Before we move on, let’s get our numbers straight. I mentioned in Part 2 the number we throw around most – 147 million orphans – doesn’t represent the orphan crisis correctly. There are an estimated 153 million kids who’ve lost only one parent (“single-orphaned”), so the term “orphan” is somewhat misleading. Around 18 million kids are double-orphans, yet still most of those are absorbed into extended families and local communities.
Unicef estimates around 2 million children in institutional care (some single-, some double-orphaned), although that number is admittedly low due to under-reporting and lack of reliable data from every country. Nearly half are in Central and Eastern Europe and neighboring Commonwealth of Independent States. Most of these kids are not adoptable, either because they live in a closed country or they lack the necessary documentation for international adoption. In the US, there are 104,000 children in foster care currently waiting for an adoptive home (parental rights severed), with another 300,000 or so needing temporary placement.
International adoption has steadily declined in recent years, with 8668 children adopted by Americans in 2012 (but 51,000 kids adopted through the foster system!). So even if we doubled the number of reported institutionalized kids to 4 million, absorbing some of the unreported children into the statistic, international adoption by US citizens provides permanent homes for 0.002% of them.
1 child out of every 461.
Those are terrible odds. Clearly, if we are truly concerned about orphan care, international adoption simply cannot be where we concentrate all our efforts. It leaves too many children behind. It isn’t even remotely comprehensive, nor does it affect the millions of families on the brink of poverty-induced relinquishment. It is very good news for a very small percentage of genuinely orphaned children, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the crisis, will never address the root issues of disparity and oppression, and exists as a possible answer on the back end of a tragedy, not the front.
Therefore, we must turn our eyes to the orphaned (or nearly-orphaned) outside of adoption as well, as this is where the bulk of vulnerable children and families are located.
It is unacceptable that poverty makes orphans. That is a gross injustice at the root of these astronomical numbers. If you must relinquish your child because you cannot feed, educate, or care for him, the international community should rise up and wage war against that inequity. Every family deserves basic human rights, and I should not get to raise your child simply because I can feed him and you can’t.
There are fundamental building blocks of community development that provide first families the tools to parent and thrive:
- Prenatal/maternal health
- Basic health care/immunizations
- Clean water
- Education for all kids, especially girls
- Child sponsorship
- Birth control/family planning education
- Community education directed at men re: valuing women and children
- Sustainable employment
- Business training
- Drying up the donation pipeline (gifts that help instead of hurt)
- Suitable housing
- Agricultural finance
- Supporting local churches as distribution and development centers
The connective thread between these social constructs and orphans is monumental. Hear this: if you work toward any of the above-mentioned initiatives, you are absolutely protecting children, refusing to “grind the faces of the poor.” THIS COUNTS. For example, in Haiti last fall with Help One Now, Chris Marlow explained the underbelly of donations. After years of exporting subsidized US rice to alleviate hunger in Haiti, virtually all the local rice farmers were driven out of business and the entire economy was undermined. The leap to orphanhood is so short from there.
Help One Now approached the struggling rice farmers and asked if sponsoring their children would help them regain stable footing. Temporarily taking on the financial burden of school fees, uniforms, and two meals a day for their kids relieved the pressure, freed up income to rebuild, and allowed them to keep their families intact, as their children were on the brink of relinquishment, poverty the only catalyst.
A growing body of global research confirms that where women and children are valued and educated, poverty is mitigated. Throwing our weight behind initiatives that empower women and educate children is one the single most effective ways to affect the orphan crisis, as it lifts entire communities out of poverty, alters the ethos of regional patriarchy, and serves as orphan prevention. (If you haven’t read Half the Sky, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Their research behind the oppression and empowerment of women is a marvel.)
Business initiatives that train and employ vulnerable adults have clear and lasting implications for family preservation, too. With organizations like Noonday employing women in nine different countries, and TechnoServe which provides free business consulting services in developing countries, and Making Cents International, a nonprofit in Washington that creates entrepreneurship courses for the disadvantaged and trains locals to teach them, cycles of poverty are broken and the economic stimulus affects entire communities.
Do not even get me started on microfinance, easily one of the most important economic developments of our time. Small loans, sometimes as little as $50, providing capital for business development and entrepreneurship, has such impressive yield in developing countries, it has benefited hundreds of millions already. It works for one simple reason: the vast majority of the poor are willing and able to lift themselves from poverty if given the opportunity. Repayment rate: between 95-98%. Stunning.
