The Blog

A surprising perspective on the second greatest commandment

Written by on October 26, 2016 in The Blog with 0 Comments

It is because of the love and experiences I have with these people, my family, that I believe in fighting for families all around the world.

When I was seventeen, I told my high school boyfriend that one day I wanted to be a missionary and start an orphanage. We were standing in his front lawn and he took the news fairly well, if I remember correctly. Then we probably got in my car and drove to Sonic for drinks. That’s how life plans were made back then, over flavored sodas and Texas-sized ideals.

My hopes were a mix of an earnest longing to follow God and my own desire to live an exciting life. My dreams were driven by verses like James 1:27,

“Religion that is pure and faultless before God our Father is to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”

I read verses like James 1:27 singularly, outside of the context of the chapter, book, and larger Gospel story. In my young mind, wanting to follow God, care for orphaned children, and live outside my home country meant one thing: I would start an orphanage.

What other options were there?

At twenty-one, I embarked on a month long internship that involved daily visits to an orphanage to play with the kids, do crafts, and dance to Taylor Swift – the usual suspects. It was here that I first heard stories of parents dropping off their children at the orphanage. I was shocked and confused. I thought I had come all this way to care for children without parents. Why in the world were parents dropping them off? My paradigm of the orphanage model was crumbling, and coming down with it were my hopes and dreams for the future.

Thankfully, James 1:27 is not the only verse to guide us as we care for the vulnerable children in our midst. Likewise, starting an orphanage is not the only option. I don’t want to belabor the research concerning the harmful nature of orphanages here, but it’s available in numerous places. However, I’d like to reflect on a scripture that could be revealing and challenging as we consider God’s desire for children to be raised in a family.

Matthew 22:39 will be a familiar verse to many: “And a second is like it ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus called it the second greatest commandment. I’d like to insert one important word into this verse for a moment to give it perspective:

You shall love your neighbor’s children as you love your own children.

I don’t have children of my own, but I have parents who are crazy about me. Seriously, it’s a little nuts how much they love me. But many of you reading this will have children, and possibly grandchildren. Imagine, if you suddenly found yourself without a job or with a life threatening illness, what would you want for your own children? If you were no longer able to care for them, would you want a spouse, brother or sister, grandparent, or family-friend to take them in and care for them as their own? If you can’t imagine your own children in an orphanage, why imagine someone else’s children in an orphanage if there is a family that could care for them?

The call to love and fight for our neighbors’ families, without partiality (following James 2:8-9), wherever they are in the world is integral to what Jesus’ calls the second greatest commandment.

Family-based care is at the core of God’s heart for children. God places us in families and communities because this is where children grow and thrive. When I reflect back on my original reading of James 1:27, I fear my well-meaning Christian culture was behind the impression that I should start an orphanage, rather than fighting for families. I now believe that is what the Bible actually demands of me.

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:

Orphanages can end positively

Written by on August 21, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

1514UG-F2-020_web-690x460Here’s an encouraging story out of Uganda. It has many elements of a typical orphanage story but a different ending.

Grace and Rachael, a Ugandan couple, opened up their home for vulnerable children with the best intentions. Rachael had grown up in an orphanage, and she wanted to help other vulnerable children like herself. But, as the article states, 96 percent of the children in Uganda are considered vulnerable. Soon their two-room home was bursting with 68 children, and more were coming.

Fortunately, rather than seeking foreign funding and starting another string of orphanages, the couple reached out to Sameritan’s Purse. Samaritan’s Purse helped Grace and Rachael reintegrate the children back into their own families rather than keeping them in residential care.

Reintegration may have a challenging ring to many people, but it’s well within the realm of feasibility. So why not make it the norm?

In order for reintegration to take place, our staff must go to parents and help them understand the importance of being parents to their children. Their thinking has to be transformed. Samaritan’s Purse helps prepare families to take on the responsibility of caring for their children again by empowering them with income-generating projects. The children are also taught practical and technical skills so they can be a blessing to their families.

