Andy Gray

Andy Gray

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?

Reintegrating Children from Orphanages in Cambodia

Written by on October 6, 2016 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Child in an orphanageI just read an excellent article in the Phnom Penh Post about reintegrating children from Cambodian orphanages into families.

More and more people are talking about the problems with orphanages, and that’s driving an increasing awareness that family-based care is a better option. I’m not talking about international adoption (which at best is a drop in the bucket, and at worst creates a market for child trafficking) or orphanages posing as “family-based care” (where the “families” are hired and live in a village/compound). I mean genuine efforts to keep children with their surviving parents or relatives (kinship care) or place them in loving foster families in the community. But many people say they want to see how family-based care will practically work in countries with high levels of poverty and dysfunctional government services, and I often hear doubts expressed about the possibility of reintegrating children from existing orphanages.

Truly, I think the challenges and questions are significant. I have friends who have to face them, and I don’t mean to downplay the difficulties of the road ahead — although I think it’s worth it and one of the keys is to shift funding this direction.

Back to the article in the Phnom Penh Post, it reports both progress and challenges of reintegration. One surprising fact I learned is that a new survey has found that FAR MORE Cambodian children are living in orphanages than the number previously reported. The new estimate is that 49,000 children are living in orphanages (compared to the old estimate of about 12,000). Many of the orphanages are unregistered and unregulated, and (as has been said again and again) 80-90 percent of the children have living parents.

How a “brown-skinned girl” perceives your voluntourism experience

Written by on May 4, 2016 in The Blog with 1 Comment

Much is written and recorded on this site from the experience of people who serve. Here is a piece worth reading from someone who has been on the receiving end of good and bad volunteering. Reading it may change your perspective. And wouldn’t you want to know this sort of thing before rather than after making your life-changing trip?

What’s Wrong With Voluntourism? Everything


What does the girl in the picture think today about these loving volunteers?


They really wanted us to like them, because they loved us — indiscriminately… They loved being around me, it was something about my poverty, brownness, and how they felt like they were saving me. They loved that feeling…

We have always been able to see right through this facade. Since I was five years old I saw right through it. I probably did not have the words as a kid, but I knew you were trying to get something out of me. I do not have fond memories of the Beckys and Chads who came to my country and took pictures with me so that they could hang the photos in their dorm rooms and go on with their lives.

– Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez

Foster care is working in a most unusual place, and for a surprising reason

Written by on March 21, 2016 in The Blog with 0 Comments

I started reading this article in Christianity Today about foster care in China with several large grains of salt in mind. And slowly I realized, it’s a great story about orphan care in families. It doesn’t play with words, and it doesn’t have to. It’s good news, on multiple levels, and I hope many of you will read it.

In short, I learned about a man, Robert Glover, who has spent the past 17 years helping to establish foster care in China. People say foster care doesn’t work in some cultures. Well, meet China, one of those cultures. Through the efforts of Care for Children and their partners, nearly 250,000 children have been moved from institutional care into families.

When it comes to caring for orphans, Christians have done lots of good AND significant harm. As much as I appreciate the good, the harm has to be called out. Christians (and others) have fueled the explosive growth of orphanages that just won’t stop, even as experts are now crying out that orphanages are tearing families apart and filled mostly with children from poor families. Christians have fueled an international adoption movement rife with corruption and human trafficking in babies, while largely ignoring foster children in desperate need of families in their home countries.

For these reasons, I was skeptical of an article in Christianity Today, and I was wrong. The organization is spot on, and the author of the article nailed it. Here’s a quick quote and a picture, and then I’ll get out of your way.

The article focuses on one example, a village of mostly Christian Chinese who emptied an orphanage and took all the children into their own homes. To make this more extraordinary, the children in the orphanage all had special needs. This is another thing that goes against traditional views of what Chinese will and won’t do. Obviously, stories can change.

Speaking of this village of Yang Jia, the author makes the following observations. I was glad to see number two stated very clearly!

Firstly, the value of family care trumps institutional care. No matter how good an orphanage is it cannot give the same love and care that a family can provide. I am yet to meet a young person who has told me that they would prefer to have grown up in an orphanage. Well-meaning Christians are still building orphanages around the world but the best research points to the superiority of family-based care like fostering and adoption.

Secondly, family care trumps the popular model of children’s villages. Maybe you have seen initiatives to look after orphaned or vulnerable children in compounds where foster or housemothers are paid to look after them on the campus as a job. At the end of their shifts they go home to their own families. Yang Jia is not that model. It is a normal village where normal families have expressed an exceptional level of hospitality. The children in Yang Jia receive unconditional love and attention as full members of genuine families and as part of a wider ordinary community.


Read the article at:

Home #8 – Three months later

Written by on January 10, 2016 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


When a child is separated from his or her family and placed in an orphanage, important bonds are damaged or broken. The longer the child remains in the orphanage, the harder it is to return home. He or she becomes more and more like an orphan. In this way, orphanages “make orphans.” Even the best orphanages run by wonderful people can do this. Sometimes the best orphanages are the worst in this regard, because the children feel so comfortable at the orphanages that they no longer want to go home. The worst orphanages actively recruit children from poor families by promising education and other benefits. In either case, eventually the children grow up and leave their orphanages. At that point, they are forced to rejoin society and re-adapt to the culture and lifestyle. They may desperately need the support of family, but those bonds have been weakened if not broken. They’re vulnerability was not solved, but it was simply postponed. At the end of the day, both the good and the bad orphanages are funded by well-meaning foreign donors who really don’t understand all the implications and options. There is a tragedy unfolding that has been created by sincere efforts to help.

