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Why Orphanages Are on Their Way Out and What it Means for the Church

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Orphan's Promise founder Terry Meeuwsen talks about the shift away from orphanges

Christian leaders who oversee programs that help orphans and vulnerable children say large orphanages are on the decline.  What's in: holistic approaches that attempt to either re-unite children with their families or provide a family-like setting for children who cannot return to their biological families.

An Associated Press story chronicles the movement that many faith leaders have not only been tracking but encouraging and leading.  It's an effort that aims to pull children out of orphanages and into family-style arrangements such as foster care, small group homes or adoptive families.  UNICEF estimates that 2.7 million children current live in orphanages around the world.

The movement is "really, really exciting," says Kristi Gleason, vice president of global programs at the Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services.  "Even a well-run orphanage cannot provide what a mom and dad can provide."

Terry Meeuwsen, founder of Orphan's Promise, says pulling children out of orphanages when possible is considered best practice  and she applauds the movement.  "We don't support large institutions," she said.  Instead, Orphan's Promise supports children in family-style homes with 8 to 10 children where a full-time caregiver is in charge.  

Orphan's Promise also supports micro-enterprise opportunities for poverty-stricken parents to allow them to keep their children or bring them home from orphanage care.

As the Associated Press notes, UNICEF reports that 80 to 90 percent of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent.  That makes family re-unification a possibility for many. 

Other faith-based organizations like World Vision are similarly committed to prioritizing family-based care for children.  "We believe that an institution, like an orphanage, is no substitute for the care and affection that can be provided by a family," said Matthew Stephens, senior child protection advisor at World Vision U.S. 

One reason is cost. Stephens says family-based care costs less than institutional care over the long-term.  

Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), works with a variety of faith-based groups helping vulnerable children and says that governments are increasingly taking their cues from funding organizations like World Vision and developing plans for de-institutionalization that will meet their requirements.  

Gleason says that in the last six months she's had 15 small faith-based groups approach Bethany to request help in getting out of supporting orphanage care overseas and moving towards foster care.

For some, the anti-orphanage movement known in some circles as "de-institutionalization"  cannot come quickly enough.  Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the father of two children adopted from a Russian orphanage, says he's encouraged by the conversation but would like to see even more progress.  "I'm not seeing enough effort globally when it comes to helping children out of orphanages," he told CBN News.

The momentum is increasingly underway.  As the Associated Press reports, many countries are dramatically moving towards reducing the number of government-run orphanages.  Eastern Europe is considered the epi-center with Moldova, Georgia, Bulgaria and Romania closing large numbers of their institutions.  Likewise, China reports it is now caring for three -quarters of its orphans and abandoned children either via adoption or by using foster homes.  In Rwanda, the country is moving to quickly become the first African nation to eliminate orphanages altogether.

But other countries, like Russia, continue to struggle.  Moore says it doesn't help that the former Soviet Union has banned American adoptions and isn't moving to create a strong local adoption culture.  

Medefind doesn't opppose the anti-orphanage movement.  He notes that Scripture and social science both support families as best for children.  He also points out that some orphanges are corrupt, run by people because "they're a really great fund-raising tool."  

Still, he cautions against moving too quickly to shut down institutions that provide a certain level of safety and also protect children from abusive biological families or families that don't have the resources to care for them, particularly in special needs situations.

"When the desire to close orphanages runs ahead of the capacity of families to receive children then children are often placed in dangerous situations" he told CBN News. 

Often, he says, there's no easy fix.  "When you wade close to the world of the most broken situations it will always be painfully complex and the solutions will always be incomplete at best," he explained.   

But Medefind says Christians have played a central role in caring for orphaned and vulnerable children for 2,000 years and will continue to find creative approaches and solutions.  He points to faith-based groups around the globe that are providing family-style care, small group homes and other innovative models for transitioning kids into families.  

Likewise Moore says he see those in the pews moving towards multi-pronged solutions that include family preservation when possible and support for foster care and adoption.  He credits CAFO and Saddleback Church in California with leading the way in building awareness and educating believers about the need and the options.

Ultimately, says Medefind, the "elephant in the room" is finding those who will care for the orphans of the world.  "If we are rejecting large-scale care for children we need families that are willing to provide loving homes," he told CBN adding "without that this vision is impossible."

The church, he says, must step up and provide those homes because the government alone cannot care for these children.

Meeuwsen says believers can help in a number of ways.  They can financially support organizations and individuals working with orphans.  "Support families that are adopting in your church. It's very costly," she said.  They can also consider foster care and adoption in their own homes.





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About The Author


Heather Sells covers wide-ranging stories for CBN News that include religious liberty, ministry trends, immigration, and education. She’s known for telling personal stories that capture the issues of the day, from the border sheriff who rescues migrants in the desert to the parents struggling with a child that identifies as transgender. In the last year, she has reported on immigration at the Texas border, from Washington, D.C., in advance of the Dobbs abortion case, at crisis pregnancy centers in Massachusetts, and on sexual abuse reform at the annual Southern Baptist meeting in Anaheim