How to screw up orphan care in the name of Jesus

Is that even possible?  Is it possible to try to do something God commands us to do, and get it wrong?  It is possible to do harm, while seriously attempting to do good?


My passion for orphan care began at a very young age. I was a child who grew up dreaming about building an orphanage one day.  It would have nice dorms for the kids, a nice cheery play room, gardens, a play ground, and a well stocked cafeteria.  When other junior high girls were flirting with boys, I was drawing up plans for how my orphanage would be constructed.  I would fill it with Carla's children...and give all those poor orphans a place to thrive.  It was my dream.  My desire to be a part of orphan-care in a third world country, was driven by genuine concern.

Over the years my view of building and operating orphanages has changed slowly but drastically.

What I'm referring to in the title is when unhealthy, unbiblical, or just naively unhelpful practices fall under the umbrella of "Christian ministry".  I am not anti-Christian ministry, anti-orphan care, and as much as I cringe to admit it I'm not even anti-orphanage....just anti-habitually doing things in a way that hurts kids.

Some things done with the name of Jesus attached, are merely using his name in vain.

"“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain."

 Taking an endeavor, and stamping Jesus name on it is not something that should ever, ever be taken lightly.  This includes Christian charities.  It's serious business when we claim to be corporately representing God.

For that reason, I decided to focus solely on orphan care done by non-profit, privately run orphanages. There is little doubt that government run institutions, the common other orphanage alternative, is often worse. Governments raising kids has always been a bad idea but that's a whole different blog post.

I think we, as Christians, who are passionate about orphan care and who like to put our money where our mouths are, need to really reflect on this issue for a bit even if it's uncomfortable.  I'm not a skeptic on the outside looking in, trying desperately to find flaws, but rather someone with a lifelong vested interest in orphan care and the ethics surrounding the issue.

 When you start talking about discernment in ministry people are quick to point fingers, but also quicker to defend things that should be indefensible.   "There is no perfect system (church, organization, person etc.) ...." is the typical excuse.  I'd like to counter that with a resounding and well thought out.. "duh".

 Just because there is no "perfect" system for orphan care doesn't mean we shouldn't have some very high standards when kids are involved,  ESPECIALLY if we are going to tag Jesus name onto something and label it a Christian ministry.

 No one defends an abusive foster home claiming that "some of the kids turned out ok, only a few of them were molested...but the parents do a lot of other good things".  How absurd would that sound? Actually that façade of "but they're good people" hides abuse in too many families too...but that's a different topic.

Over the past 14 years I have been deeply involved with various forms of "orphan care" in my home, and with orphan care ministries.   I can't speak for every single orphanage, or every single individual experience, but I have learned a few things along the way.

The main point being: Orphanages are not ideal, they are not entirely helpful, and in fact I believe are actually harmful in many cases.  Even "good Christian orphanages" are inherently problematic for many reasons.

An orphanage should never be the first option, or the last stop for a child.

In some cases an orphanage is one of the few options available in countries where adoption is discouraged and international adoption is closed.  I think they can best be used as a temporary arrangement to provide the basics of nurture to a child in crises.  There are kids, who just have no place to go.  A far better option is smaller family based foster homes, but that transition is slow in some countries. Permanency should ALWAYS be the goal.  By permanency I mean life long, healthy loving guardian/ parent/ parents...regardless of race, or location.  Every child needs a family. Period.

Although some form of family based care is always a goal, in no way do I romanticize kinship, or reunification efforts either.  While those avenues should always be researched first and strongly considered...it's incredibly naive to assume that just because a child has living relatives that they would be safe living with them.  There are reasons beyond poverty for children being relinquished, apprehended or abandoned.  Sometimes that door back toward biological family is closed. That's just reality.

So here we go, fasten your seat belts.

