Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other world organizations announced that over 1.5 million children had already been orphaned because of COVID-19, with more losses likely to come. Those precious souls are in desperate need of support, but not the kind Christians typically give. Around the world, devastation is caused by the institutionalization of children in residential schools and orphanages. Sadly, these institutions across the globe are often financially supported by American churches and charitable Christians who are unaware of their limitations and risks.
Decades of research show poor outcomes for children who live in institutionalized care. Children will typically experience developmental delays and sometimes permanent effects on their physical, intellectual, and social-emotional growth, and are often ill-prepared for adulthood. When unprepared for the tasks of adulthood, people become more at risk to suffer unemployment, homelessness, conflict with the law, sexual exploitation, and poor relationship and parenting skills. While most Americans believe orphanages exist to protect children, studies show that children in residential care facilities, such as orphanages and children’s homes, experience more abuse than children in the community.
I consider myself lucky to have survived my time at an orphanage in Africa. After my mother was murdered by my stepfather when I was five years old, I was sent to an orphanage in Kenya with my two siblings. I lived there for 14 years and was released to start living independently when I was 18.
As a young adult, I was fortunate to find support and a place to live. So many of my peers did not. This is the most troubling thing about my story: While I wasted all those years in the orphanage, my biological father was alive, but my social worker never attempted to reunite us.
As upsetting as my story is, my experience was not unusual for children who are sent to live in long-term care facilities such as orphanages. And tragically, millions of children each year are suffering in these facilities, funded and perpetuated in large part by charitable donations coming from the United States. A recent study by Barna Group found that an estimated 4 million U.S. Christians have visited orphanages on mission trips, and they donate around $3.3 billion annually to these programs.
As someone who grew up in an orphanage and has studied this issue extensively, I believe it is important for U.S. Christians to better understand the current research on care for vulnerable children and to redirect their giving wisely toward family-based solutions.
Data shows that more than 80 percent of children in orphanages actually have one living parent — as I did — and those who do not often have extended family who can care for them. My father even visited me once at the orphanage and I didn’t understand why he never came back. Years later as an adult, my older brother told me the social worker never wanted my father to visit us because my sister and I might be taken to live with him. If we had left the orphanage, our education would have stopped and the donations to support us could have too.
No child with living, loving family members should ever be trapped in an orphanage like I was, or forced to choose between family and education or material support.
There are better alternatives to orphanages for vulnerable children. A growing, global movement committed to seeing orphaned and vulnerable children cared for in families — either their immediate or extended family, or in a foster family like in the United States. I work for one of these organizations, Hope and Homes for Children, which is actively working to strengthen vulnerable families, place children in need with safe families, and end institutionalization.
Not all families are perfect — a fact I’m all too familiar with having come from a family shattered by domestic violence — but I firmly believe that there are better families out there who can love and cherish these precious children. We owe it to these children to find those families for them and not leave them to spend their childhoods in an institution like I did.
This movement to re-envision orphan care is based on God’s intention for families as we see throughout scripture. It is large, global, and still growing. Christians in the United States ought to rally behind the organizations and individuals leading this movement and redirect their charitable giving, volunteering, and encouragement toward programs that support families. A good place to start is by signing the Global Church Pledge to See Children Thriving in Safe and Loving Families, where you will join other individuals and over 100 Christian nonprofit organizations in this movement.
My story is one of separation, suffering, loss, and resilience, but that doesn’t have to be true for the millions of children around the world who are currently in or are headed for orphanages. They can be redirected into loving families and supportive communities where they can thrive. I invite you to join me and Christians around the world in this journey to end the era of the orphanage once and for all.