Home #7 – Inside these walls

Written by on January 9, 2016 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


Many people point out that orphanages provide services that help economically poor children improve their lives. But most children in orphanages aren’t orphans; many are sent to orphanages by their own families in order to access the resources and services.  Question: Why do they have to leave their homes and families to get help? Why can’t orphanages be turned inside out and use their resources to restore and empower families and communities? Do they have control issues? Savior complexes? Or is it just that raising money for an orphanage is much easier than raising money that directly serves poor families? (Obviously, there is not one answer. Many orphanage directors are doing the best they can with sincere intentions, but we really need to ask these hard questions anyway.) Orphanages, even those that are well run by decent people, are “creating” orphans by separating children from their families. At the same time, other needy children whose families and relatives refuse to send them away go lacking. For this reasons, organizations with great expertise and experience working with vulnerable children are calling for a transition toward new models, such as community-based family support centers, that provide needed services for vulnerable while keeping families and relatives together. Such centers can help many more children (and families) at a lower cost than the orphanage model.

Home #6 – Po gets the orphanage tour

Written by on January 4, 2016 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


When orphanages have resources like computers and special classes, it’s not surprising that parents and relatives send their children. Most orphanages (not all) try to screen out children who don’t really need to be there. But families find ways to get around that. Often the staff at orphanages find ways to get their own children, nieces, and nephews into the orphanage as well.

With a growing number of children to care for, even the most well-meaning staff have trouble monitoring what children are doing. This problem is compounded as staff come and go, not to mention when staff have their own relatives living at the orphanage who need to be looked after. I’ve seen multiple orphanages that struggle with children skipping school, especially as the children grow older. It’s hard to say why it happens. Maybe they lose a sense of urgency about school and don’t want to work that hard; perhaps they feel stigmatized at school; and maybe they feel confident they will be taken care of regardless.

Home #5 – Happy Family?

Written by on December 31, 2015 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


It’s ironic that many orphanages have the word “family” in their titles. Po arrives at the orphanage and finds the comforts there a huge step up from the home he’s used to. On first impression, what’s not to like about that? Orphanages may look wonderful and the intentions may be good all around, but questions will emerge in time. The problem is that most volunteers and donors don’t stick around long enough to discover the hard questions for themselves. Those who have been around orphanages long enough can spot several questions in the strip above. Here is one seemingly innocent one that is more significant that it appears at first. Will Po ever be content to sleep on a simple mat like he has at home after getting used to his new bed?

Home #9 – Volunteers at the orphanage

Written by on December 23, 2015 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 2 Comments


When a group of volunteers visits an orphanage, the kids and volunteers usually have a great time. The volunteers form loving bonds; they relax their ego boundaries for the afternoon; and they see another side of life. Many will call this a life-changing experience. Good for them, but what about the children? Children in orphanages have already experienced heart-breaking separations from their families and communities. If the volunteers in fact bond with the children and then leave, then isn’t something is wrong with this picture? In fact, experts say that children in orphanages are damaged by repeatedly making and breaking relationships. They say many children in orphanages develop attachment disorders, making it hard to make and keep relationships later in life. The volunteers didn’t intend that, but good intentions really don’t matter to the children. Besides doing psychological damage, there are other negative consequences when volunteers are constantly coming and going: the children’s lives are disrupted, they’re distracted from school and other responsibilities, the intense fun is followed by letdowns (and for some kids the routines of school and chores aren’t stimulating enough anymore), and children put at risk of abuse (because volunteers are seldom screened or carefully monitored). Finally, since volunteers are feeling so good when they leave (and haven’t had time to see any of the problems they would notice if they stuck around a few months), they often donate money. This pattern makes it easy to fund orphanages AND simultaneously harder to move away from the orphanage model toward better ways of caring for vulnerable children. Simply put, if you want to volunteer at an orphanage, think twice, because you may be doing harm both to the children and the movement to provide the best care for vulnerable children. Why not at least do some serious and objective research first? If you’re looking for an activity for a volunteer group or a church mission trip, don’t prioritize “wonderful and life-changing us” over “what’s best for the children.” Choose to go as a learner first. Don’t give up on changing the world, but be advised that real world changers are learners who persevere through years of focused work, not volunteers who “give” a week or a weekend in exchange for an experience. Your “love bus” may not be all it’s cracked up to be.


Home #4 – It doesn’t feel right

Written by on December 23, 2015 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


All over the world many children in orphanages are dropped off by their own mothers or fathers, because they perceive their children will be better off in the institution. They are also under great stress trying to provide for their families and need help. Sometimes they literally have to choose which child to put in care and which child to keep at home. So why not help parents (and relatives caring for orphaned children) directly? If Po’s mother received basic support, like rice and school supplies each month (or even cash), she wouldn’t be taking Po to an orphanage. Such basic support would cost much less than the monthly cost of caring for Po in an orphanage, so many more children and families could be helped for the same amount.

Home #3 – You can go to school

Written by on August 22, 2015 in Home, a Cambodian story (series) with 0 Comments


In a 2011 study eighty percent of Cambodians said that if a family cannot afford to send a child to school, then that child is better off in an orphanage. Parents all too often send their children to orphanages to receive an education and other perceived benefits. The sad reality is that residential care, despite being very expensive to provide, is more accessible to poor families than simple, cost-effective educational support services in their own communities. Orphanages require children to leave their families to get these services; but community-based services can strengthen families and keep them together.