I recently read a post by a young woman who had visited an orphanage in a developing country. She described her entrance through the gate as a utopian experience with happy children who’ve “never met a stranger.” She was struck by their joy and how readily they grabbed her hand and became “instant friends.” It is a common reception that moves kind visitors. It is a story that feels good and motivates people to give to the orphan.
What if I told you a different story? That although surrounded by people, children in orphanages describe an incessant loneliness. That those happy children have histories rooted in trauma and that their adaptability to new people rob them of their ability to bond with anyone. What about our visits that add to their vulnerability by giving them the false sense that all strangers are nice?
In my years of working in orphan care, I’ve learned that there are common myths that shape the way we serve vulnerable children. It’s an inherited narrative that perhaps was appropriate in the past or under different circumstances, but research and experience is showing that we must change the way we “help” vulnerable and orphaned children.
I want to start by busting 5 Common Myths about Orphans that keep us from addressing real issues and from being effective in tackling the root of orphanhood.
An Essential Filter Before We Dive In:
Permanency. It’s what our own children have. They know they have a safe place to land every evening and that they will not go to bed hungry. They know you love them unconditionally and will put up with their crap because they are yours. It’s essential to their well-being and something we wish they wouldn’t take for granted, right? This is something lacking in orphaned and vulnerable children. Not having this in their young lives shakes their core causing all sorts of deficits and they learn really quickly to overcompensate to ensure their own survival. Even if it means showing a friendly smile and reaching out for a stranger’s hand.
We must look at the children we serve as if they were our own children. What would we wish for them should they find themselves without you? This golden rule approach guides our actions and suddenly--things that seemed innocuous before seem unhealthy, almost tragic. We must not settle for substandard care for God’s children. It’s that simple.
MYTH #1-- It takes our “yes” and God will do the rest.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to zealous believers eager to help orphans say that their “yes” is enough. That even though they are untrained all it takes is love and compassion to provide for the children they wish to serve. This approach doesn’t make sense. If I need heart surgery, I want an experienced heart surgeon to crack open my chest and not a compassionate dentist who took a weekend course. As a former foster parent and adoptive parent, it was my responsibility to not only walk through required agency training but also do extra reading and ask others with experience. I’ve seen people throw in the towel with foster care because it didn’t fulfill them like they envisioned. I’ve seen failed adoptions because compassionate adoptive parents were ill-prepared for what came their way. We can’t over spiritualize something as sensitive as taking care of little hurting humans. Please HEAR me--I ask Jesus to give me wisdom with every aspect of my life--but He still has things that He requires of me. He wants me to work hard and to use that BRAIN he gave me. I feel like sometimes compassionate Christians drop a little common sense when it comes to helping marginalized people in general. God wants our “yes” but He also wants us to be smart about our approach.
MYTH #2--All children in orphanages are orphans.
There are an estimated 140 Million orphans in the world. This number includes children who have lost one or both parents, known as Single or Double Orphans. Out of the 140 million, 90% live with either Mom or Dad (single orphan) or with another family member (double orphan).
That leaves almost 10 million children worldwide living in orphanages. It is estimated that anywhere from 80% to 90% of these children are what is called “social orphans.” They are in care because family members are no longer able to provide for their basic needs.
Why is this important? This number shows that the vast majority of vulnerable children aren’t in need of adoptions or institutionalized care--they are in need of family support. Knowing this should change the way we approach international adoptions and cross-cultural relief work. Our primary goal, as here in the U.S, should be to reunite children to families and use institutional care as a last resort. Our partners, Grangou, work hard to keep children with families. The majority of children in their care are street boys rejected from families or who escaped abuse. However, if resources were funneled specifically to support families, there would be a lot more effort in the area of training and supporting families who want to keep their children in their care. It would be no greater joy for us to see some of our boys placed back with family members. When donors understand the statistics, we can work together to make this a major area of improvement.
