Before starting or supporting an orphanage

Written by on January 27, 2015 in Blog with 0 Comments

I like this post at Rage Against the Machine about orphanages. It is addressed to Christians directly, but the information and questions could just as well apply to anyone interested in supporting orphans. She says, “I think supporting orphans is important. Vitally important. But I want to make sure that we aren’t creating and sustaining a child’s orphan status because it’s the only way we are offering a family aid…our goal, .when possible, should be family care. An orphanage should only be a triage situation, where we do crisis management and then assess our next steps.”

She makes a good point, but be careful about throwing out words like “supporting orphans.” As good as that sounds, it can play right into the “great white savior” complex. Rather, what can we do to empower and restore families and communities so that they care for their own most vulnerable children – and then foreign intervention can move on?  There is far too much emphasis on foreigners and organizations as the “carers” rather than on the families and local communities being restored to that role.

It’s great to see more and more people like Kristen speaking out clearly, if not perfectly, about the need to change.

She also provides a good list of warning signs that a church (or group) can look for before supporting an orphanage. It’s not a bad list, and I hope the people who these items apply to will have the eyes to see it. If you’re thinking about starting an orphanage, change the words slightly and see if they may apply to you or your group. At the end I’ll add my own #7.

1. They are taking in poverty orphans. I will say it again: a child should not have to be abandoned at an orphanage to receive aid. If we can feed and educate a child in an orphanage, we can feed and educate a child living at home.

2. They are focused on providing a destination to missions groups. It’s sad to say this, but I’ve heard it from numerous people: the church wants to build an orphanage so they can visit and “love on” orphans when they take short-term trips. NO, PEOPLE. No no no no. Orphans are not mission-trip props.

3. They are motivated by the romanticism of starting an orphanage and how heroic that will make them look. People want their name on the building. It motivates people to donate when they feel ownership. Opening an orphanage looks good on paper. I get it. Still not best practice.

4. They are failing to provide adequate supervision to at-risk children. Orphanages in third-world countries tend to be poorly staffed, with high child-to-caretaker ratios and a high staff turnover. It is rare than an orphanage in a third-world country would meet even the minimum standards to be a licensed childcare facility in the U.S., and yet we are somehow satisfied with sub-standard care because they are poor.

5. They are not focused on permanency planning or family reunification. I cannot tell you have many orphanages I’ve visited where the children have living parents who even visit on weekends and there is absolutely no plan in place to get the kids back home.

6. They are raising children to be ministry partners instead of psychologically healthy adults. I have often heard orphanage directors talk about how they are raising the “future generation of Christian leaders” by raising kids in an orphanage. Except that our goal for kids should be to raise them into adults with a healthy sense of self . . . and the best way to do that is in a family, not in a “future Christian leader warehouse.”

My #7 is: They aren’t engaged in preventing children from being separated from their families and relatives in the first place. Many of the problems that lead children to be placed in orphanages by their own parents or relatives can be solved (quickly or through a process) at a fraction of the cost of raising a child in the orphanage. Yet many orphanages will say that’s not their calling or role. Why not? If an orphanage can spend money to raise a child, why can’t it spend money  to hire someone equipped for that role? In time, the savings will outweigh the cost, and the “family support center” will be supporting more children and families than ever.

The sad truth is that the people behind many orphanages, even those with good intentions, are afraid of any changes that might undermine their own necessary roles. But omitting prevention work, omitting restoring families, and omitting every effort at reunification are not merely symptoms of a narrow focus: they are harmful to the long term interests of the children.


About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is the editor at Uniting for Children. He lives in Cambodia where he works with young adults transitioning from life in an orphanage to living independently. He filmed and produced the video “Why Not a Family?.