Fresh out of college in 2006, I packed my bags for South Africa. I felt called to do more and use my time and talents to care for those who are vulnerable. I landed at an orphanage in South Africa, where children affected by the HIV crisis changed my life.
I fell in love with those children. I believed their parents had died or they’d been abandoned. I spent as much time with the children as I could, hoping the love I gave them would help them know they were worthy of love.
On average, 80 percent of children in orphanages have a living parent.
What I didn’t know then, and what I’ve learned as a result of my work with the Faith to Action Initiative, is that most of those children had parents who were willing to care for them.
Approximately 5 to 8 million children are living in orphanages or children’s homes worldwide. On average, 80 percent of children in orphanages have a living parent. For example, UNICEF reports that 77 percent of children in Cambodian orphanages have at least one living parent as do 80 percent of children in Sri Lankan orphanages.
The reality is, most children in orphanages are not orphans.
We must then ask, “Why are these children in orphanages?
Poverty explains why
Many, if not most children, are placed in orphanages by their parents or relatives to meet their basic material needs or to have access to opportunities parents feel they can’t provide—not because they are orphans.
Challenges families face can make them consider orphanages as a potential escape from their hardships. Poverty is the leading reason why families place children in orphanages. Other reasons include a child’s disability or a crisis in the family, like the loss of a job, illness or death of a family member.
The perceived benefits of an orphanage, things often promised by an orphanage that families want for their child but may not be able to provide, lead to children being placed in orphanages; they include food, medical care and education.
A mother in crisis, without access to support, may view an orphanage as the only option for providing for her child. In this video, you can watch what that experience might feel like for a parent. Can you imagine making the decision to place your child into residential care in order to provide for food and education? This is the heart-rending, impossible, decision that too many parents have to make.
Faith to Action’s Summary of Research describes the decades of scientific research that document the harmful effects of institutional care, especially for children who are placed there for a long time or at a young age, including:
- Child development: Institutional care has been shown to produce long-term and sometimes permanent effects on children’s brains and their physical, intellectual and social-emotional development.
- Social development: Daily life in an orphanage, especially institutions housing large numbers of children, differs greatly from daily family life. Orphanages lack the close relationships and day-to-day interactions within a family that lay the foundation for a child’s social and emotional development, self-image and sense of belonging.
- Relationships later in life: When children are in families, they do not “age out” of care. They remain connected to their parents, siblings and community and have a social support network. This is rarely the case with children living in orphanages, where at a certain age—usually 18—they must leave the orphanage. Children leaving residential care are frequently unprepared for independent life. This can result in unemployment, homelessness, conflict with the law, sexual exploitation and poor parenting. This requires increased expenses associated with health, education and legal services, which may result in long-term costs to society.[pullquote]We are called to care for orphans. When we turn our hearts to the Lord, He turns our hearts to what He cares about–the orphan.[/pullquote]
Broadly speaking, American churches are primary contributors to international orphanages through global missions programs. These well-intentioned efforts, however, have potentially contributed to the separation of children from their families. And yet we are called to care for orphans. When we turn our hearts to the Lord, He turns our hearts to what He cares about—the marginalized and the oppressed, the orphan and the widow:
Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.(Isa 1:17)
“Our desire is to see vulnerable children cared for in the best way possible. And that is through families,” said Greg Norwine, executive director of GlobalFingerprints, the child sponsorship ministry of ReachGlobal. “There is a place for orphanages in short-term care of older children and for children with profound special needs. But our goal is to empower families through child sponsorship so they have the resources to care for their own children. Then they won’t feel the pressure to turn their children over to an orphanage to meet the child’s needs.
“We’re all learning and growing in our understanding of how to help vulnerable children. I would encourage churches and mission leaders to review the research on the effects of orphanages. I think as a movement, we need to seek the best way to help kids. And that will likely mean redirecting our support from orphanages to ministries that help to keep children in their families and communities,” Greg concludes.
We, the Church, can do better for children
The biblical call to care for orphans must be considered for all children living without a safe and loving family. This call is much bigger than providing for the physical needs of a child who has lost both parents. It includes pursuing a world where every child is protected and well-cared for in a family!
While Scripture calls us to care for orphans, it does not intend for us to keep children as orphans, separated from family. Children need the individualized love, attention and care that only family can provide. And we, the Church, can help children remain in families or regain families. We can strengthen families so they can care well for children.
God is raising up leaders all over the world! Today, there is a growing movement within the Church to strengthen family care for children through child sponsorship.
Sponsorship empowers local people to meet the needs of vulnerable children and keeps children in families.
GlobalFingerprints partners with churches around the world and is an effective way to support family care for children and respond to God’s call to care for the orphan. As followers of Christ, sponsorship is one of the most selfless responses to care for the orphan because it takes ourselves out of the picture; we do not need to be the ones on the ground providing the care.
Sponsorship empowers local people—families, relatives and church leaders—to meet the needs of vulnerable children. This is what keeps children in families.
GlobalFingerprints helps provide for children’s educational, medical and nutritional needs. Even more importantly, this ministry ensures children learn about Jesus and are connected to the local church.
The research and facts show us it’s time to shift our efforts from a focus on orphanages to supporting families to care for children. Family-based care can provide a bigger, brighter, more hopeful and more sustainable solution for children and families in crisis. This is a solution that builds the community up and helps the children live into their full potential.
The best way that we, the Church, can care for vulnerable children is to ensure they remain in the care of a safe and loving family.
My heart, perhaps like yours, was stirred to follow God’s clear call to care for the orphan. And because of Faith to Action, I now know the best way that we, the Church, can care for vulnerable children is to ensure they remain in the care of a safe and loving family. I look forward to seeing how the EFCA will continue to follow the heart of God and care for the orphan in partnership with GlobalFingerprints and Orphan Sunday.
In partnership with GlobalFingerprints, Faith to Action looks forward, with you, to Orphan Sunday on November 10, and beyond, as we, the faith community, strive to follow Christ in living into our heart’s desire to serve His children. If you would like to follow His heart into those hard and vulnerable places and take the next step to learn how we can be most effective in caring for our families—our brothers and sisters across the globe—check out GlobalFingerprints and/or Faith to Action.
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