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Why are we ignoring abuse in orphanages?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

An American missionary was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing children at his orphanage in Kenya. This tragic case has garnered significant media attention when the story broke earlier this month, including articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times

As Christians, we read stories like this with horror. It is terrible to imagine vulnerable children being abused by an adult they are supposed to trust and the monster who would exploit children under the guise of a Christian charity. Perhaps for our own comfort and desire to hang on to any sense of hope, we want to believe that this type of situation is an extremely rare and isolated incident.

However, as homage to these precious children who suffered at the hands of this orphanage director, we must not turn a blind eye. We must consider the prevalence of abuse in orphanages around the world and how it affects the way we support orphans and vulnerable children.

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First, abuse in orphanages is not rare. While most Americans believe orphanages exist to protect children, studies show that children in residential care facilities such as orphanages and children’s homes experience more abuse than children in the community. A global study on violence against children found that children living in orphanages were some of the most vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation. A study in Tanzania found that 89% of children reported abuse while in institutional care.

The abuse can come from caregivers, peers, and even volunteers. It can happen because orphans are often isolated from the outside community without oversight from parents or relatives. Children are more vulnerable when they live in an institution separated from protective environments in the community such as churches, schools, and neighborhoods.

Second, orphanages can leave children vulnerable to those with bad intentions. Sex offenders are drawn to orphanages as a place where they have easy access to children who lack the protection found in a safe community and loving family. Popularity in volunteering at orphanages has made children more vulnerable to sexual abuse, as volunteers with little to no screening often have unsupervised contact with children.

Orphanages commonly do not perform background checks on volunteers and many lack safety policies and procedures. While most volunteers in orphanages have the best intentions, volunteer programs leave children exposed to those who do not.

Imagine if unvetted and unsupervised adults were allowed to interact with your child at a daycare center or school. It’s unacceptable behavior here in America, but we somehow don’t uphold these standards in more vulnerable communities around the world.

We must consider the role we might play in perpetuating a system of caring for children that makes them more vulnerable to abuse. The U.S. no longer relies on the orphanage model to care for children because best practice research shows children thrive in families. Yet, American Christians are a major force in sustaining orphanages around the world.

Whether you’re sending a one-time donation, sponsoring a child, or donating to a short-term missionary, your well-intentioned contribution to an orphanage is sustaining a way of caring for vulnerable children that leaves them vulnerable to abuse. Tragically, the Kenyan orphanage at the center of this travesty received money from unsuspecting faith-based organizations and churches within the U.S.

What then, are the alternatives to orphanages?     

The surprising truth is that the vast majority of children in orphanages are not orphans at all. On average, 80% of children in orphanages have a living parent and almost all have other family members who could care for them if they had the right support. Most children are placed in orphanages because their families are poor and unable to provide for them.

In many countries, parents are often left with the impossible and heartbreaking decision to abandon their child in order for them to receive food, shelter, education, and health services.

Supporting families in crisis allows children and families to stay together, preventing the need for separation in the first place. Of course, abuse happens in families as well.

In situations where the birth parents are not safe for children, with quality monitoring and case management, alternatives such as kinship care (relatives or close family friends taking the child in) and foster care can provide a safer environment for a child. This is called family-based care.

Family-based care provides a better solution for children and families in crisis. It is supported in Scripture, as Psalm 68 describes, “God sets the lonely in families,” and upheld through research. A family provides the love, protection, and care that are integral to the healthy development of a child.

International bodies, such as the United Nations, recognize family-based care as the priority and orphanages as a last resort. Governments around the world, including the U.S., are working to reform the care for vulnerable children around the world. Still, the question remains, what will be the response of the American Church?

The vast majority of Christians who support orphanages have the best intentions and, in general, Christians who run orphanages truly care for the well-being of the children. Could this horrific incident of abuse in a Kenyan orphanage cause us to rethink the way we care for orphans and vulnerable children around the world?

If more American Christians started to invest in programs that strengthen families and support them in times in crisis, like employment skills and job training, daycare and after-school programs, special education services, counseling and caregiver support groups, we would see less need for orphanages in the first place. If more American Christians put their support behind quality family-based alternative care, like local kinship care, foster care, and adoption, children would be much more likely to find safe, loving homes. These are all safer, more sustainable, and effective ways to care for the same vulnerable children than orphanages. 

Since the early church, Christians have generously and selflessly served children who were abandoned and abused. Even today, some of the most innovative leaders in family-based care globally are Christian organizations. Yet, there is still work to be done. If the Church can shift the way it cares for children, we will see generations changed for the better.

Let’s not ignore the abuses in orphanages, but let’s respond to them by supporting family-based care so every child has the opportunity to thrive in safe, loving families.

Elli Oswald is the executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition of organizations focused on promoting best practices in care for orphans and vulnerable children.

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