taking the words of Jesus seriously

A few months ago I got to speak at Idea Camp about orphan care. I shared my concerns about the trend of churches opening orphanages in third world countries instead of working at keeping children together with their parents. I suggested that the solution to poverty orphans (children who are placed as a result of poverty instead of the death of a parent) should be to provide resources to the family, instead of requiring the child to move into an orphanage for assistance. I shared my belief that the funds spent on feeding a child in an orphanage would be better spent funding that child’s birth family to keep them, and that perhaps we are even enabling families to abandon their kids when we show up in impoverished communities with a shiny new building with beds and three guaranteed meals a day. If the orphanage seems like the best option in town for giving your child an education and getting them fed, who wouldn’t drop their child off? I’ve seen far too many children living in orphanages who have loving, living parents.

After my talk, a lot of people affirmed me for “speaking truth” and “going there” and “bringing it”, and you know what? It made me sad. I’m concerned that the notion of family care is a novel idea when we are talking about orphans. I’m worried at how myopic we’ve become when we prioritize orphanages over family care. It’s disconcerting that the orphan care movement is so willing to throw money at the institutional care of a child, but not at parents who are capable but poor.

That’s not to say that some people aren’t helping keep families together. There are plenty of people sponsoring children in 3rd world countries, which is definitely a good model for preventing orphans. But in conversations with people who work in most of these large child sponsorship programs, I’m hearing that they get repeated requests from sponsors that they want their child to be “an orphan” . . . because for some reason that makes people more willing to help. I’ve heard the same thing from friends who run programs for young mothers. People are much less likely to support a young mom than they are to support an orphan.

Don’t get me wrong – I think supporting orphans is important. Vitally important. But I want to make sure that we aren’t creating and sustaining a child’s orphan status because it’s the only way we are offering a family aid. An orphanage is not a good way for a child to grow up. We have tons of research supporting the idea that children raised in institutional settings will struggle relationally, cognitively, and emotionally. In the US, we see that non-family care leads to horrible statistical outcomes: less likely to go to college, more likely to be in prison, less likely to gain employment, more likely to be homeless. Therefore, when we talk about “orphan care”, our goal, when possible, should be family care.

Related: Rethinking the $3000 Missions Trip

An orphanage should only be a triage situation, where we do crisis management and then assess our next steps. We shouldn’t, as Christians, be taking children from reluctant parents who only bring their children out of desperation. If we have the funds to feed a child, let them live with the family while we feed them. Why is this a novel idea??

A few months ago, my friend Tara wrote a really compelling post about why Christians need to stop building orphanages in Haiti.  I linked to it before,  and I will again.  I hope you will take the time to read the whole thing, but here is one quote that merits repeating:

We’ve all seen that adoption can be a beautiful and redemptive thing, the problem is, most kids will never be adopted. Most orphanages are not even licensed to offer adoption as an option. Because such a tiny percent of children are ever eligible for adoption, churches that start orphanages are signing up to raise kids in an institution for life. That’s not a small commitment.


What does life in an institution really mean? Among other disturbing things,  this article stated:


“It may seem obvious that an isolated, parentless toddler — with or without social contact with peers — will suffer emotionally from lack of parental love. What’s not obvious is that without devoted, repeated acts of love, a child’s brain doesn’t make the growth hormone needed for proper mental and physical development and numerous other imbalances are also created.”

How can we believe that investing the time, energy, and money into building an orphanage and institutionalizing children in a country and culture that we don’t understand is best practice?

I want to bring this up again because of some recent issues that have been brought to light about two “Christian” orphanages. Last year, an orphanage in Haiti was shut down after 60+ kids were found to be neglected and malnourished. The children were dispersed to live at other orphanages. A few children had to be immediately hospitalized due to rat bites. Some were near starvation and needed an IV. If you look at the photos it is clear that these children were living in circumstances that were completely unacceptable. It’s a cautionary tale to anyone thinking about starting an orphanage.

