One day an experienced Christian worker picked up the phone to call a young woman who was planning to open an orphanage in Haiti. This is what she said.
Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of leading multiple teams overseas with World Orphans. Part of my job that I love is getting to educate and teach team members what the Bible says about orphan care, about our role and responsibility in tackling orphan-causing issues, and about the various models of orphan care that other organizations employ.
I have noticed in the past decade or so that God is doing an amazing work in the hearts of His people in regards to orphan care. The Church is finally starting to rise up and carry out the mandate in Scripture to rescue and care for the fatherless, widows, and the poor around the world. Social media, the Internet, photography and video, and the ease of travel in this day and age have only increased our awareness of the orphan crisis and extreme levels of poverty in the majority world.
I am excited that we are finally starting to respond; however, I feel a huge burden to speak into a particular issue that I have come across time and again while working with individuals along the way.
I won’t beat around the bush: I fear that we’re doing it all wrong.
My concern is that our hearts are leading the way and we are not doing what is in the best interest of the children that we are trying to help. Let me explain….
A phone call I had to make
I had a phone conversation with a lovely young lady who recently served on a one-week mission trip to Haiti. She is passionate, educated, well-traveled and absolutely loves the Lord. She has a huge desire to take care of orphans around the world and is actually starting a non-profit ministry to allow her the platform to do so. I was ecstatic for her and proud of her willingness to make a difference! However, I saw something on Facebook one day that made my heart sink. One of her ministry goals was to start an orphanage in the following year. I screamed at my computer, as if voicing my concerns would make a difference, “NO! Please don’t do that!!” I felt such an incredible burden after reviewing her website and reading through their goals and plans. I had to do something. So I picked up the phone.
We had a great conversation and she took everything I had to say with such grace. I feel as though my relationship with her allowed me the opportunity to speak into this and hopefully shed light on why I am so adamant about NOT starting/funding/partnering with orphanages.
Below are some conclusions from our conversation, summarizing what I communicated to her that day.
There has to be a better way
First, God did not intend for ANY person to be institutionalized. He created us to be in families. If that is the case, then why are we so passionate about orphanages? Why do we glamorize “orphanages” and “orphan homes” and applaud those who go over to invest and work in them? Yes, it’s great that people have a heart for the orphan….but again, my fear is that we’re doing it all wrong. There HAS to be a better way to care for orphans than by putting them in an institution.
“God sets the lonely in families;
he leads forth the prisoners with singing…”
If we build an orphanage, it WILL be filled with children…but that’s not necessarily a good thing. In the movie, A Field of Dreams, there’s a voice that says, “If you build it, they will come.” That rings so true with orphanages, as well. You see, what many of us don’t realize is that many children who are living in orphanages aren’t even orphans! I was astonished to see the statistics on this. In Liberia, for example, 98% of the children living in orphanages have at least one surviving parent. In Sri Lanka the number is 92%; in Zimbabwe it’s 40%.
I saw this first-hand when I was serving in Haiti. We were working one day at a small orphanage and there was a knock at the front gate. One of the workers answered the door and found a mother with her two children. The mother pleaded with the orphanage for them to take her children because she didn’t have the means to care for them anymore. What we discovered is that this is a COMMON thing that orphanage directors face around the globe. Orphan Care Network says it like this: “These statistics reflect a very common dynamic: In communities under severe economic stress, increasing the number of places in residential care results in children being pushed out of poor households to fill those places.”
It’s a sad reality, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of parents living in poverty or who are faced with other dire circumstances. Think about it, if you had children and had no way of providing adequate food, medicine, or education for them, would you not consider taking them to a nearby orphanage to see if they could take them in so that your children wouldn’t starve? I know I would.
Those parents aren’t bad parents – they are just hopeless and in survival mode. So we have to ask ourselves the question: if most of the children that are institutionalized actually have family, but have been brought to that facility because their parents or other family members didn’t have the adequate means to care for them in the first place, wouldn’t it make more sense for us to assist those FAMILIES so that they can stay together? That, to me, seems to be the best solution and one worth figuring out.
Second, growing up in an orphanage has an adverse effect on personality, emotional, and social development. Many studies have shown that every child who spends significant time in an orphanage will display “symptoms of inadequate personality development such as aggression, attention-demanding behavior, sleep disturbance, over-affection, and repelling affection” (The Urban Halo, Craig Greenfield).