10 Ways to screw up an orphan, in a "Christian orphanage".

1.  Make children into orphans.  

Encourage child abandonment with the attitude that an orphanage can raise a child better than parents can.  Many "children's homes" and orphanages are filled with children who are not actual orphans but rather "social orphans".  These children have been brought into orphanage care for a variety of reasons.  Some of them come from horrific abuse and neglect, but many children are brought into care because the offer of free education, a bed to sleep in, regular meals, and free childcare becomes an attractive option for parents struggling to keep food on the table, and their kids out of trouble.  I have known an orphanage, that while it boasts "outreach" programs into the community, actually prohibits or at least strongly discourages "helping" the families of the children interned at the orphanage.  If you can raise money to house and feed an interened child, you can raise money to support, love, and serve whole families.  Families should be kept intact when at all possible....thus preventing making a child into an "orphan" unnecessarily.  Getting involved in a real and personal level with families in crises requires a lot more creativity, wisdom, sacrifice, risk, and grace than does collecting kids.  One problem is that many ministries want concrete ways of tracking success.  Numbers, stats, conversions, kids interned, meals fed etc. all look good in a year end report.  Whereas "we developed solid relationships with many struggling families in the community and just made ourselves available to them, serving them in whatever way was needed.  We followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit and are trusting the fruit of that to Him" just doesn't seem to qualify.  We should, if at all possible, avoid making "poverty orphans".  There are worse things in life than monetary poverty....feeling abandoned, without hope, unloved, and without a family is at the top of the list.

2. Set up a structure where abuse can thrive unchecked.

Child abuse can happen anywhere, it's true.  Power hungry adults who will prey on children are generally deceptive, charming, and very good at hiding in plain sight.  For this reason there is no "immune" organization, or family.

However, there are systems, structures and attitudes that will attract, and even protect, perpetrators instead of making it very difficult for perpetrator to have access to children.   There are also certain structures that make reporting abuse next to impossible for the children, and that make it easy to cover for perpetrators on the rare occasion that abuse is reported.

Orphanages are notorious for abuse.

All kinds of abuses happen in "children's homes".   Psychological, physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse is not strange phenomenon in these places.

Orphans living in orphanages are among the most vulnerable population of children that exist.

The problem structurally with some Christian orphanages is that, the main priority is to bring in donations to support the cause.  In order to keep money coming in an orphanage must keep up a certain utopic, heroic image.  Reports of child abuse will tarnish that image, wound a leaders reputation, and reduce financial support. A carefully crafted, fiercely protected public image, nice facilities, and an impressive website can hide some pretty ugly reality being ignored on the ground.

We as donors and supporters have the false assumption that if lying or corruption is regular practice in an organization, that those who know the truth would blow whistles and that the needed changes would just happen.  At least that's the pseudo reality I lived in quite comfortably for a while.

The problem, structurally, is that often those who know what actually goes on behind the public eye, those who know the kids, or witness the abuses of power, are indebted to or dependent on the organization for employment.  That, and a heavy dose of fear, guilt, loyalty, and hierrarchal bullying keeps people quiet.  Those who get brave enough to raise concern are labelled disloyal, and are immediately discredited, slandered, and removed.

Those who have cut their ties with an orphanage ministry, will often be too "nice" to talk about it.  In this strange little culture of Christian ministry we often live in a sort of dysfunctional denial fueled by a fear of conflict, an unbiblical concept of "love", and a "we can't judge!" cowardliness.  Among Christians there is also a genuine desire to not be "that person" who makes waves.  No one wants to be considered the traitor, even if they are speaking the truth.   This whole set up allows abuse to go unchecked for decades.

The structure in place that allows this façade and abuse to continue most effectively is an organization that lacks accountability and integrity, and is fueled by keeping up a public image.

3.  Prop up orphans as a "mission trip" attraction.

I should tread carefully here because I have not only taken week long "mission trips" to an orphanage, but also led them. I know many other genuinely caring people who do too.  We have been on the observing side of things, watching groups of well intentioned fanny pack toting, cargo pant and strange hat wearing, volunteers come and go from an orphanage every week...and we've been in that group of people. My husband actually worked as mission trip group "host" for a bit.  We are well acquainted with this type of volunteer work.  My desire is not to paint with an overly broad brush, or villainize "short term mission" trips to orphanages, but it has to be said.

Children are not tourist attractions.  They are not animals in a zoo, to be exploited for revenue.

 One of the most effective ways to generate needed income, attract new donors, and keep children "sponsored" is to have a regular rotation of visitors.  This is just reality. While many people have life changing experiences on these trips (I know I did), it comes at a very high price to those children.  I fully realize that many people who go on those trips work hard, and go with a sense of wanting to serve and help.  I also realize that some orphanages rely on this work, but sometimes the actual work is less essential than the income those "mission trips" generate.  It can be less about needing volunteers, and more about needing new donors. 
 That's not wrong in an of itself but it creates a structure where children are very vulnerable, and are exploited.