In another more recent situation, it was discovered that a pilot, who used his position to fly to Nairobi and Uganda to volunteer at an orphanage several times a year,  had sexually abused many of the orphans. Children living in orphanages are the most vulnerable children in the world. They are vulnerable to adult predators and to child trafficking, but they are further vulnerable because they’ve been placed into a situation where there are other children of multiple ages and very little supervision. Sexual acting out is quite common in orphanage settings.

I think it is very easy to look at these situations and assume that these things are isolated events that occurred because the orphanage directors were corrupt.  I don’t really know the details in each case, but here is what I do know: most orphanages, at some point, are started by a well-meaning religious organization. The thing about starting an orphanage, though, is that it is a LIFETIME COMMITMENT.  When you take in a child, you need to have a game-plan for that child’s entire life.  Starting an orphanage essentially means that you are adopting all of the children in that orphanage’s care, until they are adults. And those kids do not stop being dependents just because your church cuts their budget, or finds a new pet project, or changes staff.  Starting an orphanage is a major, major endeavor, and to be honest I’m getting a little tired of how quickly and flippantly churches are getting involved in orphanage work, without a clue as to how they will care for these kids in the long-term.

Many orphanages may manage to take care of a child’s basic human needs, but will still fail to offer a child the nurture, attention, and supervision that any of us would consider basic parenting standards in the US.  In fact, I would venture to say that most orphanages are failing to offer this . . . even the very best ones.  That is because an institution can never replace a family.  Parenting ishard.  It requires presence and focus and determination. It cannot be achievement in a large-group setting with a rotating door of staff..  It is unrealistic to think that any institution can properly “parent” a child. Third world children do not deserve to be raised in a setting that we would never approve of for our own kids.

I recognize that orphanage life is the only option for some children.  However, I think that the overabundance of churches that are building orphanages are harmful in a number of ways:

1. They are taking in poverty orphans. I will say it again: a child should not have to be abandoned at an orphanage to receive aid. If we can feed and educate a child in an orphanage, we can feed and educate a child living at home.

2. They are focused on providing a destination to missions groups. It’s sad to say this, but I’ve heard it from numerous people: the church wants to build an orphanage so they can visit and “love on” orphans when they take short-term trips. NO, PEOPLE. No no no no. Orphans are not mission-trip props.

3. They are motivated by the romanticism of starting an orphanage and how heroic that will make them look. People want their name on the building. It motivates people to donate when they feel ownership. Opening an orphanage looks good on paper. I get it. Still not best practice.

4. They are failing to provide adequate supervision to at-risk children. Orphanages in third-world countries tend to be poorly staffed, with high child-to-caretaker ratios and a high staff turnover. It is rare than an orphanage in a third-world country would meet even the minimum standards to be a licensed childcare facility in the U.S., and yet we are somehow satisfied with sub-standard care because they are poor.

5. They are not focused on permanency planning or family reunification. I cannot tell you have many orphanages I’ve visited where the children have living parents who even visit on weekends and there is absolutely no plan in place to get the kids back home.

6. They are raising children to be ministry partners instead of psychologically healthy adults. I have often heard orphanage directors talk about how they are raising the “future generation of Christian leaders” by raising kids in an orphanage. Except that our goal for kids should be to raise them into adults with a healthy sense of self . . . and the best way to do that is in a family, not in a “future Christian leader warehouse.”

Imagine if an organization decided to take in children in order to raise them to be future cotton farmers.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with cotton farming. It’s a noble, needed profession, and there is a scarcity of cotton farmers. Raising kids to be cotton farmers is convenient, because they can be trained from an early age, and because early indoctrination produces loyalty.  This organization gets to benefit from a generation of future cotton-farmers, and justifies not placing kids in permanent families (and in some cases, even justifies keeping kids away from able-bodied biological families) because the need for cotton farmers outweighs that child’s basic human right to a family.  This would be outrageous, right? We would consider this an abuse of human rights.  So why do we think that  it’s allowable for a child to be denied a permanent family in favor of being raised to be a “future leader” or future pastor?  EVERY CHILD DESERVES A FAMILY. This should be foundational.  And every child deserves to make their own way in live, discovering their own passions and calling.

