Orphans, residential care — and outcomes

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It’s a refrain I hear pretty often.

“Orphanages are bad. All of them.”

That sounds good, and perhaps it echoes the well-meaning hearts of those motivated by Christian love to see every child in a family. Besides, we shudder —with good reason—when we see the cold walls of nursery orphanages in eastern Europe or places where young children and teenagers are essentially warehoused.

“Please, sir, said Oliver, “I want some more.”

God forgive us for ever treating children so.

And so, in that line of reasoning, unequivocal statements are made: For all orphans, residential care is bad.

We immediately assume that foster care or some other incarnation of family-based care is superior to anything that can be done in a group setting. This thinking is not only occurring in Christian orphan-care circles. In fact, there is a very strong and intentional push throughout the international orphan movement to shutter institutions and move all children into family-based care.

But that is not where the research is.

Kids in foster care fail. Not all of them, but so, so many do. If you follow this blog, you have seen the numbers, know the reality. Whether it is suicide, state-dependency, entering the sex trades, mental illness—you name the marker—kids in foster care are far more likely to fail than the general population. The exception is the child who makes it. Yes, we absolutely need good, Christian homes with the tools and the support to change the trajectory for these kids.

But . . .

we also have to recognize that, for many children, a larger campus with the appropriate staff, training, and culture is the answer for some children; children from defined contexts.

A few years ago I attended a conference at which one speaker after another blasted residential care. When one session leader asked for comments, I spoke up briefly, talking about the success we have with street children at our City of Youth. Immediately afterwards, a parade of practitioners began to voice their own stories.

“I have a home for trafficked girls in the Philippines; my girls need the support we can give them.”

“We have an orphanage for war children; they would not survive in foster care.”

According to the latest research, they are right.

Dr. Kathryn Whetten and her team from the Duke University Global Health Institute recently published a study which affirms the role of residential care as a part of the toolbag for providing for orphans. It is by no means a carte blanche endorsement of residential care, but it does dispel many of the myths about the inferiority of group settings for orphans. You can read the Time Magazine story here.

Do we want every child to be in a loving Christian home? Of course we do. But let’s recognize something:  We are all on the same team. There are many fine Christian men and women caring for children in residential settings who are doing God’s work. They need our prayers, encouragement, and support—and so do the children they serve.

Have you ever visited a residential care facility in the U.S. or abroad? If so, what did you experience?

What was your interaction with the children?

The very best ambassadors we have at Hope Unlimited for Children are people who travel to our campuses, roll up their sleeves, and minister alongside us. They see firsthand the transformative impact a residential setting can have on a particular group of children. We’d love to show you, too.

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