 I have studied a lot of issues regarding early trauma, attachment disorders and the myriad of psychological, cognitive, and emotional effects that typically come with being an orphan.  I don't have room to go into details with all of that here but I can say that the more I understand and learn, the more I realize how damaging orphanage settings can be.

When you take a child, who has lacked so much essential bonding and nurture, and then teach them to cuddle with, snuggle, and manipulate perfect strangers (from the time they can barely toddle)....it's a disaster.  You are taking children who all likely struggle with attachment disorders to some degree, and then actually encouraging the sociopathic, manipulative, unnatural behaviors that those attachment disorders already create.  It's insanity.  I have seen so many children,who have never known a long term caregiver, who have lost their ability to trust and "attach" to another human in any sort of healthy way,  run up to strangers (short term mission trip folks) with arms open and big smiles on their faces.  On the surface the child seems super friendly, or desperate for love (which they actually are deep down inside), but below the surface it's all a game and a sign of severe damage. The visitor comes away with an emotional high thinking they have a "special connection" with a child who actually has very little ability to "connect" with anyone.  They have merely learned to play a sick game.

Anyone who cares for, or who has adopted a child out of an orphanage setting deals with these behaviors on a regular basis.  Kids fortunate enough to be adopted out of an orphanage have parents who love them enough to help un-do these dysfunctional behaviors, but many kids will never have that.  Teaching a child with attachment disorder how to trust, bond, have empathy, and love is an uphill battle.  Teaching that child to have appropriate boundaries with strangers, and not to be manipulative is just as hard. So, when I see those red flag behaviors being rewarded and encouraged....It makes my brain explode.

Rotating "visitors", staff members, and caregivers also put the kids at increased risk for sexual abuse. Running a children's home is like putting up a beacon that says "Vulnerable kids here...whole packs of them!".   Vulnerable kids who know how to keep quite, do what they're told, and who have no one in their lives who will fight for, protect, or even hear them if they do complain.

4. Don't allow the kids to get "too attached" to a caregiver.

If you want to pick out one thing that will screw a kid up more devastatingly than anything else...and make them more vulnerable to all the other abuses it is this one.  There is a wide variety in quality of care in children's homes but the biggest determining factor for how damaging an orphanage is for a child, far above anything else an orphanage can boast in, is the turn over rate in caregivers or "houseparents".  Red flag number one in my opinion.

I have known a children's home that was being run well, where some of the houseparents had been there for 30 years.  They were invested in the kids lives, obviously loved them, and had committed themselves to raising them.   They were "their" kids.  They actually operated more like a permanent foster homes within an orphanage.

On the other hand I have known children's homes that have a regular rotation of staff coming and going.  Some "houseparents" stay for months, some for a couple years but in between that time is a steady rotation of the children between the various "family style homes"/ dorms.  Some kids get to move homes, and parents every few months.   *Sigh*  I can't even begin to express how senseless, tragic, and horrifically damaging that is.

What's MORE tragic than this obvious dysfunction, and harmful practice is the ignorance that fuels it.  I have actually heard it expressed that it is better for kids to move frequently so that they don't get "too attached" to caregivers. Too strong a caregiver/ child bond makes moving them more emotional and difficult. They prefer the nice compliant emotionally detached children who no longer care where they live, to the pesky one's who have established some sort of a healthy bond to a caregiver and grieve when they are taken.  It's similar to the terribly misguided theory that leaving babies alone in cribs all day makes "good babies" because they eventually don't cry any more. Holding an infant too much will "spoil them" making them all needy and "normal".  If you want to raise a generation of psychopaths and sociopaths..this is a fail proof way to do it.  Guaranteed.  I've also noticed a tendency to heavily medicate children with deep, unaddressed, psychological damage.  When the child becomes problematic, and the RAD behaviors become too much for the staff to handle, don't actually deal with the root issues...just drug 'em.

