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 faithtoaction.org.