agencies didn’t show up to her court hearing. Two weeks later, the focus of her case changed: it looked like Julia was on the path toward adoption—permanent adoption into my family. But then, we made contact with Julia’s biological mother, Lupe, who was back in her home country of Honduras. After that first hour-long conversation with Lupe, it was clear that reunification was the best option for both Julia and her mother. Julia was not an orphan; her family had been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Andrew and I worked closely with county services and international agencies to get Julia back to her mother in Honduras. Four months after she arrived in our home, Andrew and I traveled with Julia to Honduras to reunite her with her family. It was an incredibly beautiful and heartening reunification, complete with a welcome-home party themed around Elsa, Julia’s favorite Disney princess.

Poverty and Childcare

While Julia’s story is specific to the context of immigration within the United States, family separation is a global issue in orphan care. More than 80 percent of orphans worldwide have one or more living caretakers. As UNICEF explains, the misunderstanding of the definition of orphan often leads to programming that centers the individual child rather than the family and the community around the child. Economic push factors are the number one cause of children moving from family homes into orphanages.

“With the best of intentions, many Americans are sustaining orphanages that research clearly shows can lower children’s IQs, stunt their growth and increase child abuse,” according to an article by Catholic Relief Services.

In When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett point out that poverty is rooted in broken relationships, especially four key human relationships: with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. For many around the world, these broken relationships result in material poverty.

When a family decides—for economic reasons—to send a child to an orphanage, poverty of community increases significantly for the child at the same time that the family is hopeful the child’s (and also the family’s) material poverty decreases.

Families often can’t access orphanage care unless they relinquish their rights, leading many to make a tragic, likely irreversible decision. (This video from Catholic Relief Services shares a painful story of what a parent in this situation goes through).

Family-based care (often called family strengthening) is focused on the entire family unit and works to build strong relationships for children and parents. And while the term reunification in foster care has a negative connotation from the perspective of some, it should always be the ideal situation we work toward in caring for vulnerable children.

This does not mean it will always happen, but we are a people who believe that being Christ-like means seeking reconciliation in all relationships and areas of life. As 2 Cor. 5:18-20 (NIV) says: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

The ministry of reconciliation is for individuals but also for families, especially those who have been separated because of poverty or unjust laws.

According to a 2017 article in The Baltimore Sun, “Orphanages cost significantly more than strengthening families. Estimates show that we can serve six to 10 children in families for each one in an orphanage, helping our resources go further, while providing far better support to the child.” The article reminds folks that even if a biological family is not able to provide a safe home for the child, there are other avenues beyond orphanages: kinship care, foster care, and adoption, which “are all significantly better options than orphanages.”

Healthy OVC care works to address all five causes of material poverty: False gods and erroneous stories of change, broken and destructive formative practices, broken systems, broken people, and demonic forces.

When Helping Hurts: Short-Term Missions and Vulnerable Children

With so many short-term mission trips focused on orphanage visits, we must scrutinize what we are doing as Christians and address the situations in which we are harming the children we think we are helping. There are three particular harmful effects1 we can have on children when we visit orphanages or support them financially:

  1. Preventing Attachment—Secure attachments are vital in a child’s life. Short-term visitors build relationships that are immediately torn down, which, when repeated over time can be deep traumatic losses for the child. See more about attachment disorders at The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
  2. Exposing Children to Trafficking—In many areas where orphanage-focused short-term trips are popular, orphanages become a business and children become commodities. Exploitation of children is made easier as orphanages increase while registration and accountability of each orphanage can be difficult for local governments to maintain.
  3. Undermining Local Empowerment—When churches from around the world are economically supporting an orphanage, the local community does not have ownership in providing their own solutions to the issues they are facing. We are often robbing local faith-based initiatives and communities of the autonomy they need to provide contextual solutions to the issues. We are also robbing our own communities, namely our own county’s foster care of the resources we can provide to its often invisible crisis.

So what can be done? If your local church or Christian community is involved in financially supporting orphanages, check out Faith to Action’s guidance manual, toolkit, and online training specific for Transitioning to Family Care for Children.

Helping without hurting starts with a scrutiny of our current efforts in OVC care. We should be clear that there are many organizations that do very good work in OVC care, and we should support them faithfully and prayerfully. At the same time, we should work hard to make sure that we are applying the same standards for child-centered poverty alleviation that we do to other community development and mercy-oriented ministries.

May we choose hope as we seek reconciliation for vulnerable children—and for ourselves.

For more, check out:

  1. Please note that we believe there are actually more than three harmful effects, but we chose to focus on these three. Also note that the first two are referenced in the article Volunteering & Visiting Orphanages: Unpacking the harmful effects of sending teams and volunteers to residential care institutions from Ethical Short-Term Missions & Volunteering

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Gena Thomas

Gena Thomas

Gena Thomas is the instructional design specialist at the Chalmers Center. Gena holds an MA in International Development from Eastern University and a BA in English from High Point University. Gena has written two books—A Smoldering Wick: Igniting Missions Work with Sustainable Practices and Separated by the Border: A Birth Mother, a Foster Mother, and a Migrant Child’s 3,000-Mile Journey. Gena and her husband, Andrew, served as missionaries in northern Mexico for four years. The couple started a coffee shop ministry, El Búho (The Owl), which still serves the local and international population near the climbing hotspot, Potrero Chico. Gena, Andrew, and their two children live in Chattanooga, TN.

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