I recently wrote about the United Nations pushing to close orphanages, and why I felt that it was a well-intentioned but bad move. I touched a nerve, and a few people really pushed back (which I love by the way). I wanted to share more on orphanages, and their part in caring for at-risk children.
Honestly, I don’t like orphanages. I, like many people, wish they didn’t exist. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in this world that should not exist. We live in a broken world, but we can work to diminish the brokenness and move in the direction of fewer people suffering. This is what we are called to do: care for the sick, help widows and orphans, and lessen the pain of this world. In spite of what many people think, real strides have been made in the last twenty or so years in alleviating a great deal of suffering.
In the last two decades, the infant mortality rate has been cut in half, the rate of extreme poverty (people living on less than $1.90 a day) has been cut by 2/3rd, childhood vaccinations and access to medical care are at an all-time high. Education and literacy worldwide are at an all-time high. By most measurements, almost every area of human well being has improved, and the trends are continuing in that direction. (link to info) Even with the significant inroads that have been made, there is still much to be done.
In spite of the advancements in the world, there are still people suffering. There are still orphaned and abandoned children. This will always be the case as long people are people. Sin is powerful, and children are easy victims. So, assuming some children need help, what is the best way to serve them? There is no one answer; every avenue to rescue at-risk children needs to be used. Every hurting child is different, and one size does not fit all.
As much as I advocate for orphanages, and the improvement of orphanages, they need to be the last resort for any child. Let’s look at the options:
Parents: Obviously, a child living in a healthy situation with their parents is the ideal situation. The nuclear family is God-ordained and works. Having two emotionally healthy parents who love and care for their children should always be the goal. In an ideal world, every child would have loving parents in their lives; this is not an ideal world. Programs that support, teach, and encourage good parenting are fantastic. The trend of free-of-charge daycare or day centers for children on the edge of going into the system is excellent at keeping families together. The first choice should always be to keep healthy families together.
Extended Family: If parents are not in the picture, are abusive, or involved in substance abuse, extended family is ideal. Grandparents have been raising grandchildren for a long time. Aunts, uncles, older siblings, etc. are all excellent options for caring for children. Children being raised by the family is always the preferred situation.
Foster Care: When the family is temporarily not in the picture, due to substance abuse, jail, etc. family-style care is the next best option. Foster care is a broken system, but some great people are working within the system. The small family setting gives children a model of what life should or could be. It allows healing to begin.
Adoption: When there is no chance of family coming back into the picture, adoption is a good option. Unfortunately, many children have a very low chance of being adopted. Older children, special needs children, multiple siblings, etc. all work against adoption. The trend away from international adoptions shuts even more doors. When adoption is an option, it can be incredibly complicated, and more difficult than most people want to admit. When adoption can work, it can be a fantastic option.
Orphanages: When all other options are closed, you can not just turn children out into the streets. In the case where a child has fallen through all of the safety nets, and there are no other options, orphanages are needed.
Contrary to what you might hear, every country has orphanages. The NAME orphanage is not politically correct, so some countries might call them “children’s homes,” “youth housing,” “youth ranches,” etc. But, bottom line, they are institutions to care for children when no better situation is available. No one likes institutional care, but some children have no other options. It’s this or the streets.
When I advocate for orphanages, it is because I know some children have nowhere else to go. If orphanages have to exist, they should be great. They can be great; most are not. The priority of an orphanage should be to reproduce, as close as possible, the details that create the family. Small groups of children being raised by one couple in family-style care. In our home, and many of the homes that embrace this model, there are independent houses with a couple who are raising a small group of children. A home should focus on the details that make up family life, not just the big picture. The birthday cakes, the tooth fairy, the child being read to at night, the cooking together, the praying together, these details mix to create a childhood that brings stability. It’s not ideal, but it can work for those children with no other options.
There have been orphaned and abandoned children for thousands of years. Every country has children that fall through the cracks. There have been significant improvements over the years, but we need to do better. We need to use any tool we have to help those most vulnerable. Caring for orphans is important to God; it needs to be important to us.
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