"Like a family” isn’t a family

Should you give to orphanages? Almost always, no. There’s a better way to help children find families, not institutions. Learn why orphanages harm children and how you can help.

Kristi Gleason, vice president of global programs

Q: My church has a partnership with an orphanage and is doing a fundraising campaign... I received a support letter from a friend of a friend who wants to start a Christian orphanage...

Should I give to that?

A: Here’s the fast answer: Almost always, no.

If you are donating to a larger campaign that provides critical, substantial operating funds for an orphanage—like a long-term, foundational church partnership ($5,000, $10,000, $20,000 a year)—don’t stop giving. That will have a negative effect on the daily feeding, clothing, and care of the children who already live there.

But, if you are giving an individual gift on a smaller scale that won’t make or break the operation ($25, $50, $100 a month), please channel your giving in another direction.

Here’s why: Orphanages harm children.

Orphanages harm children.

There’s ample evidence of this:

  • Institutional care affects kids’ developing brains

  • It affects their IQ

  • It affects how they form relationships

Everything about growing up in an orphanage has life-altering consequences.

In 1990 the ABC News show “20/20” aired a report on shocking, prison-like conditions inside a Romanian orphanage. The sign on their door literally read, “for unsalvageable children.” Viewers saw children who spent their days lying in rows and rows of cribs. They saw malnourished children involuntarily rocking their bodies—a self-soothing response to lack of human touch.

I mention that program, 30+ years later, because people still talk to me about the impact of that one hour of prime-time television. And I mention that program because malnourished children, abuse and neglect, and rotating caregivers are still common issues in orphanages.

But there’s a disconnect. On one hand, we can talk about institutional care and agree this is not how children should live. Yet people still ask me how Bethany can help them build more orphanages abroad.

Bethany does not build orphanages

Bethany’s priority is to move children out of orphanages and into families.

I understand why people think orphanages are a helpful solution:

  • There will be four, safe walls and another wall around the compound

  • We’ll make sure the kids have toys, go to school, and have a swing set

You can wrap your head, your hands, and your wallet around something that tangible, and it feels good to believe I am keeping kids safe.

People tell me how their orphanage will be different, revolutionary:

  • This orphanage will get kids off the street!

  • It’s going to be a Christian orphanage, where the kids will learn about Jesus!

  • We’ll treat the kids like a family!

“Like a family” isn’t a family. An actual family is objectively better for kids.

What would you do for your family?

Think about your family: if something awful were to happen to you, no one in America says, “I would want my child to go live in an orphanage.”

No. You’d arrange for your child to live with grandparents, an aunt, a cousin.

Foster care may not be your first choice, but if you had no family or close friends to care for your child, you would still choose a home and a family for your child over an orphanage.

But when we think about children in other countries, we so easily conclude, That child needs an orphanage, before, That child needs a family.

In another article, I talk about the persistent appeal of orphanages and suggest ways the American Church can champion family-based care alternatives, particularly family sponsorship and in-country foster care and adoption.

Here, I will give you the number one reason why Bethany does not support orphanages: they tear families apart.

Orphanages tear families apart

According to the most recent UNICEF data, nearly 90 percent of children who are considered “orphans” have one or two living parents. Their parents surrendered them to an orphanage because they could not care for them.

While poverty is certainly a factor, it’s seldom poverty alone. Many families who have relatively few material possessions are able to care for their children.

The problem is what I’ve often called “poverty plus.”

  • Poverty plus illness

  • Poverty plus regional violence

  • Poverty plus war/displacement

Most parents who surrender a child to an orphanage do so as a means of survival. Poverty plus some extenuating circumstance leads them to conclude:

  • If my child is in an orphanage, at least they’ll eat

  • If my child is in an orphanage, at least they’ll have a chance to go to school

  • If my child is in an orphanage, at least they’ll have a chance at life

Education is a big pull toward orphanages, particularly in countries where Bethany works. We’ve seen families in Ethiopia, Haiti, China, and Cambodia who are desperate to send their child to school because they know an education will lead to more opportunities.

If you can barely feed your child, and there’s an orphanage down the road that promises food and an education, that’s a no-brainer.

Surrendering that child becomes the loving choice—or what parents believe is the loving choice. They may see it as the best choice, or even as their only choice, for the child’s survival.

It’s heartbreaking to grasp the reality that people come to a place where this is any choice at all.

So when your church says, “We’re raising funds to build an orphanage where there isn’t one,” you need to understand that doing so will separate families, even though that is surely not the intent.

What should you do instead?

1. Educate yourself. The resources below come from trusted sources that champion families as the best place for children. This is not Bethany’s opinion; this is established fact. Don’t make a practice of donating to orphanages. Instead, direct your giving to alternatives that keep families together.

2. Find an organization that shares your values. If your heart is in education, give to make sure parents can keep their families together and send their children to school. If you’re interested in health care, give to ensure healthier communities where parents can care for their children. If you like business, give microloans to help parents learn a trade, start a business, and provide for their children.

If you’re not sure where to begin, Bethany’s groundbreaking work with governments and churches in 10 countries gets children out of orphanages and into families through in-country foster care and adoption.

3. Start a different conversation with decision-makers at your church. Did you know the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—a huge funder for food, education, and child well-being across the world—will not accept grant proposals for institutional care? They will not give money to orphanages, and they will not give money to organizations that support orphanages. So why does the American Church still champion this cause?

There’s a better way. We donate to causes we care about, and giving makes us feel good. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

But be an educated donor, and make sure your money is actually doing good. When our giving harms children and families, we have a responsibility to do something about that.

Bethany works with amazing church partners in Ethiopia, Haiti, South Africa, and more that are already making this shift. It’s time for the American Church to join them. It’s time to do better for kids.

If you’re a sustaining orphanage donor and would like to speak with someone about moving toward family-based care, please contact us today.

Help children find families