International Orphans Need Families, Not Orphanages

Recently Bethany Christian Services, the largest Christian adoption agency in the United States, announced they will end their international adoption program. The news came as a shock to many, but it represents a trend years in the making. Bethany has made a name for itself by being a valuable advocate for orphans and by facilitating thousands of adoptions. However, with a 77 percent drop of all U.S. international adoptions over the last 17 years, and mounting research about how kids thrive, the future of international adoptions and Christian orphan-care ministry is at an important turning point.

Since the early 1990s, the American church has been a significant responder to the “global orphan crisis,” directing most efforts in two ways: supporting international adoptions or building orphanages. With increasing exposure to the global orphan crisis through media and international travel, American Christians have generously and sacrificially responded to God’s call in Scripture to care for the orphan, often dedicating their lives to the care and protection of children.

Yet time has revealed significant limitations and unintended consequences from the two options. International adoption can be an answer for some children, but not a realistic solution for the estimated 5 million in orphanages around the world. Moreover, orphanages can create incentives for desperate families to place their children in residential care or to relinquish their parental rights as a means of providing for their child’s material and educational needs.

International adoption and orphanages can also detract support from other systems of care within communities and nations, such as foster care and kinship care (care from a family relative). These solutions are noble, but they sometimes have created new problems while not addressing the root causes of why the children are vulnerable, poor, or neglected.

Family-Strengthening Model

Fortunately, a growing movement within the church today has recognized these limitations and is pursuing more sustainable, empowering responses to children in crisis. This new approach focuses on family-strengthening. Family-strengthening is building the capacity of biological parents, relatives, or local families to keep, adopt, or foster children in their own communities. It seeks to strengthen local communities, systems, and individuals to ensure children have the resources needed to thrive within families in their home countries.

Decades of academic research have recognized children develop best in families, compared to institutions like orphanages or children’s homes. Yet an estimated 80 percent of children in orphanages today have a living parent, and those who don’t almost always have living extended family members. The family-strengthening movement has discovered that the vast majority of children in orphanages or on the streets can be cared for by their parents or a relative if those family members are given proper support. And if living with biological family is not safe or possible, local foster care and adoption can provide a family for a child within their own country.

In December, the United Nations passed a resolution on alternative care that for the first time urges governments to transition away from orphanages and invest in family-strengthening efforts to keep families together. The resolution’s drafting prompted 38 leaders of churches and Christian organizations to gather in New York to discuss how the global church should respond. The group developed a pledge that unifies the Christian effort to both support family-based care for children and invite Christians around the globe to commit to this effort.

How to Help

There are a variety of ways for the American church to serve international orphans and vulnerable children through family-strengthening. For example, churches can invest in reintegrating orphanage children back into families, perhaps training social workers to help safely reunify children. The local church is also a great place to respond to families in crisis or recruit foster and adoptive families when children need alternative family care.

Churches can also support family-strengthening by investing in economic empowerment to prevent the kind of extreme poverty that often leads children to be separated from their families. It might mean integrating children with disabilities into local schools; supporting communities to provide medicine to prevent the death of biological parents; and providing counseling and home-visit services to grandparents caring for children, drop-in centers for street children, or daycare centers for single moms. The options are vast and powerful. For more ideas, the Faith to Action Initiative recounts inspiring stories of family-strengthening from around the world.

Rising to the Occasion

The recent announcement from Bethany Christian Services does not represent the end of anything. It recognizes new ways the church can support orphans and vulnerable children. Bethany has been quietly strengthening families around the world for years. They are preserving local families with economic strengthening, developing national foster-care programs, and supporting children to be placed in permanent care with local families in their community. In fact, these approaches allow them to reach more children with fewer resources in efforts that reduce trauma, produce better outcomes for children, and invest in communities so the effect lasts long after they leave.

The American church has the opportunity to step into a new era of supporting orphans and vulnerable children. Christians have always valued family and cared for the most vulnerable in society. It’s time for the church to help strengthen families in other countries so they can better care for their children, too.