A NEW initiative to encourage Christians to stop funding orphanages and support family-based alternatives instead has been launched. A ComRes survey suggested that half the Christians in the UK might have given money to an overseas orphanage in the past year.
The UK Government promised to end its support to overseas orphanages a year ago, but a poll suggested that Christians were still donating money and time to support institutions overseas. The poll found that respondents were seven times more likely than other adults to visit or volunteer in orphanages, and that 44 per cent of the Christians had donated to an orphanage in the past year.
The Homecoming initiative has been launched by Dr Krish Kandiah, who runs the fostering and adoption charity Home for Good. The son of a woman who was placed in an orphanage in India by her widowed mother, he says that orphanages are not necessary in the 21st century, and can cause immense harm.
“They are not good enough for UK children, and they shouldn’t be good enough for anyone’s children. At best, they are a temporary intervention rather than a permanent destination for children.”
Many of the “orphans” in orphanages still have living families, research has shown.The US charity Faith to Action found that, in some countries, up to 98 per cent of “orphans” had a living parent who had been driven to place them in an orphanage because of poverty, in the hope that they would have a better life.
Dr Kandiah said, moreover: “It seems that many of the world’s orphanages rely on children staying put in order to receive the maximum funding. I have been told by government officials in Ukraine, and workers on the ground in Uganda, that empty beds in orphanages are considered a problem; orphanage workers actively go and recruit new children to fill them.
“Essentially, the orphanage becomes a monster that needs feeding because there are staff salaries to pay and facilities to maintain, and empty beds mean less money to keep the institution going.”
Although the “vast majority of Christian-run orphanages are genuinely seeking to do good to children . . . the model is fundamentally flawed and unnecessary”. Even in the Rwandan genocide, 15,000 orphans were placed in foster care rather than institutions, he said.
The good intentions of Christians in supporting orphanages were perpetuating the problem, he warned. He urged those considering offering money or time to examine their own motives.
“Sometimes, we are all in danger of thinking about how we would like to help rather than thinking about what is best for those we seek to serve. I believe that there is never a good reason to volunteer with children in orphanages if, firstly, the children don’t need to be there; and, secondly, if you don’t have the requisite skills that could actually help children who have experienced trauma.”
The initiative urges Christians not to withdraw funding immediately, which could throw children into crisis, but to encourage the orphanages they support to move towards caring for children in families.
In some parts of the world, this is already happening. In Ukraine and Costa Rica, orphanages are beginning to close as charities and churches work together to find families who are willing to care for children suffering from even the most severe long-term effects of institutional care.
Ella, a Christian gap-year student, worked at a church-run and also a state-run orphanage in Zambia, but her experience there has led her to support the Homecoming project. “I think my hopes and desires were to spend time, get to know and love the children I met,” she said. “I wanted to gain an understanding that perhaps in the future would guide my desire to live out God’s heart as ‘a father to the fatherless’.”
After an incident at one orphanage, however, she began to question the system. “One particular conversation shifted my view of orphanages. Midway through my stay at one orphanage, we were celebrating one of the children’s birthdays. After the candles had been blown out, the presents opened, he joyfully exclaimed ‘My Mum is coming tomorrow!’
“Slightly confused, I noted to myself I should ask one of the staff about what he had said later. When I did, she told me that over half the children at the orphanage had living family in the area. This information challenged my whole understanding of orphanages, and confused my understanding of the term ‘orphan’. I quickly learnt that the presence of orphanages often causes vulnerable families to willingly place their child/children in an orphanage with the hope of ‘Giving them a better life’.”
Now training to be a social worker in the UK, she said: “It is so imperative to ask questions [and] lovingly reflect on practice and experience you are seeing. We’re all on a journey with learning the best ways to care for vulnerable children; as a trainee social worker, I’m sure of that. The issue is complex and nuanced. Now, I encourage those seeking to serve overseas to educate themselves on ethical ways to end the orphan crisis.”