A new report recently released from the CDC, USAID and global child welfare leaders found that COVID-19 is leaving another pandemic below the surface: 1.5 million children have experienced the death of a parent or caregiver because of the virus. The public health crisis we’ve collectively experienced for over a year and a half has not only ravaged our world physically, it has torn families apart.
This isn’t the first time in recent history that a public health crisis exacerbated the orphan crisis. Since the 1980’s, HIV/AIDS has orphaned millions of children worldwide. Policymakers, nonprofits and other charitable organizations made a well-intentioned but grievous mistake by sending countless children to orphanages without a strategy to find families for them. The world must not repeat the errors of the past as we seek to care for kids who lose their mother, father, grandparents or other primary caregivers to COVID-19.
While well-meaning Americans might think first that we should build more orphanages overseas, this is exactly the wrong approach. In orphanages, children don’t receive adequate emotional, physical or mental care. They are often separated from their siblings, community and anyone they’ve ever known. Studies have shown that institutional care affects the way a child’s brain develops, causing developmental delays and even stunting physical growth.
Children belong in families, whether that be their biological families or foster families or adoptive ones.
Yes, orphanages vary in the quality of care they provide. But we have found that even the very presence of orphanages decreases the likelihood of family preservation or kinship adoption because it is presented as a more affordable option to provide to shelter, food and education for a child. No matter how nice an orphanage might appear, it will never be able to meet a child’s critical need to have a connection with a primary caregiver.
When a child truly has nowhere to go, an orphanage should only be thought of as an emergency, short-term solution. If a child is placed in an orphanage, efforts must immediately begin to find relatives or foster families who can care for the child. Whenever an alternative exists, the COVID-19 orphan report argues that an orphanage should be avoided “because of its clear damage to psychosocial, physical and neural development.”
Better alternatives to orphanages do exist, and I believe the Christian Church has a tremendous opportunity to support efforts to strengthen vulnerable families and communities, reunify families and ensure children without caregivers can grow up in loving families. We already have a blueprint and track record for what works as alternatives to an orphanage – preserving families (including kinship families) and creating sustainable foster care and adoption programs in countries where they don’t currently exist.
Caregiver support is difficult but deeply impactful work because it can prevent a child from ever entering an orphanage in the first place. In fact, the majority of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. Many of these children have extended family members who could provide family-centered care with the right support.
Christians have an opportunity here to tangibly be the hands and feet of Jesus by meeting the immediate financial and emotional needs of caregivers who may be in crisis. Investing in medical support, housing assistance and job skills to help families stay together is far better for children than funding and investing in orphanages.
Since 2015, through our network, more than 1700 foster families and 600 adoptive families in countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, and Haiti have welcomed orphaned children into their homes. Mezgede and Aaron are one such couple. To supplement their income, this Ethiopian couple rented out a room in their home to a couple and their baby girl. Within five years, both parents died from a chronic illness. A charity offered to take the little girl to an orphanage, but Mezgede was determined to fulfill her promise to the parents to take care of their little girl.
With Aaron retired, the family was living off income Mezgede made selling injera, Ethiopian flatbread. Raising this little girl was going to stretch their modest means. But when the local government referred the couple to Bethany’s Family Preservation and Empowerment program, Mezgede was able to access medical care, learn financial literacy and business skills, join a savings and credit union, and access a loan to start a different, more productive business. She is now able to generate a sustainable income on her own and provide for her family. Most importantly, the little girl has been able to stay in the only home she’s ever known with people who love her. Mezgede and Aaron have officially adopted her, and she is thriving.
In the same way that this little girl needed the safety, love, and connection that only families can provide, families need the support of their broader communities to help children to thrive.
We acknowledge that orphanages are better than nothing, but we’re dreaming of the day when orphanages are no longer needed. Family changes everything. Christians need to focus our collective efforts on preserving families, reunifying families and creating new families.
The COVID-19 orphaned child welfare report notes that, “Parents, guardians, and co-residing grandparents and other caregivers matter to the physical and mental health of children, to their socialization and participation in their communities, and to their protection.” There is no substitute for a loving home and family, and the Church must be part of the solution.
Chris Palusky is the President and CEO of Bethany Christian Services
Chris Palusky is the President and CEO of Bethany Christian Services.