Religion & Liberty Online

Charity misdirected: New study explores Christian attitudes about orphanages

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While many orphanages are doing good and necessary work, others have contributed to cycles of child abandonment, family disintegration, and poverty. Unbeknownst to many American Christians, the majority of children living in orphanages have living parents, and such families would likely be better served by a different kind of support altogether.

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Orphan care has long been a central focus of Christian missions, prompting many churches to offer significant support for orphanages around the world, whether through financial donations, short-term missions trips, or actual adoption.

But while many orphanages are doing good and necessary work, others have contributed to cycles of child abandonment, family disintegration, and poverty. Unbeknownst to many American Christians, the majority of children living in orphanages have living parents, and such families would likely be better served by a different kind of support altogether.

In a new study by the Barna Group, researchers surveyed 3,000 U.S. Christians to understand their attitudes about the issue, as well as giving patterns and levels of volunteerism. In total, 19% of U.S. Christians donate to orphanages, totaling $3.3 billion annually across various programs. Roughly 4 million say they’ve taken mission trips to orphanages or a children’s home.

“Unfortunately,” the study concludes, “this substantial support of orphanages may be perpetuating a model of orphan care not best for children. Decades of research has shown that families – not orphanages – are the best environment for children to receive the care they need in order to flourish. … U.S. Christians’ support needs to shift to strengthening families to care for these children.”

The report’s key findings are summarized below:

  1. U.S. Christians are major supporters of orphanages: “19% of survey respondents report financially supporting orphanages, children’s homes and other forms of residential care. Projected to the U.S. Christian population, that is an estimated 34 million individuals giving approximately $3.3 billion to these types of programs annually. While donation amounts range considerably, median reported giving per person was $300 dollars over three years, or $100 annually.”
  2. Short-term mission trips are a primary point of reference: “Of respondents who had been on mission trips, 21% had visited an orphanage or children’s home. Projected to the U.S. Christian population, 4 million Christians have visited an orphanage or children’s home on their mission trip. 72% of those who have gone on a mission trip to a residential care facility have gone with a church group.”
  3. U.S. Christians are not well informed on orphan care: “Responses suggest the U.S. Christian population is not well-educated on residential care realities. 96% agree that family structures are optimal, but also 91% believe orphanages are essential and 86% see them as positive. The next generation of U.S. Christians has a stronger preference than previous generations for supporting residential care and often holds misconceptions about the needs of the vulnerable.

The underlying attitudes and institutional norms appear to be highly entrenched. Even still, nearly all respondents (96%) affirmed that original family structures are, indeed, optimal. The main obstacle, then, may be a lack of education about how orphanages actually operate, as well as a lack of imagination about available alternatives.

“People across the U.S. and the world agree that all children, including those who are orphaned and vulnerable, grow and thrive best in families,” says Mark Lorey of World Vision International, a partner in the study’s release. “This report shows how important it is to build support for family and community care for the most vulnerable children: because it’s sustainable, scalable, affordable, and most of all, because it’s best for kids.”

“The research demonstrates there are not bad and good orphanages,” the narrator concludes. “Rather, orphanages are simply not a good solution for children. Children grow up best in families. Foster families, extended families, and other arrangements. But families, not institutions.”

The issue is discussed at length in Acton’s 2014 documentary, Poverty, Inc., which acknowledges the corruption of the current system while pointing to a different approach: Creating economic opportunity so families can afford to stay together.

In a segment titled “Power to the Parents,” the film highlights the story of Corrigan and Shelley Clay, who traveled to Haiti with plans to start an orphanage, but soon realized the perverse incentives at play.

“After living in an orphanage for a year and getting to know the language and the culture and the people and really building relationships, we began to see that the system of addressing the needs of orphans was actually a system that was creating orphans,” Corrigan explains.

Upon learning that many of the children in the orphanage had parents who would visit their children frequently, Shelley was shocked. “I’m spending $20,000 on this adoption to be able to raise a child that the mother of this child wants,” she explains. “The injustice of that just took me.”

Unfortunately, their experience isn’t unique.

“Of the roughly 30,000 children in Haitian institutions and the hundreds adopted by foreigners each year, the Haitian government estimates that 80 percent have at least one living parent,” writes Emily Brennan in The New York Times. “The decision by Haitian parents to turn their children over to orphanages is motivated by dire poverty. Also, large families are common, and many parents unable to afford school fees believe that orphanages at least offer basic schooling and food.”

Stirred by the situation, the couple decided to abandon their plans and start a business instead, aimed at bringing economic provision to the local community that could hopefully keep local families intact. Their business, Apparent Project, now employs over 250 employees and produces artisan products that are sold around the world.

“There is a better way to help,” says Shelley. “Giving power to the parents is exponential in how many kids you can help. I’ve estimated with 250 employees we’re helping at least 750 children, possibly 2,000 people, if you think they’re supporting their whole families.”

It’s an inspiring story. But the lesson isn’t necessarily that churches ought to abandon their current orphan care initiatives or attempt to copy-cat the case study of the Clay family. The real takeaway is that we ought to reimagine our efforts around the person, the family, and the community.

“The way that charitable organizations are addressing orphans … is symptomatic of a larger belief that says these are issues that must be addressed, versus these are people that must be addressed,” Corrigan explains. “Issues are addressed institutionally and programmatically; people are addressed in their story, in reflexive dialogue through questions and listening.”

As Christians, we have the opportunity to change the church’s approach on these matters, realigning our imaginations and efforts to support families, not just orphanages. We have the honor of offering not just distant donations or quick-and-fast missions trips, but active partnership in advocating for the tools, access, and opportunities that families need to stay intact, both now and forever.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.