Read the story here.

I’d like to collect more stories like this: of reintegration, local adoption, and foster care working. Some orphanages are closing voluntarily for the right reasons and with positive results. Perhaps by sharing such stories again and again we can add to that momentum and shift the conversation away from doom-and-gloom (with foreigners as the saviours) toward hope and local people helping their own.

Orphanages are changing for good

Written by on April 21, 2015 in Featured Posts, The Blog with 0 Comments

The change has started. We are seeing orphanages worldwide and in Cambodia transitioning into community and family support centers. They have not lost their vision to care for the most vulnerable children, but they are seeking better ways to accomplish it.

Tom Matuschka, Director of Asian Hope, took over one of Cambodia’s earliest and well-known orphanages in 2008. He began to see a pattern of problems as children matured, so he set out to learn more.

Children learning in a community-based education center started by Asian Hope

“What I found shook my beliefs to their core. The problems our kids were enduring were not uncommon, even in local, non-religious Cambodian orphanages. They were and are the normal result of raising children in residential care rather than in a functioning family. In all honesty, we came to the conclusion that God designed people to grow up and develop in a family—not an orphanage or a children’s home or even a group home. We as relational beings have a need for belonging and security that these non-family-based institutional solutions can’t satisfy.”

Family-based care means working together so that vulnerable children and orphans are raised within loving families in their own communities. It recognizes the need to move beyond “orphan care” under the control of outsiders, to empowering families and communities to care for their own vulnerable children.

Honestly, it’s complicated and difficult. But it’s not as complicated and costly as removing children from their families and communities, then returning them to society years later.

Truth is, family-based care is working in Cambodia – even among the very poor. But it’s also true we have a long way to go here.

We must acknowledge a painful truth. Poverty is the root cause behind most children being put in orphanages in Cambodia and worldwide. Nearly half of the children placed in Cambodian orphanages are sent by their own parents. On major holidays, the orphanages empty out as most children and staff go home to their parents and relatives.

20150216-60-479Orphanages offer food, education, and other physical benefits that poor families need for their children. But putting a child in an orphanage is an inefficient and costly way meet these needs.

Roughly speaking, the cost of raising a child in an orphanage is five to ten times the cost of supporting the same child within a family, and that’s not counting the psychological and social costs.

Spien (which means, “The Bridge”) is a community-based organization working throughout Cambodia that supports nearly two thousand orphans living with relatives or in long-term foster care. In general, all it takes for Spien to keep a child living in a healthy family situation is a regular visit from a volunteer, a fresh set of clothing and school supplies each year, and about ten dollars worth of rice each month for the child and care provider.

They have already lost their parents. In an orphanage, they will lose their uncles, aunts, grandmother and more. Even though they are poor and don’t have very much, they don’t want to be separated from their own family.

– Phan Chork, a Spien volunteer in Takeo Province

“We must stop reacting to poverty by separating children from their families and communities,” says Mick Pease, who has trained orphanage directors and foster care providers around the world. “If they were your children,” he often asks, “would you be happy to see them living in an institution or a group home rather than in a family?”

20150228-139-481But poverty is not the only issue. Many children face abuse and neglect at home, and some are exploited and even sold by their own parents. Step-parents in this culture are more likely to abuse children from previous relationships. Added to all of this, Cambodia has a legacy of violence, family-separations, and post-traumatic stress dating to the Khmer Rouge years.

Family-based care does not mean turning a blind eye to these problems. Nor should anyone naively think that orphanages are free from them either.

When a child cannot live with his or her own parents, experts and Cambodian government policies agree that the following options should be attempted in this order: 1) kinship care (placement with close relatives), 2) foster care leading to domestic adoption, and 3) residential care until a better alternative can be found.

Orphanages should be the last resort and a temporary one, because living with a family is better for a child’s development.

“A family is what every child wants, even after abuse and neglect,” says Mick Pease. “They want to belong to someone, not to an organization. They want to feel normal, not stigmatized. They want to have siblings and relatives and a community. They want things at home to be safe and right. Poverty is not what matters to a child most; it is being part of a family.”

