What is an Orphan?

Armenian_orphans_in_Aleppo_collected_from_Arabs_by_Karen_Jeppe

What is the definition of orphan? I know this sounds pretty straightforward but depending on who you talk to the definition of what an orphan is can vary widely. Most people assume that an orphan is a child that has no parents. But orphan can also define many other situations where the child might have a parent or two; they just aren’t around to care for the child. Both UNICEF and World Vision define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

I, along with an exceptional team, run a large orphanage. We care for about 120 children from newborn up through adulthood in a family like setting. The bulk of our children are not technically orphans in the traditional sense; this sometimes surprises people. “If they’re not an orphan, why are they in your home?” Well, it gets complicated.

If a parent or parents are in prison, rehab, or some other institutional situation where they can’t care for their child, the child needs to go somewhere. Frequently there is no extended family available or willing to care for the thousands of children whose parents are no longer in their lives. These children are technically not “orphans” but still need a home. Of the children in our care, 70% will never see blood relatives again. The parents might be out there somewhere; it’s just that reunification is impossible. We are big fans of adoption, but it’s not a reality for most children. Because there are still parents somewhere, the children are older, or there are siblings in the picture, adoptions are pretty rare.

Some children are brought to us due to severe abuse or neglect. Some have gone through things that would rip your heart out if I were to detail them here. Even though they have been removed from a home situation for their protection, they still technically have parents and are not “orphans.” They need to be cared for, counseled, and brought to a place of healing.

Occasionally a woman will give birth and for any number of reasons decide to abandon that child. The mother might be too young, they might have hidden the pregnancy, or they don’t want to acknowledge it, they might be going through some deep psychological issues. For whatever reason, in any society, a percentage of infants are abandoned by their parents. Once again these children are not technically orphans, they have parents somewhere. These abandoned children need to be cared for and raised in a way to show them how valuable they are. They need to be shown that they are not a mistake or just something to be thrown away. Being abandoned at that level leaves some deep scars.

The work of orphan care is rarely black-and-white, there are a vast amount of gray areas that we work in every day. Many people accuse orphanages of breaking up families just for the sake of filling their dorms. I’m not saying some orphanages haven’t done this, or even continue to do this, but in my experience, it’s less frequent than some people would lead you to believe.

Most of our children are referred to us by social workers just like they would be assigned to foster care families in the US, but occasionally a child will be brought to us by a parent asking us to take their child. We will do everything in our power to keep the family together. Whether it’s counseling, short-term financial help, housing, etc. we fight to keep families together. We’ve even gone so far as hiring qualified single mothers so that they could stay here with their children in a safe place. We feel a healthy family is without a doubt the very best option for a child. Unfortunately, for many children, the family option is not on the table.

So why this rambling explanation of the difficulties of defining an orphan? I just wanted to bring up the idea that orphan care can be very nuanced, complicated, and it can be hard to peg down solid answers. Orphaned and abandoned children don’t fit into our preconceived boxes. In any ministry, there are Solomon like judgment calls made frequently. What is your definition of homeless? What is your definition of a “special needs” child? Words and definitions matter a great deal, but the realities are people are messy, and we need to meet them where they are. We are all on a sliding scale of messed up. Just because a child doesn’t fit our exact definition of orphan, doesn’t mean they don’t have needs. Too many children in this world are desperate for a place to call home, filled with people who genuinely care about them.

In orphan care, we need to see each child as God sees us. God sees each one of us as individuals with needs, desires, and profound pains that are uniquely our own. Psalm 68:5 says, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows, is God in his holy habitation.” God cares deeply for each one of his children. He cares so deeply for us; we should also care for those lost children all around us, whether it’s a true orphan, an abandoned child, or the lonely child next door or in our church. There are more “orphans” among us than we might realize: act accordingly.

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