“God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6).
Orphanages and children’s homes are not the solution for the world’s orphan crisis.
On the surface, this may appear to be an odd statement coming from someone who has, for a quarter of a century, worked with organizations that have run children’s homes for orphans and vulnerable children in countries across the world. But I believe it is true.
Orphanages and residential homes are getting a bad press – and sometimes for good reason. A couple of months ago, at least 15 children were killed in a fire at an orphanage in Haiti. Other nightmare stories abound of the abuse and mistreatment of children, of poor standards of care, and of children being enrolled despite having families that can care for them.
Recent studies have also clearly shown that, in general, children thrive to a far greater degree in a secure, permanent family setting. This has created a growing consensus that, whenever possible, children belong in families – with their birth family if that is feasible, or in another healthy, long-term family setting, such as foster care.
As a result, many organizations, churches and governments around the world are now rethinking and adapting their approach to orphan care. This shift in approach is certainly one that I have championed over the past few years while working with the leaders of programs working with vulnerable children around the world.
Making a widespread global shift from the traditional approach of caring for orphans and vulnerable children in orphanages and residential care to family-based care will take time. It will require a significant change in mindset, the pursuit of excellence in family reunification and foster care, and the willingness of Christian organizations and churches that are engaged in orphan care to collaborate effectively and open-handedly in sharing their successes, failures, experiences, and expertise. This is a task we must be committed to pursuing relentlessly.
At the same time, we must recognize that there is still a place in the orphan care landscape for high-quality small group homes in certain circumstances. For example, children who are rescued from highly traumatic situations, such as abuse, trafficking, or street life, need intensive counseling and psychological care. Living with their own family is often not an option, and they are not able to function in a healthy manner in a foster family setting until they have received the specialized care and support that they need. Even in such cases, however, residential care must not be treated as a long-term “destination” for the child; instead it should be one step on their personal journey to healing and the opportunity to grow up in a permanent family.
I was recently asked by a friend about whether his church should still be supporting a children’s home in an overseas location. My advice was that his church “do their homework” and ask some searching questions before supporting, financially or otherwise, a residential children’s home. Of critical importance is determining (i) that new children enrolled in the home have no other viable option at the current time; (ii) whether children in the home had living relatives who could be caring for them with appropriate support; and (iii) how the home was making a priority of reunifying children with families whenever possible. We must have confidence that our support for orphan care programs is impacting positively the lives of these children rather than perpetuating an undesirable and unhealthy model of care.
The needs and challenges facing us are huge. Yet the opportunities are incredibly exciting. Christians have, for centuries, been at the forefront of caring for orphans and vulnerable children. This must continue. We must commit to joining one another on this journey as we seek the very best for these precious children – and, as is God’s design, placing them in healthy “forever families.”