5. Cut them loose.

At some point every kid "ages out".  Whether it's a private orphanage,  a government run foster system or an institution.  It's inevitable.  The cute little orphan morphs into a not so cute, often delinquent, teenager..and then gets cut loose.  These kids often leave the system (what ever system has been created) with no foundation in healthy relational skills, life skills, and little to no outside support, family or community.  I know so many of them.  They struggle.  If you haven't completely messed up a kid yet, just wait....when you cut them loose, forbid them to return, and turn your back on them you will finish the job you started back when they were laying in the nursery crib.

6. Never reflect.  Never change.  Never assess how effective a certain method is.
If you never have to find, interview, or check up on the generations of kids who have aged out of an orphanage then you are saved the tough work of self assessment, repentance, and change.  It's easier to continue on in status quo.  Keep raising money, keep bringing in kids, keep taking their pictures, keep shoving them out when they get too old.  Don't ask questions, because the answers might not be good for business as usual.  Don't go looking for long term fruit, because the rotting piles of compost are a bit messy to trudge through.  It might involve some reality based clean up work. Oh, and another sub point is never accept constructive criticism, or the suggestion that there might be a problem.

7. Saturate the children in legalistic, heavy handed religious hypocrisy.
This is where things go really bad spiritually for kids.  I am not suggesting that a Christian ministry or children's home should not be teaching the children.  Part of our responsibility as caregivers/ parents is to help children to grow spiritually, ministering to their deepest needs with a gospel rich, natural, loving example based instruction. I think not doing that, as a Christian organization, is misguided and spiritually negligent.  However, as soon as you trade genuine loving example and parental guidance with fear motivated, rule heavy, hypocrisy laced, religiosity you have a recipe for disaster.  Combine that with a child that is already psychologically damaged, vulnerable, and hurt and it will not produce passionate Jesus loving adults. It will produce rebellion and deep lasting resentment.  Of course, God can and does redeem and transform people out of any circumstance, even the most damaging childhood's but this will be in spite of point number 7 not because of it.  This sort of thing is a huge hindrance for the gospel to take root in a child's heart, not a help.

8. Feed them a crappy diet.

I don't know why the words "orphan" and "candy" seem to go together.  For some reason groups who visit orphanages always, always bring candy.  It's no longer a "treat" but a staple, and the kids have rotten teeth and and health problems to show for it.

This may seem less important but since we're talking about a child's well being, and lasting damage that can be done during those crucial years of childhood...this is making it to my list.  When you are entrusted with a large group of kids, you have a serious responsibility to God and those kids. Various countries and orphanages will vary greatly in the area of diet, especially when there is a distinct scarcity, but in Mexico there is a problem with obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.   There are plenty of poor folks, but not a lot of starving people.  I have noticed that orphanages sometimes take pride in a cafeteria full of overweight kids, like that somehow shows that they are well cared for.  What people don't realize is that kids can be plump but terribly malnourished.  If the basic food groups kids are being fed is starch, grease, salt and sugar, there is a big problem.  A problem that the kids will pay for with their lives and health for years after they leave the orphanage.  A mission trip group can eat like that for a week, but when a child eats that way every meal for 18 years, it's a huge problem.  If a child doesn't see a vegetable or fresh food for months at a time (even though they are readily available), it's problematic.

  When you are entrusted with a child, you have the responsibility to do everything you can to help that child thrive mind, body, heart, and soul.  Giving the kids a head start with high blood pressure, rotten teeth, and heart disease isn't a gift you should be sending them on their way with.  Feeding kids a reasonably healthy diet will also make them feel better, behave better, and learn better.

9.  Refuse accountability in leadership

Every ministry, church, or organization will rise or fall with the quality and character of leadership.  When a leader of a Christian ministry has fallen into sin, has little integrity, has a inflated sense of ego and pride...the entire ministry will suffer. No question.  It's no different with an orphanage ministry.  It doesn't matter if it is a sainted founder, a CEO, or a pastor...there MUST always be high biblical standards for leadership. That leader must have the humility to willingly submit them-self to the accountability/scrutiny of other godly people who will love them (and the cause) enough to tell them the truth.  This isn't an area that can afford to be compromised, especially when children are involved.  There can be a team of wonderful, humble, servant hearted staff on the ground level doing the work, but if healthy leadership is lacking it will trickle all the way down to the staff, and kids.  If the roots of a tree are rotten, the rot will eventually spread to the fruit trying to be grown.  Things like real accountability in leadership, character, integrity, solid theology, and humility are essential components in any ministry leader, and someone who runs an orphanage can be held to no lesser standard.  Raising hundreds of kids is no small task, and the leader will be held accountable before God for that great responsibility.  A leader should care so much more about the mission, the goal, and the well being of the kids, than their own sense of control over those things. One sign of questionable leadership is a fierce desire for ultimate control, and a slowness to pass the baton, even when that time is overdue.

