Tag: Orphanages

Living next to an orphanage

Written by on July 2, 2014 in The Blog with 0 Comments
The view from their shared roof

The view from their shared roof

Here’s a story about a family who arrived at their first home in Cambodia and discovered they would be living next to an orphanage.

The story caught my attention, and after a little poking around online, I realized the family lives not far from from me. I’ve often passed by and seen children and volunteers milling around outside and wondered what sort of place it was.

Our family of six first arrived in Phnom Penh at midnight, and some friends drove us to the house we had rented on our survey trip. It’s a row house – ten multi-story dwellings that are connected, side by side.

At daybreak, an orphanage moved in to the house next to us… I didn’t know anything about orphans or orphanages  in Cambodia, so I had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like to live next to an orphanage. I would soon learn.

Every orphanage is different, and the one in this story appears to be a bad one. But it’s not atypical of orphanages in Phnom Penh. It was chaotic. Staff were not always around. They had 40 children and the staff living in a space normally used by one extended Cambodian family. There was obvious potential for abuse. Nonetheless, it was frequented by (paying) volunteers  and doubtless funded by foreign donors.

The volunteers came and went with tearful farewells. They talked about feeling so loved by the kids, and often they promised to come back again.

Those declarations gave us pause. How can you promise such a thing?? What makes you sure that you can, or will, without a doubt, return? And doesn’t your statement about being loved betray your own emotional needs, rather than the reception of true love from children in a revolving-door orphanage??

There were overwhelming moments with seemingly nobody in charge. Kids and volunteers had to fend for themselves.

And then:

It wasn’t until Khmer New Year, though, that we realized that virtually none of the children next door were orphans. The entire orphanage closed down for the holiday, which is the most important holiday of the year. No one stayed at the house that week. Not a single soul. All the children went to their hometowns in the countryside, and many of them actually still had living parents. They were not orphans at all.

But it’s good for the kids, right? Gives them opportunities? Makes them better?

 Read the full post here and judge for yourself.

Advice for a young leader who wanted to start an orphanage

Written by on June 22, 2014 in Voices from the Field with 52 Comments

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.

A group learns from Hatians in Haiti

A group in Haiti learns from Hatians

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…”

Psalm 68:6

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%.

A mother with her children in Haiti

A mother with her children in Haiti

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).

Why Not A Family?

Written by on June 8, 2014 in Featured Videos, The Blog with 0 Comments

You may be surprised at all you didn’t know about orphans and orphanages after watching this eye-opening video made in Cambodia. Many people after watching this video agree it’s time to change our methods of caring for vulnerable children in the poorest places around the world.

Volunteering and orphanages in Nepal, the dark side

Written by on June 4, 2014 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Going to visit a beautiful country? Want to make it better by visiting an orphanage? Think twice. Volunteering can have negative consequences as shown in this excellent video (above) and article at The Guardian. Volunteers in Nepal are being used by unscrupulous orphanages and voluntourism companies to the detriment of Nepali children and families.

When Dorota Nvotova, a young Slovakian, began volunteering at Happy Home in 2008, she was so moved by the children’s plight that she found a sponsor for every one of them. She raised about €150,000 (£122,000) for the home, but it was only later that she discovered the real reason its owner was so eager to attract foreign volunteers.

Whoa! Good job, but…

“It’s definitely about him making money. For him, it’s a business,” she said. “Whenever volunteers came he always tried to impress them and then they started fundraising for him.”

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to lure children and volunteers into even bad orphanages with a veneer of educational programs and good salesmanship.

Philip Holmes, chief executive of Freedom Matters, the charity that instigated the inquiry into Happy Home, said that in the worst cases this practice constituted child trafficking.

“Once a child enters an orphanage, he or she seems to become the property of the orphanage owner … [In effect], they become prisoners of the orphanage,” he said. “[They] use the children as an income source, through the sponsorship of children who are presented as being orphans when they are not … and through the exploitation of overseas volunteers.”

The challenge for travelers is that it’s often very hard to tell the difference between a good orphanage and a bad one without spending significant time there. Plus, evidence shows that short visits to orphanages are really not good for the kids anyway. Think carefully. If you’ve got to go, consider what skills you can offer and whether you can go for at least two months or more.

And why not spend some time learning more here at UnitingforChildren.org?

Ted Talk: The Tragedy of Orphanages

Written by on June 12, 2013 in Featured Videos, The Blog with 0 Comments

In many different ways the message is slowly filtering out to regular folks. Orphanages are not the best option for orphaned and vulnerable children. The good news is that better options are available. We can make better options available to more and more children worldwide by making changes in what we do and how we give.  Learn more about the alternatives here on this website. Enough said.