I’ve seen this first-hand in orphanages during my travels as well. Individuals on short-term mission teams think it’s something special when a child at an orphanage is overly affectionate with them during a visit. We think, “Oh, look how sweet he is! He has been holding onto me all day and won’t let go of my hand.” (I’ve mistakenly assumed this as well prior to my study on this particular topic.) What we don’t understand, though, is that the child acts that way with every single visitor who comes to the orphanage because “over-affection” is actually a psychosocial issue. This phenomenon results from a child not having a secure, stable, and nurturing parental relationship. Such children are deprived of a deep and foundational emotional need. Therefore, they are overly affectionate with any adult figures who will give them the time of day.
Other studies show that IQ is severely affected, especially when children are institutionalized at a young age. Even when high quality orphanages are adequately staffed and children are receiving attention and love, researchers have discovered a statistically significant difference in emotional stability between the institutionalized children and similar children in foster care. Researchers also found children living in orphanages had a greater tendency toward depression.
I feel as though well-intended individuals, churches, and organizations around the world think that if they construct an orphanage with brightly-colored walls, adequate staff, funding for two or three meals a day, and an educational program to keep the children in school, then they are doing a great thing. In light of all the research and studies that have been done, is it really? Is it really a great thing considering that those children WILL struggle and face developmental delays because of being institutionalized?
I believe that the hearts of people who are starting orphanages are BEAUTIFUL, please don’t get me wrong. I just believe those hearts are misguided, and we need to do more to inform them. That passion and love for orphaned children just needs to be redirected, so that the best interests of the children are considered first and foremost.
We can do more
Finally, orphanages are expensive and lack sustainability when compared to community-based orphan care models. It costs about $2,000/year per child in an orphanage, on average, whereas supporting a child to live with a family in the community costs about $30/month (about $360/year). This includes the cost of subsidizing the child’s basic needs and hiring and training staff to follow-up regularly. Furthermore, considering that most orphans are “economic orphans,” meaning they are only residing in the orphanage because of economic stressors, it makes total sense for a ministry/organization to support the child to stay in his or her own family and community.
Keeping children in the community and empowering families strengthens both nation and society, and it leads to economic development, not deeper brokenness and dependency. We could see a HUGE difference in the lives of vulnerable children if more organizations and ministries would focus on working with local communities to empower and train families rather than building more orphanages. If families are empowered and trained to sustain themselves, then the parents won’t be knocking on the doors of orphanages to provide food and education for their children.
I ended my conversation ended with this young lady by reinforcing the fact that orphanages are not BAD…and I want to reiterate that again for you as a reader. Many of you, I’m sure, have some sort of connection with an orphanage. Perhaps you even know and love the children or the staff who work there. I do, too, and I will continue to support them as best as I can with the resources and knowledge that I have. I have no intention of abandoning those places!
If I were asked by the orphanage director to give my opinion about the best way to care for the children currently in his/her orphanage, I would reiterate that the solution is not to turn our backs on existing orphanages or orphan homes. Then I would say we must make a radical shift in our thinking about how to operate such facilities.
Ask yourselves these questions
We can start by facing some potentially transforming questions.
- What can we do to “de-institutionalize” the children and help them reintegrate into society?
- Can we trace the families of any children and possibly reunify with their parents or relatives?
- Why wouldn’t we redirect funds that we are using at the orphanage to help train and equip families to care for their own children at home?
- If families are nowhere to be found OR they are not capable of properly caring for children (i.e., due to abuse, or a parent’s severe physical or mental disability, etc.), can we equip and train families in the community to be to be long-term substitute or adoptive parents?
- We believe that God has provided the mandate for the Church to care for orphans, right?
- So why not start with families in the local church right there in the community where the child was born?
- And, finally, can we re-train the orphanage workers as social workers to visit the children in their new homes and ensure that proper care is being provided?
God created families and he intends for us to grow up in them. So let’s invest in solutions that allow for orphans and vulnerable children to be raised in loving families. That is the only way to tackle the worldwide orphan crisis.
My appeal to you is simply this: let your head guide your heart. Praise God for the hearts of those who want to serve and sacrifice to make a difference in the life of a child. But my prayer is that you seek wisdom, study the topic thoroughly, network with as many individuals as you can including real experts in the field, and make sure that you are doing what is MOST beneficial for the children (and their families).
May we all be challenged not to just do what appears to be right, or (heaven forbid) what makes us feel good about ourselves.
Let’s put the orphan and the vulnerable child (including the widows often struggling to raise them) above ourselves and our plans and ask: If they were my own children, what would be my best hope for them? I doubt many of us can even imagine our own children being placed in institutions or “children’s homes” knowing the likely emotional, social, physical and mental outcomes. Why not work for the very best, and God’s intentions, for their children as well?
May we all “learn to do good, seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the cause of orphans, and fight for the rights of widows” with wisdom and discernment (Isaiah 1:17).