Why are we still building orphanages?

Can I be honest with you for a bit?

I'm so tired of this conversation.

Everything should have changed when the evidence against orphanages began mounting up several years ago. I've personally been advocating on this issue for 15 years.

We haven't had orphanages in Western countries for decades, and NONE of the major humanitarian organizations like Save the Children or World Vision have supported the placement of children in orphanages for years. For good reasons.

So why is it taking so long to sink in for the average missionary or church ministry? Seriously, why is anyone still building and supporting orphanages in 2016?  

Perhaps you are not up to date with the main arguments. So I'll outline a few of them briefly for you here:

1. Most children in orphanages are not orphans.

That's right. A large number of children in orphanages still have at least one parent still alive, and virtually ALL of them have extended family - grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins... Even if these children have lost both their parents, why take them away from everyone else they know and love as well? 

We have this romantic notion of orphaned children that they have miraculously lost every single person on earth that they are related to, and therefore need us to rescue them. Frankly, that is hardly ever the case. In reality, children are placed in orphanages for one overriding reason....

2. Children are in orphanages because of poverty, not orphanhood

Poverty. That is why we have orphanages. They meet a need in poor communities for schooling, housing and nutritious food.

People are poor. They struggle to feed their own families, let alone any extra kids that come along if a relative dies. And so they turn to the next best solution - an orphanage.

In my post-graduate research and work in Cambodia, I have met mothers who placed their own biological children in orphanages. When I ask them why they would send their own son or daughter away, they all say the same thing, "I couldn't afford to feed them."

So, why - WHY!?! are we not spending our money to support and strengthen families so they can keep and care for their own children and orphaned relatives? Why are we using our resources to take children out of their families?

3. Orphanages mess kids up

You might be wondering, what's the big deal? At least these kids have a roof over their head and three square meals a day. At least they get to go to school and get Christian teaching.

Let me ask you this - would you be willing to place your own children in such an environment? If you died, would you rather they go to relatives or an institution?

I have two kids, and it takes every bit of energy, commitment and focus that my wife and I have to raise them. I simply couldn't imagine how one staff member with 30 children could possibly do the job properly.

Then, at 18 years old, the children are sent out of the orphanages and too often left to fend for themselves, ill-equipped to deal with a society they have not grown up in.  They have never seen how a real family functions, how neighbors interact, how to deal with local leadership, or just how to function without a strict schedule and rules.

Little wonder then, that many of these orphanage-leavers end up depressed and even suicidal. On top of that, they no longer have the supportive family network that even an adult needs to feel connected and have a sense of identity.

4. God places the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6)

I could go on, with dozens more reasons that orphanages are a terrible idea. But I will just say this. God's plan for caring for children is the family. It is a much better plan than caring for children in an institution - no matter how pretty and well-run that institution is. 

So, my message is this. We must move away from the orphanage model. Christians - we are lagging behind on this one. We should be the ones who are out there supporting families. Instead we are destroying them.

There are fantastic organizations that can help an orphanage transform into a "Community Support Center". In this way, the staff and resources are still employed, but the benefits reach ALL the children in the community and strengthen families. This is now happening all over the world. 

Secondly, we must invest everything we have in the care and support of vulnerable children in their families in the community. Where those families are unavailable or unsuitable we must support foster care and adoption. No more excuses.

Prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Reintegration. Support. This is the strategy that will work.

So how do we tell this story in a way that people can grasp? Last night I watched the premiere of a fantastic new documentary movie called Lost Kites, about vulnerable children and orphans around the world. The movie tells the poignant stories of three orphaned children and their struggles to get by in life. It is beautifully shot in 22 countries over the course of two years. It even features me and a few other experts in the field, talking about the issue.

Please check it out and spread the word. You can organize a screening in your church or community. They can also give you a link for you and other decision-makers to view the movie in advance.

For the children....

[Finally, if you want the full story of why we moved away from the idea of starting an orphanage and began to support children within their existing families and communities, please grab a free copy of my first book, The Urban Halo.]