Forbes on orphanage tourism

Written by on June 3, 2013 in The Blog with 0 Comments

For at least three decades, experts have been stating that orphanages and shelters are not the best way to care for vulnerable children, but orphanages continue to multiply in developing countries. Why? Because regular working men and women, who may not hear from the experts, donate and support them. It’s not enough for experts to make the case that we have better options; regular people outside the development field have to get it.

So it’s good to see articles like this one in Forbes Magazine: Cambodia’s Booming New Industry: Orphanages Tourism. It’s voicing hard truths, and it’s a hopeful sign when this issue is being raised in more places.


Checklist for evaluating orphanages

Written by on May 28, 2013 in Featured Posts, The Blog with 0 Comments

Here’s a scenario you may find yourself in.

You are aware of the problems with putting children in orphanages, and you know things have to change. But you are already supporting an orphanage. You don’t want to drop the orphanage, because that would be irresponsible, but you want the best for the children who live there. What can you do?

Good question! We aren’t suggesting that people suddenly stop supporting orphanages and shelters. We are hoping for a day when the vast majority of orphanages are no longer needed, and that day will come through work and determination. In the meantime, as a donor you have some leverage to push for change. At the very least, you can check whether the orphanage is meeting internationally recognized standards and press for improvements and accountability. You may even have enough leverage to insist on transforming the orphanage into a family support center, but that’s material for another post.

Most orphanages fall far short of international standards. They may have good food, smiling children, and even computers, but all that is just a small part of the story. Click here for an Orphanage Check List provided by ACC International Relief that you can use to evaluate any orphanage to ensure it is functioning properly.



Orphanage or family-based care?

Written by on May 21, 2013 in The Blog with 0 Comments

Is this an orphanage or not?  The website for Asia’s Hope opens with: “Orphaned children need real families, not institutions.” It follows that with a call for family-based care for orphans. Family-based care is what experts all over the world are calling for rather than putting children in orphanages. But does Asia’s Hope really provide family-based care?

Each Asia’s Hope children’s home is based on a family, rather than an institutional model. Asia’s Hope hires a full-time mom and dad for each home.

Wait a minute, “Hires a mom and dad” to live in a “home” (whose home?) within a “community” of other “homes.”  My guess is that these “homes” or “communities” are registered with the government of Cambodia under a more familiar term: orphanage.

Still, there are countless more children who need the kind of help we provide.

This is a model for long term residential care for children. It’s good marketing though not an honest choice of words. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction compared to other residential models, but it’s not family-based care.




The weary widow: when orphanages recruit kids

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

What happens when orphanages have beds to fill and and warped priorities?   

wearyI can still see the tears streaming down her face, the hopelessness in her eyes, and the burning sting of defeat that grew with each tear falling onto the toddler she clutched close.

The weary widow stood on the steps of our child development center, aptly named Brave Seedlings of the Andaman Sea by survivors of the 2004 tsunami that devastated the coastal regions of southern Thailand.

“It takes courage to make the right decision to give your child away,” the Christian missionary orphanage director said, confident and calm,assuring the weeping widow her precious son would never know hunger again.

Carrying a clipboard with paperwork and photos of a beautiful cement home, the director came prepared for this young mother to sign her child over. Every three months she could visit her son, and he would have the opportunity to complete high school and possibly attend university.

I arrived while the ink was still wet on the orphanage registration form. As I realized what was happening, my righteous anger turned ugly.

“How dare you show up here asking to meet with vulnerable parents?” I yelled at the orphanage director. “Do you really believe this is the best alternative for this mother? No mother should have to make the decision to give her child away because of poverty. What she needs is hope and help.”

The director knew we deliver free daycare, lunch, healthy snacks and trained teachers using a good curriculum to help children develop in all areas of life. Our center provides a place of peace for struggling single moms, grannies and aunties all raising children on their own, so they can work without worry, knowing their child can learn and play in our compassionate care.

A few hours later, after I had asked the orphanage director to leave our property, a head teacher in another one of our child development centers in a different district called me. She told me the orphanage director visited her center earlier that morning, asking to meet with families struggling to care for their children.

“Such audacity, such ignorance,” I thought. Did she really believe she could do a better job of raising the poor than their own parents?

The UN states that 4 out of 5 children in orphanages worldwide have family, but poverty stands in the way of these families staying together. I knew about orphanage recruitment, but having now witnessed it first hand, my soul stirred with commitment to make changes in our own organization.

