How the Christian orphan care movement may be enabling child abandonment

Last week 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. 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?? How the Christian orphan care movement may be enabling child abandonmentChildren at Keep Hope Alive in China 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 is hard.  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. 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. How the Christian orphan care movement may be enabling child abandonment 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?

How to talk to teachers about adoption issues

As the school year is starting, many adoptive parents may be contemplating having a talk with their child’s new teacher about any adoption-related issues that may arise. I’ve done this myself and thought that I would share some of the segments of letters I’ve written in previous years to address adoption, the complexity of “family tree” or ancestral assignments for adoptees, and race conversations in class. I have personally found it helpful to be proactive in any potential issues. If it turns out issues don’t arise, there is no harm in bringing it up, but it’s nice to try to prevent them. I’ve also found that teachers tend to be appreciative of more feedback about their students, and I’ve tried hard to communicate my trust in the teacher, offering myself as a resource at each turn. Here are some templates that may help if you are writing your own letter:


I wanted to give you a bit of a heads-up about our family. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my child was adopted. At this age, we’ve found kids tend to be a bit curious about why our skin color doesn’t match. We’re very open about the fact that our family was formed through adoption, but we’ve also tried to empower our kids to have boundaries around sharing details regarding why they didn’t stay in their birth family, if they don’t feel like giving up that personal information. Some of those losses are sad for him. We’ve also empowered him to avoid terms like “real mom” since we very much feel like we are a “real” family. I know that kids are naturally curious and we’ve found that honest but brief answers work well in case you ever observe these questions occurring in the classroom.

If it’s of interest, we are always happy to come and share about adoption with the class. We have some great books and could take questions from the class. My husband and I are both family therapists so we are very comfortable talking to kids and enjoy helping others understand the unique way our family was formed.


I also wanted to let you know that my child spent a part of his life in an orphanage, and did not join our family until he was almost 4. The fact that he missed out on those years as a part of our family is a loss for him that creates some sadness. I know that sometimes classes do assignments about ancestors, family trees, or what a child’s life was like as a baby. If you wouldn’t mind giving a heads-up if you do an assignment like that, maybe we could brain-storm about how to tweak it for my child so it doesn’t make him feel alienated or different.


(Check out this incredible adoptive family tree assignment at Never a Dull Moment)


(from this post)

I wanted to discuss a few patterns we have observed in our child that are common in children who lived in group settings early in life. At a young age, my child learned that there were two ways to get his needs met: to be the loudest/bossiest/controlling, or to be the most hurt/helpless/needy.  Even though he now has attentive parents, he still struggles with defaulting to these behaviors for attention at times.  The result is that he can be very dramatic at times, or he can use behaviors to try to control a situation (anything from pretending to be hurt to walking slowly on purpose).  He does best when adults are able to maintain their authority – oddly, while he craves special attention and seemingly wants to be in charge, when an adult relinquishes control to him, it makes him feel unsafe and then his behaviors will get worse and worse. While he spends a lot of energy trying to take the reigns back from adults, he is very anxious when he is able to. It’s a strange dynamic, but I wanted to point it out.  He did very well in school last year, because his teacher was firm and impervious to his attention-seeking behaviors so he quickly stopped trying. However, over the summer he was at a day camp with younger teachers who were more passive, and his behavior deteriorated pretty quickly.

All that being said, he is always a very sweet and loving kid.  I haven’t observed him to be aggressive or mean-spirited, and does very well socially. His issues tend to be with authority figures more than his peers, and tend to revolve around testing limits and seeing how much he can get an adult to give him attention. He responds well to affirmation but also to natural consequences and positive reinforcement. He likes working on a goal and being reminded that he is capable. We do a star chart here at home for behavior and when we are consistent, his behavior is much better. He has a great desire to be a leader, so setting him up to lead by example is a great intervention as well. I am hopeful that he won’t have any behavioral challenges in the classroom this year, but I did want to give you a heads up just in case any of this cropped up. We are always available to talk about any concerns that crop up.

These are some of the aspects of adoption we’ve felt warranted some discussion with teachers. If you have adopted children, have you felt the need to communicate anything at the beginning of the year?

