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If orphanages are where the resources are, won’t they provide the best nutrition, health care, and education?

By Lisa Yunker

My degree program in seminary required me to do an internship and, by that time, I sensed the Lord was calling me to work in Cambodia. I joined a team for a seven-week mission trip to Cambodia. During that time we were exposed to, and given the opportunity to work with, a broad spectrum of ministries. One of the ministries we encountered was a large well-respected orphanage. The woman who was in charge was a lovely Christian lady with many years invested in the orphanage. She loved the children and wanted the best for them. The children were happy to have visitors and crowded around us. We felt good to be able to entertain them, smile at them, show the love of Jesus to them.

The next year I took another trip to Cambodia and met the founders of Children In Families (CIF)–the organization that I have been working with for the past eight years in Cambodia. One of the founders explained to me what they were about as well as the need they had for someone with experience working with disabled children and their families. That was very encouraging to me because, as a pediatric physical therapist, I was looking for long-term work with an organization in which I could utilize my skills and experience.

A few years later, I started working with Children In Families (CIF) in Cambodia. CIF’s mission was to keep children out of orphanages and in families through local foster care and kinship care (similar to foster care, but caregivers are part of the child’s extended family). When I started, I did not understand why that was important. It sounded great for children to have families rather than being in an orphanage, but I still didn’t really see the big picture in regards to orphanages. The longer I worked with CIF in Cambodia, the more my eyes were open to the realities. I recognized how I misinterpreted things through my lens of privilege. Some children in orphanages were not truly orphans–their parents were still alive.

Thoughts in my head were, “Hadn’t they been ‘abandoned’ by their parents? Wasn’t the orphanage just trying to help?”

However, 78% of the children living in orphanages in Cambodia have at least one living parent. In many cases, parents who placed children in orphanages were not doing so because they no longer wanted the child, but because they had been persuaded that an orphanage would provide better care and opportunities than they could provide. This message was sometimes promoted by the orphanages themselves as they actively recruited children from poor families. Other times, it had been promoted by other family members, community members, and its leaders as orphanages had become the go-to option for children in need. And that perception was bolstered all the more by many Western donors, eager to help children in poverty and desperate need, who were pouring money into orphanages.

Not all orphanages have the children’s best interests at heart. The generosity of foreign donors made orphanages a potentially lucrative business. Orphanage tourism became a way of luring in more donations as children were exposed to foreign visitors, often without any form of vetting or background checks. Some orphanages have actually let visitors take children off-premises unsupervised. While a well-meaning visitor may just want to take a child out for a fun experience, people with much more sinister motives are out there.

Beyond the evident problems with poorly run orphanages, a huge body of research shows that even the best of orphanages are not the ideal place for a child to grow up. Children need stability. They need to bond emotionally with one to two significant adults early in life. Without this development of attachment early in life, children are stunted emotionally and developmentally. When I visited the orphanage I thought I was being helpful–showing love to children who were not receiving enough of it. I had not reflected on how unhelpful this type of love is; love that is given and then ripped away with every new group of visitors. I did not know as I know now that the hunger for attention from strangers that is often seen in children at orphanages is actually evidence of a problem with attachment.

Having worked with Children In Families (CIF) now for eight years, I have seen firsthand that it is possible to support children through family-based care rather than institutional care in a low-resource context. Not only is it possible, knowing what we know now, but it is also the responsible, loving thing to do. Continuing to support and rely on a system that actually makes orphans (by separating children from their families) is not what the Bible calls us to when it talks of caring for widows and orphans.  Psalm 68:6 says that “…God sets the lonely in families.”  What I know now is what I hope others now know as well.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay