Before starting or supporting an orphanage

Written by on January 27, 2015 in The Blog with 4 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.

Andy Gray

About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray hosts and writes for Uniting for Children. He lives in Cambodia with his family where he works with Alongsiders International. He wrote Home, a Cambodian story and created the video “Why Not a Family?.
  • Flyercrazy

    This is absolutely the proper guide for taking care of needy children and families. I hope everyone gets an opportunity to read this and put what Andy Gray recommends into their game plan. If there is an abusive family situation then maybe refuge from the abuse should be considered but otherwise by all means keep the children with their families. Well done and perfect advise.

  • Mamamiriki

    I have partnered and run a children’s home. Our goal was to help handicapped children for ten months out of the year so they could get a decent education most coming from small remote villages. Our facility quickly become full of at risk children form police dept. Human Rights, and the local judge, and hospital. We try to find a way for the kids to go home, at least for summer break. I appreciate your article. It not only has some new insights for me, but also some I was a advocate for. There are children who cannot EVER go home. Severely neglected or abused physically/sexually children. No amount of money given to them will help these parents. We had a five year old girl with C.P come in at twelve pounds! Yes that is correct, she tripled her weight while with us before she died of complications. Her mother thought it best to keep her small by not feeding her so that she could better handle her. It is a very difficult process for Miskito children to be placed in adoptive homes or foster care. So I feel that there are two sides to every coin. Not all of our adult children may appear to be successes but we have them graduating from school, in the army, good moms who are still with the father of their children, some after seven years, and yes one ministry partner! She has always had a heart for helping hurting people and instead of focusing on her own painful past decided to help others with her future. Is this the best situation I ask myself sometimes? No, but it is better then sending them back to the virtual hell hole where they came from. Yes we also have groups. We have had a few groups come back every single year we have been open! Then from those groups come full time volunteers to help us run the home when they are old enough to do so. Groups can be a hassle, but they can also be an extreme blessing, encouraging the full time volunteers and staff with some relief, helping with projects to enhance the home, and bring necessary supplies to better care for the children. It reminds me of when “my own family came for a visit! We loved when they came, and loved when they went.Out That is how families are. Out of the thousands of children that we have cared for in our feeding programs, medical and educational programs we only have 34 permanent children living in our home. I cannot imagine what would happen to these kids if our supporters pulled out after reading a article like this one.

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  • Henry Toure

    Just like you, (other organision that carter for the well being of children), we are a body trying to carter for every single child without a parent, and those children being dumped In gutters, road side, dust bin and trash cans, we have a large number of children and few old people, though we get donations from people and leaders, we still need food, portable water, good cloths, bedsheets and blanckets to go round, and we also have people who do dedicate their time to teach these children, but we lack standard equiptments like computers, marker board, chairs, desks, and equipments needed in laboratories and during practical sections, this is why we are pleading to every single one out there to help these children have a better life and future, so they can achieve there dream and purpose in life,
    You can reach our orphanage home on .

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