A few days ago, on March 7th 2017, a riot broke out at Virgen de Asuncion, a government run children’s home in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. The underage residents were protesting poor living conditions, malnutrition and, reportedly, physical and sexual abuse, claims which had been substantiated by judges over the years. There had been calls for the homes closure after an investigation by UNICEF. However it was still receiving, by some reports, as many as 15 children a day.
So far 40 children, all girls, lost their lives due to a fire that was started after the riot when they were locked overnight in a small room. Many more have been admitted to hospitals with second and third degree burns and are not expected to make it.
This was a facility built for 400 children, but ended up with, by some reports, as many as 800 children at times. It was serving, not just as a home for abandoned, abused and orphaned children, but was a place where judges would send juvenile delinquents, some of whom had committed murder. About 150 residents were disabled, most of them profoundly, with conditions ranging from microencephalitis to down syndrome. It had become a catch all home for children the government didn’t have a place to put anywhere else.
I had visited the home several times over the years, and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges the government must face in trying to make it work. It seems at some point, things got beyond their control, and, as a result, many precious children lost their lives.
Besides the four government run homes in Guatemala, there are, according to CNA (the Guatemalan organization which oversees adoptions and children’s homes) over 100 privately run orphanages in Guatemala, almost all of them run by Christian organizations, foundations and missionaries and funded largely by Christians.
While orphanages originally existed to house children who had lost their parents, they have, over the years, come to serve as the de facto foster care system for less developed countries. When governments have limited resources, they often turned to privately run Christian orphanages to help meet the need.
Would children with no parents or relatives, be better served by being adopted? Yes. Would children removed from their families because of physical or sexual abuse, receive more personalized attention by being placed with a foster family? Without a doubt. Would children feel more secure after the loss of their parents if they had the option of community based care in surroundings where they have grown up, surrounded by people who they have known all their lives, who take a vested interest in keeping them connected to the only life they have ever known and who keep them connected to their culture? Certainly.
Would I rather see any of these options over a child being placed in an orphanage? Yes! Even a good orphanage that operates on a family based model cannot compare with the personalized care a child receives when they are cared for by a loving family.
Yet, when I see the lives lost because of this horrible and preventable tragedy, I can’t help but think, that an orphanage, even one that instutionalizes the care of its children, is a better option than one where children burn to death.
When we look at the alternatives to placing a child in an orphanage, we find that there are valid reasons why orphanages, especially Christian run orphanages still exist, a few of them being:
Adoption: While it would be great for every child without parents to be adopted. The reality, in many cultures, is that people don’t adopt. In 2016, Guatemala saw 100 adoptions, compare that to the 4000 children it saw adopted through international adoptions in 2006 - the last year it was allowed before it was shut down for a variety of, very valid reasons. And when you start to understand that there is a difference between how different cultures view taking someone into your home who is not your own flesh and blood.
Resources play another factor. Guatemala for instance, is in some ways “a third world country with first world laws”. A decade ago, after investigations into the way adoptions were being done in Guatemala, the government, under international pressure, closed down international adoptions and adopted some very good, comprehensive regulations for handling them. they created the CNA to manage the adoption process and properly investigate children in the system (children living in government and private homes) to ensure that, based on a long list of requirements, they were truly eligible to be adopted. However, trying to implement a US based system, with Guatemalan resources, is like trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.
Foster Care: Another great option, either for long term care, or as a temporary place for children who have been removed from their environment for their own protection. The challenges here are the same, limited resources and lack of willingness on the parts of families to consider this an option. Even in the US, with many times the resources available to Guatemala, the foster care system struggles. Thankfully many churches and Christians are taking the lead in accepting that The Church (those who call themselves followers of Christ) have a God given responsibility to care for the orphaned and fatherless. Families all across the country are opening their homes and lives to take in foster kids, with many eventually adopting. Sadly, Christians in other countries still have lots of room for growth in this respect.
Also, it takes an entire system of trained social workers and case managers to properly execute such an undertaking. Even in the US, with immense resources, and a multitude of trained, passionate, hardworking staff, there are immense challenges in foster care. How much more so would this be the case in less developed countries that lack even a fraction of the resources? Even if there were a cultural shift, and people were willing to foster in places like Guatemala, it takes time to setup the infrastructure to support it.
