FactChecker: Could U.S. Churches Solve the Orphan Crisis?

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Over the past few decades Christians in America have become increasingly vocal in promoting adoption and orphan care. One particular claim is commonly cited: “If every church in the U.S. adopted one child, we would solve the world’s orphan crisis.”

For some churches this claim is heartening, for it appears to offer a realistic solution to a global problem. For other churches, especially small congregations, this can be a challenging statement. But whether we consider it promising or formidable, we should first ask, “Is it true?”

To test the accuracy of the proposition we first need to know two key factors in the equation: the number of orphans and the number of churches in America.

Calculating the Number of Churches

We live in an age where it seems everything can be counted. We can know, for example, that in the United States there are 2,618 accredited four-year colleges and universities, 247,191 fast food restaurants, and 281.3 million registered automobiles. Yet when in comes to the number of congregations, the best we can do is make an educated guess.

In a 2017 paper published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Simon Brauer analyzed the existing data to conclude that in 2012 there were an estimated 384,000 congregations. This number also includes other religions, such as Islam and Judaism, so the number is not solely based on Christian churches. It’s also unclear whether the number has increased or declined over the past few years.

For our purposes, we’ll assume the number of Christian congregations in the United States is approximately 380,000.

Calculating the Number of Orphans

Although we have difficulty counting them, we know what we mean by congregations. For the other part of the equation, though, the problem is reversed: how many orphans there are depends on what we mean by “orphan.”

A common assumption is the belief or definition that an orphan is a child who has lost both parents. But the more inclusive definitions used by adoption and relief agencies tend to focus on a child who is deprived of parental care. An orphan can be further classified by using definitions such as UNICEF’s “single orphan,” which is a child with only one parent who has died, or “double orphan,” which is a child who has two parents who are deceased.

Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan can also be a foreign-born child with a sole or surviving parent who is unable to provide for the child’s basic needs, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The majority of the world’s orphans have families who are merely unable or unwilling to care for the child.

For our purposes we’ll narrow the term to refer to double orphans who have no other family to take care of them. According to UNICEF estimates, there were nearly 140 million orphans globally in 2015, with 17.9 million orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets and lack the care and attention required for healthy development.

We often face similar confusion when talking about orphans in the United States. Many people assume that most, if not all, children in the foster-care system are awaiting adoption. But the reality is that less than 20 percent of the children served by the foster-care system in any given year are waiting to be adopted.

For example, in the latest fiscal year for which statistics are available (2017), 690,548 children were served by the foster-care system. During that year 269,690 entered the system while 247,631 exited the system, leaving a total of 442,995 at the end of the fiscal year.

The goal for the majority of children in the foster-care system (59 percent) is for them to be reunited with a parent, primary caretaker, or relative. The goal for more than one in four children (27 percent) is adoption into a permanent home.

In 2017, out of the 123,437 children waiting to be adopted 59,430 were adopted with the involvement of a public child-welfare agency. This left approximately 64,000 children eligible and waiting for adoption.

The Calculations

Could churches in the United States adopt all orphans around the globe? Not really. Currently, there are legal barriers in many foreign countries that are intended to protect children but reduce the rates of international adoption. For instance, Americans were only able in 2018 to adopt 4,058 children from other countries—a total of 0.02 percent of the number of double orphans across the globe.

Even if we removed such barriers, though, the task would remain unfeasible. To give every child around the world a home would require every congregation in the United States to adopt 47 children. Since the median church in the United States has only 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings this would require almost every churchgoing family to adopt one child.

What if we only consider the eligible orphans in America? Many families in our churches are already adopting children, of course, so we are not starting from zero. But for every eligible child in the foster-care system to find a home would require 17 percent of all Christian congregations—about 64,000 churches—to adopt one additional child.

If we divided all congregations into six groups, each group of churches would need to adopt one additional child every five years to ensure most all children always had a home. This is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Accurate But Misleading?

From a mathematical perspective, it appears the general claim is unlikely if we look at global orphans but becomes more plausible if we limit the scope to eligible orphans in the United States. Yet as some adoption advocates point out, looking at the issue purely form a numerical perspective can be misleading. As Jason Johnson of the Christian Alliance for Orphans explains,

The math says, “There’s x number of kids needing homes and there’s x number of churches in our country. We can wipe out the crisis immediately.” This logic, however, is flawed. While we may meet the need today an entirely new roster of kids would come into care tonight and need homes tomorrow. It’s the equivalent to scooping water out of a canoe with a teaspoon while the gaping hole in the bottom of the boat continues to let rushing tides rush in.

When it comes to adequately and effectively addressing the national and global orphan care crisis our efforts must be two-fold. One, to close the back door on kids growing up into adulthood without families. The church, more than any other institution in the world is uniquely equipped with the gospel of redemption and the diversity of the Body to ensure no child is ever left familyless. It’s on us. Two, we must close the front door on new kids ever finding themselves in the position of needing a family. Preventative, alternative forms of restorative care for families is essential to ensure they stay in tact so kids can thrive safely and securely in their own homes. While I certainly celebrate and advocate for the notion that every church can and should adopt and foster at least one, the extent of the work that’s necessary to honestly eradicate the orphan care crisis would remain undone.

Perhaps a more helpful claim would be that every congregation is responsible for orphan care (James 1:27) and that for some families in our churches this will mean a call to adopt. While adoption is one aspect of orphan care, it is not the sole way the church provides support for those without parents.

“Orphan care equals a vast buffet of opportunities to care for marginalized, abused, neglected and orphaned children and their families,” Johnson says. “Not everyone is called to do the same thing, but certainly if you are someone who claims to have been adopted by God, you are no doubt called to do something. This is a realistic expectation for us all, and a biblical one.”

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