maturing of Christian Orphan Care Movement

For many the term “Christian Orphan Care Movement” conjures up the idea of churches in the US encouraging their members to go abroad and save orphans by adopting and bringing them home to the US. It brings to mind the exaggeration of the need by using inflated numbers to count orphans. It smacks of first world money flooding into to third world countries encouraging (subtly or overtly) poor parents to relinquish their children to orphanages to become available for adoption by rich foreigners.

Times, my friend, are a changing. And so is the Christian Orphan Care Movement.

Why I Care About the Christian Orphan Care Movement

I have both a personal and professional interest in this story. For the past 11 years my husband and I have brought groups, primarily from churches, to work at an orphanage in Colima, Mexico. While international adoption is not an option for these kids, we are a part of the larger Christian orphan care movement.

Professionally, my life’s work is to educate and support adoptive parents, including many who are coming to the world of adoption because they feel called by God to provide a home for a child who would otherwise not have one. I wrote a book published by Doubleday/Broadway in 2006 (The Complete Book of International Adoption) that is used by many in the orphan care movement. I have attended a number of conferences put on by the Christian Alliance for Orphans and was invited to speak at another Christian orphan care movement conference several years ago only to be uninvited when they discovered that Creating a Family, the nonprofit where I’m the Executive Director, provides education and support to all who are considering adoption—including those in the LGBTQ community. While not necessarily a “head-scratching” moment, I was truly disappointed.

I was recently interviewed for an article in Focus on the Family Citizen Magazine. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have been an unabashed admirer of the greater orphan care movement seeing it as a force for good in caring for kids without parents. I have also been critical of this movement especially at the beginning when I thought they were cheerleading too much for international adoption without fully preparing families for the realities of parenting children who have experience abuse, neglect, and prenatal exposures. I was also troubled by what seemed an emphasis on international adoptions over domestic adoptions from foster care, and on adoption over providing support for families in order to prevent children from ending up in orphanages or foster care in the first place. While I feel that God calls us to care for the widows and orphans, I suspect He would prefer that we keep them together whenever possible.

I have proudly watched this movement mature over the years to where they now stress pre-adoption education (albeit only from Christian organizations, which I think is very short-sighted) and adoption from foster care as much as international adoption. They are also now on the forefront of working towards keeping families together–or “orphan prevention”.

While I have witnessed this growth in the greater Christian Orphan Care Movement, I wasn’t sure where Focus on the Family would fall. I need not have been concerned. The article that was just published did a beautiful job summarizing the heart of the current Christian orphan care movement, and especially focused on the shift from adoption to working toward the longer-term solution of family preservation.

Keeping Families Together

The vast majority of children in the world classified as “orphans” have lost only one parent. Even those who have lost both parents are most often being raised by grandparents. These single parent/grandparent homes are often hanging on by a thread and are so very vulnerable to disruption.

[W]hat has separated [orphans] from their birth families? The answers vary from case to case and from country to country. But generally speaking, the reason often is because the surviving parent—more often than not, the mother—feels giving up her child is her only option.

“A lot of them have the misconception that an orphanage might provide a better life for a child,” says Max McGhee, the Orphan Care manager at Saddleback Church. “If you’re very impoverished, if you can’t afford food or school for your children, it can look like an appealing alternative for the good of the child.”

The large evangelical Saddleback Church in California, led by Rick Warren (of The Purpose Driven Life fame) has lead the way in taking a more global approach to working with at-risk families, and what they have accomplished in Rwanda is amazing.

“The first few years we were [in Rwanda], we were just trying to explain there was an opportunity for churches to bring children from orphanages into their families, as opposed to sending them overseas,” McGhee says. “As soon as they got that, they took ownership of it.”

With remarkable results. Churches played an instrumental role in a government-encouraged campaign to empty the country’s orphanages and find children permanent families—usually their blood relatives.

“Around 2012 to -13, churches started bringing children home, tracing their bloodlines and finding their parents or next of kin,” says McGhee. “In 2010, there were around 3,000 kids in orphanages. Now it’s just a few hundred. Most of the orphanages have been closed.”

Saddleback hasn’t stopped at finding homes for children. It’s also working to meet the families’ special needs.

“These children have been through a lot,” McGhee says. “We send teams over to educate families on the damage that orphanages do, and how to heal kids who’ve been through trauma. When a child isn’t nurtured by a primary caregiver, research shows it has an effect on his brain’s development. He ends up with post-traumatic stress.”…

At Saddleback, keeping families together is another aspect of their partnership with Rwandan churches. In the PEACE Plan, donors work through Rwandan churches to temporarily sponsor families in parenting-training and money-management programs. The parents use the funds to pay their children’s school fees, enroll them in medical insurance and build self-sustaining income to support the family.

Greater Focus on US Foster Care

Focus on the Family, a proponent of the Christian Orphan Care Movement, has also been active in finding families for children in US foster care. Their Wait No More program has been recruiting adoptive parents for foster children since 2008. “I think people see very clearly God’s heart for these kids,” says Kelly Rosati, Focus on the Family’s vice president of advocacy for children. Rosati says:

“[Christians] know parents should not lose their children for preventable reasons. They know it’s not always possible for children to grow up safely with those parents. And they know that, either way, we need to step up and provide for these kids what God always intended—to grow up in a loving family.”

I strongly recommend this well written article by Matt Kaufman in Focus on the Family Citizen® magazine–Out of the Orphanage.

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