I don’t want to get caught up in the numbers as experts understand that there are even more “invisible” children across the globe. I like the way, CAFO, explain summarizes their stats report:
At the same time, we should understand that the biblical concept of the “orphan” and “fatherless” includes more than just the boy or girl who has lost one or both parents. Rather, it describes the child who faces the world without the provision, protection and nurture that parents uniquely provide. No statistical analysis will ever perfectly capture the global number of children fitting this description. Regardless, God calls His people to reflect His heart and character in choosing to “defend the cause of the fatherless,”to “visit the orphan and widow in their distress,” and to “set the lonely in families”—whatever the details of his or her situation may be.
MYTH #3--The only way to help foster children is to become a foster parent.
Most people won’t consider helping our local foster care system because they assume that the only way to help is to become a foster parent. While the child welfare system is always in need of families, there are other valuable avenues to support vulnerable children in our backyard.
Become a Baby-Sitter: Did you know that foster families need respite care providers? In other words, become a baby-sitter so foster parents can enjoy a date. Unlike our own children, baby-sitting foster children requires training and licensing. This is a HUGE need for families in the trenches and self-care will most likely allow them to hang in there for the long-term. You can call your local Child Protective Services to see how to get started.
Become an Advocate: Another way to serve is through agencies like CASA, a Court-Appointed Special Advocate. Personally, our CASA worker was a bigger support than our CPS worker. Her kindness and consistency got us through hard days and she was even there to oversee some family visits when I was unable to. I get teary-eyed when I think of how precious she was and know that one day when my children are out of the house, I would love to become a CASA worker.
Become a Mentor: One final way to help support your local foster care system is by becoming a mentor. In our community, there are several organizations specializing in walking along teens who age out of care. Check out these statistics from Children’s Home Society. While adoption is ideal, there are many programs that exist to at least provide children with a forever friend and mentor. This can be the difference between homelessness and gainful employment.
MYTH #4--Loving on Children in Orphanages is a good and godly thing
We’ve all seen the photos of U.S visitors surrounded by smiling dark-skinned children. I have taken many of these trips and taken these pictures and there is no doubt that a lot of good has come from short-term mission trips. But it also has opened windows for a lot of harm, corruption and wasted resources.
We have to do better.
With human trafficking awareness at an all time high, it has never been more important to ensure that we are protecting children from existing and future predators. While I do think there is a time and place for Short-Term Vision Trips, we must radically reform the way we engage with both children and staff. While I intend on specifying ways on a future post, I will take this little space to say that the emphasis should not be on the children. Rather, we should focus on ministering to staff, local families, local church and figure out ways to equip them so that they can run their own programs. Once we shift focus, we will find that we need better equipped volunteers and better training to make sure we are clear and focused and reduce our “carbon footprint” so to speak. We must tread lightly when it comes to approaching another culture in an effort to serve them.
And do me a favor…. please don’t say you’re going to go “love on children” for your next Short Term Mission trip. It sounds creepy and you wouldn’t say that about serving children here. The truth is, “quick short-term loving” on children is cheap and it’s time we reassess our strategies and think of PERMANENCY.
MYTH #5--Helping Orphans is a calling and it is not mine.
One day, I fully intend to count how many times the bible commands us to serve the fatherless, widowed, marginalized, foreigner and the “least of these”. The reality is that serving any one of these people groups is a gesture towards preventing children from becoming orphans and stopping generational poverty. Time and time again, God makes promises to protect these groups of people and He fully intends to keep His promises through his earthly hands and feet--yup--that means YOU. It is a huge ASK but He rigged it this way so that together, we can usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. When we engage in meeting the needs of people in a loving, dignified and smart way--we affirm our roles as priests to the people. We each personify the love of Jesus to those who are in desperate need of it. It is NOT an option, but it is a privilege.
Want to know a secret? Sharing this message with you is hard. I’d rather make you laugh and show you some yummy taco tuesday recipes. Yet, my work in orphan care has cast a fire in my soul that I can’t quench. I know God’s Spirit is moving in His Church as He calls us to go deeper and love His people in a way that respects their personhood and draws them to a place where they too, can be reminded that they are a royal priesthood.