This was the day we moved from providing daycare for children to providing family care and began our Step Ahead Keeping Families Together(KFT) program. The widow on our doorsteps that morning was the first to receive support from us so she could keep her child.

At the heart of KFT’s vision is a desire to see communities caring for their own vulnerable orphans, widows, and families at risk, led by the local church and empowered and transformed by God’s love to change their nation.

The program is a partnership of Christian churches, NGOs and government agencies whose mission is to mobilize and strengthen local communities through holistic development trainings, economic initiatives, educational opportunities, psychosocial support, health access and spiritual transformation.

Our greatest joy is when we see the countenance of weary widows change from sadness to joy, from fear to security and from despair to hope.

Touch-starved: The hunger of children in orphanages

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

Why do children in orphanages often run and hug visitors as soon as they arrive?  Why did Western nations stop putting abandoned children in orphanages? For answers to both of these questions look at the work of a genius named John Bowlby.

Dr-John-BowlbyJohn Bowlby (1907-1990) has been described as a genius and one of the three or four most important psychiatrists of the twentieth century. Every student of psychology or psychiatry, and many of a number of other disciplines would have heard of his watershed work on separation, loss and mourning. Perhaps more than any other figure in recent decades, Bowlby has had profound influence over the treatment of bereaved and separated children in the Western world.

Anyone who has visited an orphanage will have experienced the effects of what Bowlby described as “Indiscriminate Attachment”. As soon as you arrive, the children crowd around, hungry for attention, the attention of a complete stranger. Younger ones cling to your legs and look up endearingly, silently imploring you to give them the nurture and love they desperately needed.

Most of us think their indiscriminate friendliness, clinging and attention seeking conduct is cute. But anyone familiar with John Bowlby’s work realise the situation is much sadder. These orphanage children are desperately undernourished, not necessarily for food, but starving for an adult’s love and attention. The idea of forty or more kids competing for the affections of a handful of staff is deeply disturbing.

John Bowlby’s lifelong work and passion about children separated from their mothers was greatly informed by the trauma he suffered as a child growing up in England. The fourth of six children, John was raised by a nanny in traditional English fashion. He would see his mother for just an hour each day after tea, during which time she would read to him. When John was just four years old, his beloved nanny, who he described as his primary caregiver, left the family. He later wrote that, “for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny and then for her to leave when he is two or three, or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother”(1).

Bowlby said that his mother, “held the view that it was dangerous to spoil children so her responses to bids for attention and affection were the opposite of what was required”. Finally, in another traumatic shock, his father went off to war and John aged seven, was sent off to boarding school, supposedly for his own safety. He later told his wife that he “would not send even a dog away from home at that age.”

In later life, John Bowlby became a celebrated psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist. He authored more than 150 publications including his famous trilogy: Separation (1969), Attachment (1973) and Loss (1980) which had so much influence on the treatment of orphans and eventually contributed to the widespread abandonment of orphanages in the West.

In 1951, the World Health Organization asked Bowlby to review the impact on children of separation from their parents and caregivers during the Second World War. The resulting study has been translated into 14 languages and has had an enormous impact on our understanding of care for orphans today.

mother-childBowlby was convinced that an ongoing nurturing relationship between an adult and a young child is as crucial to the child’s survival and healthy development as the provision of food, shelter, stimulation and discipline(2). He came to recognize that the lack of nurture from a mother or mother substitute during childhood could have a devastating effect on the child’s health, growth, personality adjustment and cognitive capacity.

Subsequent research has strengthened Bowlby’s original thesis. For example, researchers from the Yale University Child Study Centre conducted a five year study comparing 75 infants in an orphanage with 75 infants brought up in foster families. The orphanage was a three storey building, clean and in good condition. The children were provided with nutritious meals and excellent medical care.

The researchers, Provence & Lipton, noticed that the institutionalised children did not play with toys as spontaneously as the foster children and were relatively slower to develop speech. Other areas of development were also delayed in the orphanage children, especially social maturity.

After being placed with foster families, these same children made dramatic gains, though there were some residual effects on their ability to form appropriate emotional relationships, particularly with men(3). What was the difference? Simply the amount of attention and touch from adults. The kids were touch-starved.

[Excerpted from The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor by Craig Greenfield]

(1) Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
(2) Bowlby 1951: p13
(3) Provence, S., and Lipton, R. (1962). Infants in institutions: a comparison of their development with family-reared infants during the first year of their life. New York: International University Press.

Photo of John Bowlby by Unknown
Photo of mother and child by Andy Gray