Regular people like us can make as many loans through a trusted microfinance channel as we want. Brandon and I made a series of loans six years ago, every single one repaid, and we continue to reinvest the same money into new entrepreneurs. We recycle that money over and over, and not one recipient has ever defaulted. In The Poor Will Be Glad, the authors write: “Access to capital is the magic ingredient allowing even the poorest person to make better business choices. Microfinance simply makes good sense.” Some of the large networks of MFI’s include:
(The Chalmers Center for Economic Development provides resources and trains the church worldwide on how to minister to the poor without creating dependency through online courses, self-study material, and short-term classroom based training institutes held worldwide in local churches.)
What might just sound like community development actually has massive impact on the number of poverty-induced orphans created. These efforts fortify orphan prevention, and they can provide the impetus for family reunification. These initiatives lay the axe at the root of the tree, offering front-end solutions and sustainable enterprises without sacrificing dignity, children, or hope.
Closer to the bulls-eye, we can support organizations committed to reunification (if healthy and possible) for children already relinquished. Heroes like my friends Jimmy and Rachel Gross with No Ordinary Love Ministries in Ethiopia work tirelessly to this end. Or let’s look for organizations like ReUnite (with WACIA: Women and Children in Africa) who work toward orphan resettlement in Uganda. People are quietly working in every country to strengthen indigenous families, support birth parents, and protect children.
Domestically, I cannot recommend Safe Families for Children enough, which offers sanctuary to thousands of children, minimizing the risk for abuse or neglect and giving birth parents the time and tools they need to help their families thrive. The ultimate goal is to strengthen and support parents so they can become safe for their own children, fostering a close working relationships between Safe Families, the local church, the referring organization, and the birth parents.
Far from ideal, we must also consider bolstering the quality and structures of group homes and orphanages. Research makes it crystal clear that children thrive in families but suffer emotionally, cognitively, and physically in institutional settings. Ideally, every child should be in a family. Realistically, adoption and reunification do not even remotely reach far enough, so we must also consider best-case scenarios for children that will never be placed within a family.
For example, Help One Now is building Ferrier Village in Haiti, small, family-oriented homes for girls aging out of orphanages as young as 13 (just opened…read this story…so good). Each home has 3-4 girls and a house mom or house parents. The alternative is inevitable trafficking or homelessness. The Miracle Foundation renovates and restructures existing orphanages in rural India with measurable, scalable interventions that guard against corruption and focus on the needs of the whole child, transforming institutional orphanages into stable, loving, nurturing homes where children can thrive. With over 25 million estimated orphans in India and less than 1000 adopted last year, we simply must consider initiatives like The Miracle Foundation who are addressing the needs of the masses.
A crisis of this magnitude is going to take us all – all the mamas, all the daddies, all the countries, all the workers. Some of us will raise the money, some will raise awareness, and some will raise the kids. Certain families will rally from here, and other families will pack up and move to vulnerable countries and do the work. Some of us will be starters, some executers, some funders, some visionaries. We collectively must insist on helping and not hurting, refusing to discredit the weak links in the system and instead insist on shoring them up.
We have to dig deep and reject the notion that Americans know best, are best, are better. We have to listen to dissenting voices and carefully assess, prioritizing first families, first cultures, first countries whenever possible. We move forward as if our goal was no orphans ever, setting aside our agendas, however altruistic. Our standard operating procedure must always include Being Good News: good for children, good for birth mamas, good for the poor, good for other countries and cultures.
Within that framework, we’re all going to have to fight like hell together. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “justice” translates: “to set right.” May we be a people who bravely commit to set the wrongs right, because being too poor to parent isn’t right. Being too sick to parent isn’t right. Being abandoned or abused isn’t right. Being discarded because of special needs or gender isn’t right. Being manipulated into relinquishment isn’t right. Wasting away unloved in an orphanage isn’t right. Being trapped in cycles of poverty isn’t right.
May we apply the same standards we insist on for our families to all families, unwilling to accept disparity and injustice. I’ll play my note and you’ll play yours, and by themselves, they’ll be sort of one-dimensional, but together they will create a song that sounds like freedom for the captives, liberty for the oppressed, and the beautiful sound of chains breaking everywhere.