Unfortunately, there are still too few organizations and resources dedicated to family-based care in Cambodia.

By contrast, recent mapping has indicated that more than 600 registered and unregistered orphanages have proliferated throughout the country. What was meant to be a “last resort” has often been the default solution instead.

We can do better than that.

20150314-52-482Family-based care starts with prevention: taking steps to keep the most vulnerable children with their own parents and relatives so they will not be sent away to orphanages in the first place.

Organizations like Indochina Starfish Foundation, Cambodian Children’s Trust, and Transform Cambodia are running community-based programs that meet crucial needs: supplemental education, food support, and family interventions. They may not use the words “family-based care,” but they are keeping families together and preventing children from being sent to orphanages.

Orphanages can start by doing their utmost to prevent children from being separated from their parents due to problems that can be solved with other interventions. Why not make this a top priority and spend accordingly?

For the cost of raising two or three children in residential care, a trained social worker can be hired full time to work with local community leaders to preserve and strengthen families. For the cost of raising ten children, a team of workers can be employed to impact hundreds of children and their family members.

Are we thinking too small?

20150203-125-478There is no line in the sand that stops orphanages from developing high quality family support services, including kinship and foster care programs. The orphanages of today could become the family support centers of tomorrow. We are already seeing orphanages around the world taking these steps.

Not every orphanage will have the capacity or vision to make such big changes, but every orphanage should practice prevention, and every orphanage can seek partnerships with family-based care organizations that provide kinship care, foster care, and domestic adoption services.

When orphanages and family-based care organizations work together, everyone wins.

Are you ready to take the next steps and support the family-based care revolution?

Donors – If you are a donor, please do not suddenly stop supporting an orphanage. But do use your influence to ask questions and press for needed changes. Learn from the resources on the back page, and consider committing new funding to projects that support community and family-based care.

Volunteers – Be wise. Experts have said for years short-term visits to orphanages are not good for the children. They need to form long-term attachments with consistent adults, but they are faced with high staff turnover and a constant flow of visitors in and out of their lives. This can damage a child’s development. If you volunteer, commit long term. If you organize group trips to orphanages, consider stopping them. See the resources on the back page for more about ethical volunteering and group trips.

Christians – Many people caring for orphans are Christians, including many pioneering leaders in family-based care, so it seems right to address Christians directly. The Bible says every person is made in the image of God and worthy of love and justice, and caring for widows and orphans and other marginalized people is central to biblical faith. This is good news! Keep in mind that in the Bible orphans were cared for in families: by relatives or foster/adoptive parents. Widows were supported so they could raise their own children. Surely Christians can agree that strengthening, restoring, and providing families for children in their own communities is a biblical calling.

Orphanage Leaders – This book is also for you, and we hope you receive it as a positive and encouraging challenge. Orphanages all over the world are re-evaluating and changing. There is no reason to draw a line between residential care and preserving and restoring children in families. Erase the line. If you want to learn more and explore making changes, look on the back page for organizations with people who can help and even walk through a transition with you. Exciting opportunities are ahead!

Readers – Thanks for joining us, now go out and share the story with others. Help drive this growing and needed conversation in positive directions. There is much more to say, and much to learn and do! See the back page for ideas, connections, and resources for the next steps from here.



This essay was originally published in the Home, a Cambodian story. It’s a beautiful hardback book available at Monument Books in Cambodia, and it’s also available on Amazon for Kindle devices and tablets and iPads running the Kindle app. Read reviews and learn more about the book here!

Book description: ‘Home’ is a graphic novella telling the inspiring story of two children sent to an orphanage who find a way home again with help along the way. Artistic and captivating, let this story take you on an an eye-opening journey. ‘Home’ features hand-inked cartoons by Cambodian artist Sao Sreymao.