Community Care:How about keeping children in their environment instead of placing them in a home? For children who are in danger, or suffering from abuse or neglect, this is not an option. For children who are truly orphans, it is certainly preferable. Yet a multitude of factors come into play. In some cultures caring for those within your community is the norm, in others it is not. Some countries have adopted strict laws regarding how children are cared for, and have completely ignored this as an option, to do so without government permission would even be illegal in some places.
Which brings us to residential care facilities, or, as they are more commonly known, orphanages. Historically, orphanages were created to provide a home for children who had lost their parents. With time, in many countries, they came to house an increasing number of social orphans, children who needed protective custody, or those who had lost one parent and the other no longer had the means to care for them.
Would children placed in orphanages do better by being adopted, placed with foster families or given into community care? Certainly. Would social orphans be better served if greater resources were directed towards the reason that put them in orphanages in the first place? Yes. Do we need a greater emphasis placed on reunification programs that provide targeted resources to their families to care them? Yes again. What is comes down to, is that we need a continuum of care for orphaned and vulnerable children, and residential care facilities are part of that.
Many of the private orphanages I know of operating in Guatemala are faith based organizations, their work is made possible by true believers of the Christian faith, that accept, that they personally have a responsibility before God, to provide for and serve the orphaned and fatherless. They put their money where their mouth is, so that these children can receive the care they need.
Without the Christian orphanages that exist in Guatemala housing thousands of children, children who were placed there by the Guatemalan government because they had no other viable option, how many more lives might have been lost in this tragic fire? Even now the Guatemalan government is turning to these homes to place children displaced by the closing of their own orphanage where the fire took place.
Does this mean that we should go on an orphanage build spree? Absolutely not. There is a consensus amongst faith based orphan care organizations that family care is the ideal, yet there is an understanding that it will take time to get there.
Buckner International, one of the oldest orphan care organizations in the world, took 20 years to shut down its residential care facilities in the US, and it will take time to do so in other countries as well. Shutting down private institutions without first building up other options, will have tragic consequences.
For children who have been institutionalized for most of their lives, thrusting them into a different environment from the only one they have even known, can be traumatic as well.
Many of those who have lived and worked in less developed countries, and have been on the front lines of orphan care, have conceptually worked their way upstream to the root of the problem as to why so many of these children are in orphanages in the first place. If we want to reduce the flow of children into orphanages into orphanages, we have to better serve the families where they come from.
We need to better serve the families where these children come if we want to reduce the flow of children into orphanages.
Are orphanages the ideal place for these children? No. But at times they are the only viable option given the available resources. As Mike Douris, the President and Founder of Orphan Outreach explains, we need a “Continuum of Care”. What does that mean? “In basic terms, the continuum of care is different modalities of care along a spectrum of least restrictive to most restrictive. Each type of care has one single goal: to point towards the safest and most nurturing permanency plan for the child as is possible, given the resources available in any environment.”
Understanding that each form of care, has its place within the continuum of care, while at the same time developing programs and funneling resources that place more children into family care environments, working to change laws to make this possible, and encouraging change within cultures so that people see that THEY own the responsibility to property care for, foster or adopt the children of their own country, is necessary.
Why Christian orphanages? None of the Christians I know that work in orphan care have anything against private secular run orphanages, they just understand, based on their Christian faith, they when they see someone in need, they are called to personally help in some way. Since the early days of The Church when Christians were known to rescue unwanted children abandoned by the Romans to die, to this day and age when they open their homes to foster, adopt, and even head to foreign countries to serve orphans.
James 1:27 tells us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
The Christian church has always been, and should always be on the front lines of orphan care.
True, simply wanting to help, and actually being a help, aren’t always in lockstep with one another. But as orphan care organizations, orphanages, churches, missionaries and volunteers work to serve with excellence, ensuring that their help is rooted in knowledge and best practices, children, at whatever point in the continuum of care they are at, will only be the better for it.