10.  Let the applause of men be your motive.

This is where any act of social justice, mercy ministry, or orphan care gets a little tricky.  Motive. Why do we do what we do?  Is it because we have been so transformed by the knowledge that, although we didn't deserve it and could never earn it, that we have been shown God's scandalous grace?  Is it out of an overflow of the immense love we have for God, because we have begun to understand how much He first loved us?  Is it that we have been so filled, and awakened by the Holy Spirit that we have a fiery passion to sacrifice and love even those most unlovely among us?  If that is our motive, there will never be room for (and we will make a conscious effort to avoid the lure of) "red carpet" treatment for certain donors, people pleasing, bullies with "friends in high places", or making policies based on who will write the biggest check and gain the most notoriety.   If the motive is "look at what I've done, my name will be in lights, let the little children come unto me"....we've become wicked glory thieves.  If the applause of men, and pride, become a motive for any orphan care the kids will pay a very high price.  When affirmation, recognition, and "fear of man" become a motive (and an idolatrous source of pride) biblical principles, unwavering ethics, and a healthy fear of God will be tossed aside.

So there you have it.   10 ways to damage a vulnerable child under the umbrella of a Christian ministry.

My intent isn't to be inflammatory, fingering pointing, or cynical...but to tell the truth about something that is often overlooked in orphan-care circles and churches. These are issues that anyone who supports, donates, or works in orphan-care ministries should be asking themselves.  Watch for those red flags, and keep asking "how can we do this better?" 

When an organization stops asking that question (and actually listening to the answers) they're already lost.

We, as Christians, should be concerned for children in crises, and children without parents. We should be involved but we need to be wise and discerning in how we do that orphan care.

Ask questions.

- Look for solid evidence that a ministry is working with families in crises, and makes every effort to keep families intact.

- Look for long term stability, and strong caregiver/ child bonds.

One way to assess this is to do some investigation into where the kids are 10 years after they "age out".  Do the kids ever come back "home" to visit on holidays?  Are they still involved with and loved by their former "houseparents"?  Are a majority of them thriving adults, contributing to society, and breaking the cycles of broken families, child abandonment and abuse...or are they filling up prisons, rehab centers, and grave yards.

If an orphanage doesn't do follow up research, doesn't have long term relationships with the orphans who were raised there, and refuses to take an honest assessment of what's happening to the kids who age out...then there is likely a problem.

 - Look for signs that the kids well-being is the FIRST priority.

Is the leadership opposed to adoption? Are the children protected from abuse and exploitation?  Do any of the house-parents adopt the children in their care?  Do they help facilitate children finding permanent homes?

How are the staff treated? Often times "staff" consists of faithful volunteers who live and work at the orphanage. What is the turn over rate for these volunteers, and why?  Do people who were very committed, and who genuinely loved the kids, regularly disappear?

If you are in leadership at an orphanage ask others (especially the people who are on sight working with the kids) how things can improve, learn from other organizations and leaders, listen to input, reflect, and ask the Holy Spirit to shine light on blind spots and things that may have been overlooked.  Be willing to make changes as problems are brought to light.  That humility, and regular repentance, is exactly what should set apart a good ministry leader.

We can't claim to care about kids, and not do that tough work of light shining and repentance on a regular basis.  I know my job as a parent to just five kids requires constant re-evaluating methods, trying different strategies, and lots of time on my knees asking for guidance (and forgiveness for messing things up).

While I would prefer to see every orphanage shut their doors, and every single child placed into a loving home...that's just not realistically going to happen.   I think it's possible to run orphanages better than we historically have...and I also think they should fall out of vogue in favor of orphan prevention, foster homes, and adoption.

