For the past 20 years or so, adoption has grown to become a staple of much of Christian culture in America. So much so that one could actually argue that adoption has become trendy within evangelical circles. As I’ve said before, if something were to become trendy, I’m glad that helping kids in need is one of them — though the trendiness of adoption has certainly led to some negative outcomes as well. While I won’t get into all of the aspects where adoption culture has gone wrong — that could take a series of posts — I do want to address what I feel is the most critical oversight we have made, and how we begin to fix it.
Orphan care is critical to the life of a Christian whether one is called to adopt (and trust me, not everyone is called to adopt — it’s not all rainbows and sunshine kisses). Caring for orphans is something we see consistently expressed in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, James goes as far as saying that caring for widows and orphans is the only religion that God finds acceptable. While Christian culture for the past few decades has certainly taken that calling seriously, I think it is time for adoption culture to shift its focus in order to take the issue more seriously and to more effectively address the real issue at hand.
How did we miss the most important aspect of orphan care? This stems from a misunderstanding and misdiagnosis of the problem. Much of adoption culture has been led to believe that there is an orphan crisis in the world today with somewhere around 153 million children being orphaned. On the surface, this number of 153 million (provided by UNICEF) understandably leads one to believe that tonight there will be 153 million children who will go without the loving embrace of their parents. It’s a number so staggering that one can easily understand why culture mobilized and began adopting these children at rapid pace.
Unfortunately, the UNICEF number is somewhat deceptive. The 153 million orphan statistic is not referring to the number of children worldwide who are sitting in orphanages because their parents are dead or unable to care for them — the number simply refers to the number of children in the world who have lost at least one parent. Out of the 153 million, there’s an estimated 13-17 million who are actually living in orphanages without parents. Still a staggering number, but is significantly less than what we are often led to believe. Because the 153 million figure has been so misunderstood, culture has been almost exclusively focused on adoption as a solution even though adoption only addresses the minority in that figure, and almost completely ignores the plight of the 136 million children included in that statistic but who still live at home with one parent.
Yes, adoption will always be an important aspect of orphan care, but here’s the critical aspect that adoption culture has missed: orphan prevention. Or, better stated: preventing kids from ending up in orphanages. The 136 million kids who have already lost one parent often face high risk of ending up in an institution such as an orphanage. As someone who has spent considerable time in orphanages around the world, I’ve often seen orphanages full of children who come from the 136 side of the equation and who have ended up institutionalized in an orphanage not because of lack of family, but because the remaining parent (or relative) doesn’t have the means to raise them at home. These kids aren’t eligible for adoption much of the time, and so they just spend their lives in an institution until they age out of the system — and from there they face high risk of suicide or exploitation. A key example was when I adopted my girls from Peru: they were in an orphanage of approximately 74 girls, yet only five or so were actually eligible for adoption. The rest? They had relatives or a parent, but not relatives or parents with the means to care for them. Not able to live at home, not able to be adopted, many of these kids just get absorbed into institutions.
If we’re truly going to honor the calling to defend the cause of the fatherless and encourage the oppressed, we need to move beyond an adoption culture that is shortsighted in its approach. Yes, adoption is both necessary and beautiful, but adoption alone is failing to actually address the problem. The key issue that needs to be addressed is, “How do we help to keep children with their biological families when at all possible?”
Recently I was in Armenia with World Vision and saw beautiful examples of this first hand — beautiful stories of redemption and prevention. One of those stories involved the children in this image. Due to extreme poverty, the older children were all removed from their home and placed in an institution — they were functionally orphans, but not because of a lack of family, just a family who lacked means. Because of World Vision sponsors they were able to equip the parents with some farm animals, the mother received tools to start her own business making clothing, and the father was given construction tools to both construct a home and earn income doing odd jobs. The end result? The kids didn’t have to languish permanently in an orphanage — they have now been reunited with their family.
And this is precisely the direction we must take adoption culture. We must no longer see adoption alone as a viable solution, but need to shift gears and start finding ways to help children remain in, or return to, their biological families if possible and appropriate. Seeing the joy on the faces of children who once were institutionalized but who have now been reunified with their families was all it took for me to realize that the time is now.
How can you help? There are a number of organizations, like World Vision, that work to prevent children from spending their lives in institutions. For my 39th birthday I will be sponsoring a child to make an effort toward that cause, and it's my hope to get 39 other to do the same.
We can no longer overlook the critical aspect of orphan care we’ve been missing, which is preventing it from occurring in the first place. Let’s join forces together and see what a difference we can make.
Benjamin L. Corey is a speaker and author. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with degrees in the fields of theology and missiology. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.