June 2018 Feature
Sarah* and I arrived at the orphanage around the same time, I as a short term volunteer, her as the newest resident. I assumed that I knew her story. I assumed she had no father or mother to care for her and that the orphanage was her only option. I later learned that she had a mother who cried as she left her at the orphanage. Obviously, I was wrong.
The fact is Sarah’s story is the story of the majority of children living in orphanages today. On the ground research studies have shown that, depending on the geographical location, anywhere from 50-90% of children living in orphanages have a living parent. Not an auntie or a grandfather, a living parent. This article will explore why children are placed in orphanages when they are not, in fact, orphans and the detrimental affects of this reality. Further, it will discuss why, as Christians, we should care about these vulnerable children and families. It will end by offering examples of best practices and ways forward to best serve these children and families of God.
The majority of children who live in orphanages today are there because their family is experiencing poverty or other hardships, not because they have no one who loves or wishes to care for them. Parents in this situation are left with an excruciating choice. Parents can be “pulled” towards placing their children in an orphanage with the promise of meals, education and basic provisions. Sometimes these provisions are there, other times they are promised but not provided. Experts in the field note that this “pull factor” of orphanages can often circumvent other options for families in this position.
Research routinely shows that children thrive and grow as God intended when they are in a family. Of course, this is ideally the child’s biological family – parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. However, we live in a broken world. Sometimes foster families must step up to care for children when it is unsafe or inappropriate for the biological family to do so. Conversely, research shows that growing up in an orphanage inhibits healthy development in children, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Further, orphanages often end their care when the child turns eighteen leaving them vulnerable and without the continuing support of a community or family. No orphanage, not even the best and most reputable among them, can replace a family.
As Christians, we should be appalled that any parent has to make a choice between keeping their children at home and placing them in an orphanage. For those of you who are parents reading this, how would you feel faced with this decision? All three of the Synoptic Gospels call us to love our neighbor as we love our self (Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27). We could just as easily say that we should also “love our neighbor’s children as we love our own children.” If faced with a sudden loss of income, an illness, or tragic loss of a spouse, what would you desire for your family and children? Thankfully, placing one’s children in an orphanage is not the only option available.
It is abundantly clear that Jesus deeply loves and cares for children and those on the margins of society. James 1:27 is an often quoted verse when it comes to this issue: “Religion that is pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” Wouldn’t the best way to look after the orphan in question be to keep them from becoming an “orphan” in the first place? Wouldn’t the best option for the widow be to keep her family intact and her children at home in her care?
To do this, practitioners in the field who are working with vulnerable children and families refer to a model called the continuum of care. Essentially, the continuum of care is a line graph that depicts on a scale the most preferred to the least preferred outcome for a vulnerable or separated child. Put another way, this models seeks to find the best solution by putting the child’s holistic well-being at the center of the conversation.
For example, at the beginning of the continuum of care is usually “family preservation”. If one can keep a family intact, there is no need for alternative forms of care to come into play. Family preservation can take many forms, but often includes small business development so that the parents can obtain an income to care for their children, teaching parenting skills, free or reduced-cost child care, etc. Often, next in the continuum is kinship care. This means a child is placed with extended family such as a grandparent or aunt/uncle. At the far end of the continuum of care is large scale residential facilities, as these should be used as a last resort.
Many organizations have their own continuum of care model, and while they each differ slightly, the main idea is the same: to keep children in families whenever it is safe and possible, and to use residential care as a last option. Volunteers can use this model as a way of evaluating organizations which they choose to support. For example, they can seek to financially support those organizations working to keep families together. One example of an organization doing just this is Child’s I operating in Kampala, Uganda. Child’s I works diligently to reintegrate separated children back into their family. When this is not possible, they adhere to the continuum of care by recruiting and training local foster families to take in children.
I do not know how Sarah’s story ends. I returned home after a month of volunteering at the orphanage in Honduras. However, I know how I hope her story ends. I hope it ended with Sarah being reunited with her mother. I hope an organization provided support to her mother so that she could bring her daughter home. There are a handful of organizations around the world providing this type of support, but more are needed. There are too many children needlessly placed in orphanages. As Christians, we should know the real story of the vulnerable children around the world, and the real story is that many of them have loving families who only need a little support to keep their children at home. The real story is that often orphanages are used as a first option when they should be the last resort. The real story is that we need to ask ourselves how we want to love our neighbor’s children so that they can experience the love of Christ through us.
*Name changed for privacy
Lyndsay Mathews holds an MA in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary where she researched the importance of family based care in developing countries. She has worked for numerous non-profits and para-church ministries focused on various social issues.