Two streams of the same river

This is a guest post by Shelley Clay, originally published on the blog for The Apparent Project. I read it last week and it so clearly articulated the thoughts I’ve been having about the polarity of thinking regarding international adoption and orphan care. Shelley graciously let me post it here. For a little backstory, Shelley and her husband Corrigan live in Haiti, working with The Apparent Project.This non-profit seeks to assist mothers and fathers in poverty keep their children, by providing them with a specialized skill, such as jewelry making, bookbinding, or sewing. image In Haiti alone, they are estimating around 380,000 children who are not living with their biological parents according to the latest UNICEF reports. We call them orphans. Of those kids, many are with relatives. A common misperception in the adoption world is that Haitians, (and disadvantaged people of all kinds), don’t take care of their own. Can I emphatically say that this is NOT the case in my world. Many of our artisans have children that they raise AS THEIR OWN that were given to them by a family member who died or just couldn’t take care of them. This is very common in Haiti as well as many other disadvantaged people groups. (including in North America). It super irks me when we act like we are the only ones trying to help these children. If they can’t go to relatives, there are a variety of situations they can end up in.

  • They are on the streets (prostitution, trafficking etc.. ),
  • They are given as child servants (a restavek is a child given in domestic servitude to another family in exchange for shelter, food, and possibly a chance to be educated- although this can play out to be anything from a foster care like situation to pure slavery), or to orphanages.

image Of all of the orphanages in Haiti, very few actually adopt out children. The children live in usually below poverty level situation ( much like when they were with their families), are not well cared for or loved the way they would be if they were with their moms, and will often end of with little hope for a decent future. Even GOOD orphanages have a hard time transitioning kids from orphanage life to the real world once they hit 18. It is a tough job raising kids in bulk! Some of the better orphanages in Haiti, many run by expats, do offer adoption and will offer this as one of the solutions for this horrific problem of orphaned and vulnerable children. Of all the orphanages that offer adoption in Haiti, only about 200 kids get adopted each year. (see chart at the bottom). With new laws currently in the works, this number looks like it will be going down even further- not just in Haiti but all over the world. Too much corruption, child trafficking, and dishonesty has made specialists in the field- from the governments on down to the social workers feel it necessary to slow down in order to PROTECT vulnerable children. Please hear me. If your adoption is slow. The powers that be aren’t just having long lunch breaks. They are literally more concerned about the 1000s of cases of unethical treatment of children and are bogged down with trying to decipher between legitimate relinquishment, abandonment, and true orphans and the corruption all over the place makes it hard to do that job well.   Now to get to the point. I find too often in my world that you have the pro-adoption and anti-adoption camps. The pro-orphanage and anti-orphanage camps. This paradigm is completely skewed and doesn’t make sense.  It’s an illogical comparison. If we have 380,000 vulnerable children and only 200 are even in process of adoption to the U.S. and maybe 200 more to other adoptive countries like Canada and France, then we have approximately 379,600 kids who ARE STILL VULNERABLE. While I submit to adoptive parents to be careful where they adopt from, know that it will be one of the most challenging experiences they will ever face, and that they will most likely get their heart broken several times- both before and after the adoption is complete, let it be clear that advocating for a solution for the other 379,600 children is in no way anti-adoption or anti-orphanage. WE are all working for the cause of protecting vulnerable children. This is why we can all have different solutions  to the same problem and be in harmony- and should be in harmony. I myself have two adopted children. I work tirelessly to help mothers be able to sustain their families. These are two ways that I work towards a solution- in tandem. And I think that what those of us on the ground in the field are tirelessly trying to communicate to the rest of the world is  that we NEED to prevent child relinquishment not because we are anti-adoption, but because we see this gaping hole in the side of the vulnerable people groups all over the world. This gaping hole is that parents need an opportunity to take care of their children. If we are called by God to help “the orphan” than with any brain in us, we can figure that helping prevent relinquishment helps the orphan. By nipping it in the bud. Any by help, I do not mean AID forever, but rather the dignity that comes through sustainable development- a JOB. And here’s the thing- we appeal to ADOPTIVE parents because we know that they are the most likely of all the people on the planet to want to help families stay in tact. Because they see that adoption is a redemption- not the first plan. That their kids have scars. And they want to help. My point is that this should never be and adoption VS sustainability issue. My point is that we can do it all in tandem- cooperatively and as individuals. Let’s adopt kids who truly need it. And let’s help parents who wish to keep their kids find jobs, and let’s buy products from Haiti, because stimulating the Haitian economy is helping families all over Haiti, and let’s soak up some rays at the beautiful beaches of Haiti because the tourism industry is Hait’s #1 chance for economic recovery.  And let’s support schools and feeding programs for children because it provides some reprieve for parents who are struggling to be able to make ends meet. Let’s do this thoughtfully and in a way that ultimately allows parents to keep their most precious and valuable gifts given to them.Let us love the orphan before she becomes one. And though we choose to adopt for now, do feeding programs for now, support schools for now, let’s work tirelessly to make that ultimately unnecessary. ~shelley clay