It is with a heavy heart that I write this post, not a sense of gloating or arrogance.  I desire to honour those who I know are working hard, and loving kids in orphanages (I have many dear friends who are doing just that), but the reality remains that we need to do better for vulnerable kids, and we need to set our standards for orphan care higher than merely building and filling orphanages.

"A father to the fatherless, a defender of the widows, 
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families, 
he leads forth the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious lie in a sun-scorched land." Psalm 68:5,6

OrphanJustice.com Chapter 4 - Orphans and Orphanages from Johnny Carr on Vimeo.

Soli Deo Gloria,


Stig Rune Skaran said...

So good. So true. Thanks for writing on the topic. Seen the same thing in Myanmar. www.myanmarorphanages.com. I'd like to share a link to this article, if that is okay.

Andy said...

I wonder if you would be willing to write an article for Uniting for Children (unitingforchildren.org). Please have a look and contact me (use the contact page). I'm interested in a shortened version of this article and/or in something else. I'll explain more if/when you write. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I made it to the bottom of the page! I am exhausted! ;) That was a great post, very well thought out. Thank you for taking the time to put that together. I am praying that God will get your words to all the right places.

Kimberly Williams said...

This is exactly what our family experienced as adoptive parents working with a "Christian" agency/creche. You can read our story and other family stories here: www.speakoutaboutgivinghoperescuemission.blogspot.com

Unfortunately what you have written is happening daily around our world. It is time to truly CARE for the orphan. I wish more Christians would take a stance on this issue. Thank you for speaking for those that are suffering even now under the guise of Christianity.

Missy at Its Almost Naptime said...

Ho. Ly. Crap, this is a good article.

Peter and Nancy said...

Our church has sent people on mission trips where they played with children in orphanages . . . one difference with a program in Eastern Europe and Mexico though, is that the same people have come back for 7 years in a row. The kids know their faces, and our adults remember the kids. That is not an antidote to the many other issues with "orphan" care, but it's an example of how it's possible to do it better than we often are.

And a pet peeve of mine about "orphan"-focused events is that they don't often advocate for child sponsorships or micro-loans, both of which can help lift a family out of poverty and keep it intact. Adoption is the solution for only a tiny percentage of children.

Jennifer Hambrick said...

Great post. As full time "house parents" at a mission in Haiti, and an adoptive family, I appreciate your honesty and clarity of thought in addressing issues that we see everyday...on every side of the fence. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these issues...but there are a lot of ways we (those of us involved in orphan care) can do better.

Rebekkah said...

Wow... Interesting article... Very true... In regards to abuse, I think another reason it is often not reported is the risk of the orphanage being shut down and the kids having no where to go. Although reporting it is always the right thing, it does not always feel right, and some people may have trouble having the strength of character to decide and follow through. As for orphans needing to build relationships, I honestly think that's where local churches could step in a LOT more. Rather than just financial donations and missions trips, the local churches around orphanages should be working with the kids. I think programs should be set up that allow the kids to have mentors through the church, people who will be a consistent person in their life, teaching them about God but also just being a friend and a listening ear. This helps with some of the relational and spiritual problems orphans face.

*annie said...

love and appreciate this post so very, very much!!! have shared it with everyone else i know who cares about loving orphans well and plan to come back to it so often. thank you!!

Felis Patlan said...

Loved your blog. We actually run an orphanage but don't really call it that….we call it a Children's Home. Everything you said on here is so true and every Christian ministry should have accountability and strive to be better. We currently have 49 children and it's a hard thing to be able to address all these issues but we are addressing them. One thing though is we don't have the capability to reach out the families because the courts here send us children from 2 - 6 hours away and there is no contact with the families. We wish we could but it's not possible. We, like you, would prefer our kids to be in a forever home, whether biological or adopted, but we know that's not possible either….we also don't' want to be their last option…but a temporary solution to them being left in the trash or on the side of the road. As one of your other comments on here…what we try to do is have our mission teams come for the purpose of building a relationship with our kids…and not be a "one and done" team. We make that clear from the beginning….and we are so thankful that we have teams that are returning year after year….where the kids are not just that attraction or "zoo". That's actually what we have in our orientations before we allow people to come into the home…we tell them this is not a zoo…or an aquarium….love on the kids and come back so that they don't feel rejected over and over.

Thank you again for sharing!