An encouraging story about foster families

Written by on March 10, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Studies have shown that children raised in orphanages have developmental delays, including measurably slower brain development, compared with children raised in families.

These studies, as far as I have seen, relate to institutions that care for children from infancy. The worst examples of such orphanages may be in Eastern Europe and China. The study referred to below is a twelve year effort by researchers from Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital studying children raised at an orphanage in Romania.

Babies need attention – to be held, talked to, and played with – and they need to bond with a significant and consistent adult, not a string of volunteers. Without the right kinds of attention and interaction, connections in their brains may fail to develop, or develop inadequately.

A must-see for parents and anyone concerned with how children develop

Here’s some encouraging news recently reported in The Telegraph. A twelve year study has shown that even after being raised in such orphanages and suffering impaired brain development, children placed in well chosen and supervised foster families show remarkable recoveries.

Their ‘white matter’ – the part of the brain which helps neurons communicate – was significantly damaged by their ordeal leading to poor language skills and decreased mental ability.

However the researchers discovered that those children fortunate enough to find loving foster homes were able to regrow the missing connections and restore lost function.

“Results from this study contribute to growing evidence that severe neglect in early life affects the structural integrity of white matter throughout the brain,” said report author Dr Johanna Bick of Boston Children’s Hospital.

This is a ray of hope, and it’s further evidence that we should be doing everything possible (through our efforts, donations, and advocacy) to ensure that children are raised within families to begin with.



Before starting or supporting an orphanage

Written by on January 27, 2015 in The Blog with 5 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.

UNICEF makes a strong statement about orphanages in Cambodia

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

Not that UNICEF has withheld it’s opinion until now, but this was well done. UNICEF recently published a brief, very clear statement summarizing its position on orphanages in Cambodia. If you’re looking for a succinct summary of the reasons why orphanages are – or ought to be – on the way out, look no further. I particularly like the conclusion:

UNICEF advocates strongly with relevant ministries and local authorities that no more residential institutions for children be permitted to open in Cambodia. All existing institutions must be open to regular inspection according to the minimum standards. Failure to meet the standards must result in closure of the institutions in question. No child aged 3 years or under should ever be placed in an institution. The goal is to encourage as many institutions as possible to promote family/community-based support models, which are cheaper, more effective and less damaging to children than institutions. A further goal is to undertake effective case management of all children in institutions to understand well their family status and to facilitate their reunification with their families or communities wherever possible. For those children for whom family is not a safe and loving option, to facilitate alternate community care; local adoption and inter-country adoption.

This isn’t condemning or saying that people involved with orphanages are bad or wrong. It’s just saying, let’s not expand on that, and here is a way to move forward that’s a “win” for everyone.

Wizards Win! What ordinary wizards can do to change the world

Written by on January 26, 2015 in The Blog with 0 Comments

I love this article at about “Harry Potter Activists.” An online alliance of Harry Potter fans undertook a 4-year campaign that convinced Warner Bros Entertainment to buy only UTZ certified cocoa for its line of Harry Potter inspired chocolate bars.

Why is this important? Because the cocoa industry is rife with child slavery and human trafficking, and it has been an uphill battle to convince chocolate makers to buy only from certified producers. It’s not only a big victory, it’s surprising as well, because it was accomplished relatively quickly by lots and lots of unknown people – Harry Potter fans.

The Harry Potter Alliance, a fan activist group that uses the Harry Potter series as the foundation for social justice initiatives…

“This goes beyond raising money and donating books,” Lauren Bird, a representative for Harry Potter Alliance, told Yes. “This is over four years of creative organizing, educating, collaborating and negotiating. For the HPA, this is a validation of fan activism, the idea that fans of stories can work together to effect change in the real world.”

Think about that. Fan activism. Fans of a fictional story – that is ultimately a story about justice and standing up against the institutionalized powers and the evils that infect them.

Stories are powerful. Readers are potentially powerful – enough to press for changes in the real world. Combine truth in fiction and empowerment of the readers, and maybe we’re just seeing the beginnings of what is possible.