One last word- while we all work together to solve this problem, we should  also be willing to not tolerate vulnerable kids getting abused whether in birth families, as restaveks, or in orphanages. Period. If we know it is happening and we don’t speak out to help. We are participants.
[adoption statistics]

You can more about The Apparent Project here.

Best books for adoptive parents

One of the most common requests I get from other adoptive parents are recommendations for books to read on adoptive parenting.   Last month I curated a list of books for people who are considering adoption over at Babble. Ths month I’ve created a similar list for parents who have already adopted.  Check out my blog at Babble to see some of my favorite books about adoptive parenting. Next month, I will curate a list specific to transracial adoption. best books for adoptive parents What are some of your favorite reads about adoptive parenting? Widgets

Does a birthmother’s right to privacy trump an adoptee’s right to their own information?

A couple weeks ago, a PR firm contacted me to see if I wanted to interview the author of a new memoir about her experience as a birthmom in a closed adoption. Her story is quite tragic: at the age of 15, the author was raped and placed her child for adoption. She asked that the adoption be closed, and hid this secret even as she later married and had other children. Despite her desire for no contact, the adoptee later searched for her and tried to develop a relationship. The birthmom refused, feeling that this unwanted contact from her birth daughter traumatized her rape experience, and also forced her to disclose this secret to her husband and children. The birthmom is now fighting for laws to keep adoptions closed as a way to protect other birthmothers who want to remain anonymous to their birth children, and has since written a book called Woman In Hiding: A True Tale of Backdoor Abuse, Dark Secrets & Other Evil Deeds adoptee rightsIf you follow what is going on in the adoptee community, you will know that this fight is in direct contrast to the fight adoptees have been waging for years: to have the right to their original birth certificate, whether or not the adoption was closed by the state. Adult adoptees assert that the right to this information is a basic human right. (There is a great article from Adam Pertman on this issue here.) Now, I don’t want to argue the birthmother’s decision to reject her child’s attempts at a relationship.While I may not agree with her choice, I do believe that every human being has the right to decline relationships with others, including both adoptees and birth parents. This birthmom has the right to say “no thank-you” to her birth daughter’s request for a meeting, just as much as any adoptee has the right to decline a request from a birth parent, and just as much as any biological relative has the right to cut off a parent or child. We cannot legislate relationships. However, I am troubled by the attempts to shut down access to personal information for adoptees. I do feel that adoptees are right in believing that access to their own birth certificate is a basic human right. Can you imagine being told by the state that you cannot know information about your own biological origins? As my friend Sunday wisely said:

“While I can understand wanting to move on and close a door on a traumatic/embarrassing/painful event in your past… I do believe that our right to keep secrets ends where another’s right to the truth about themselves begins. The “closing a door” she refers to is not a “door”, it is a human being. That is not to say she was obligated to have a relationship.”

At the same time, I also understand that there are birthmoms who desire to place their child and wash their hands of the situation, never looking back.  I get that for some birthmoms, having the option of privacy is important. It’s a tricky dilemma because someone’s will trumps. Should it be the birthmom’s right to privacy, or the individual’s right to their own information? I tend to lean towards the adoptee’s right to information. What do you think?  image