Orphan Care Movement

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. I have researched the effects of children growing up in orphanages, and it isn’t pretty. But I’ve also watch my child live it, and overcome it. I don’t want kids in orphanages if there is an alternative. This should be Orphan Care 101.

So . . . here are some questions that I think WE ALL need to start asking. If you go to a church, or support an orphanage, ask these questions. If you know someone involved in orphan care, asked these questions. We need to create a dialogue around orphan care that does not settle on orphanages as the first solution.

Questions every church should be asking about their involvement in orphanage support:

  1. Are the children’s basic needs being met?
  2. Are the children being treated with the same standard of care that we would expect to be given to our own children?  Are they receiving enough food, love, attention, education, supervision, and medical care?  Is someone checking in on a regular basis to make sure that this is true?
  3. Are there children living there who could live at home if the parents received financial support?  What efforts are happening to get this child back with their family?
  4. Are there children living there who are legally free for adoption?  What efforts are taking place to find that child a permanent family, through local or international adoption?
  5. Is this orphanage denying children the opportunity for a permanent family in favor of  raising future ministry partners?
  6. Is there a plan in place to assure continuity of care until each child reaches adulthood?  Is there a plan in place for when a child ages out?
  7. Is there a long-range plan for insuring the orphanage is well-staffed and meeting standards going forward, until the children are adults?

These are not easy questions to ask, but I think they are necessary. It has been my experience that some of the most well-intentioned missionaries are content to house children without much thought given to permanency or psychological development. It has surprised me, in my travels, to visit such orphanages. One we visited was in India, and run by an organization we had supported for years. The organization showed us the children’s home and seemed proud of how many children they packed into a small building. The children slept head-to-toe like sardines on the floor of a crowded room . . . both genders in the same spot. The missionary reasoned that it was better than going hungry. Most of the children had family that visited on weekends. When I asked if they were trying to seek adoption for any of the kids, I was told that they were training up India’s future leaders.

Also by Kristen: On respect, responsibility, and Mrs. Hall’s open letter to teenaged girls

After seeing the conditions these children were kept in, and knowing that most of them had families that could provide them with the love and attachment they weren’t getting in the orphanage, we decided to stop supporting this ministry in favor of one that offered nutritional and educational support to children without removing them from a family environment.

I really think that Christians need to be more vocal about the way we are approaching orphan care, so that we are not doing harm. We need to stop setting up ministries that encourage desperate parents to relinquish their children, and funnel our resources into programs that support families.

If this is striking a chord with you, I encourage you to talk to the missions pastors at your church. Forward this to the people in your life who are change-agents. Dialogue with your family and friends about how we can do better.

Here are some ideas for further action:

Do you have any thoughts on doing “orphan care” better? How can we better support vulnerable children? Do you know of any organizations that are helping to keep kids in families, or preventing children from being orphaned?

Photo Credits: atm2003 / Shutterstock.com | coloursinmylife / Shutterstock.com

About The Author


Kristen Howerton is a licensed marriage and
family therapist, mom of four children within
four years via birth and adoption, and the
founder of the blog Rage Against the Minivan.
Kristen has developed a loyal online following through her ability to capture the raw emotions of motherhood, while maintaining some levity and a willingness to laugh at herself. Her experience as a family therapist allows her to speak into parenting issues, as well as helping her to draw readers in by encouraging sharing and reflection in comments. Kristen can be sarcastic and weave a funny story, but she can also write poignantly and move parents to greater self-discovery in the same post. In addition to her own blog, Kristen is a regular contributor to Disney's parenting site Babble, as well as to Huffington Post and OC Family Magazine. She has been featured on The View, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Headline News, CNN, and Good Day LA, and has been featured in numerous print publications.

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