Five Contexts where Residential Care Works

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A lot of folks are not going to like this post—but these things have to be said.

Residential care works.

Not for every child, not in every situation, and certainly not when it is no more than the warehousing of children. But, done right, it works.

For kids who have been on the streets, for kids who have been trafficked, for kids whose years of being abused, abandoned, or exploited have destroyed their ability to accept love and build relationships, it works.

But there is a cottage industry built around blasting residential care.

Like the quote in last week’s post from the conference speaker. Or like the blogger I read some time ago who wrote about his new and deeper commitment to supporting orphan care, and how he was ready to make some lifestyle changes in order to financially underpin the work of those caring for orphans. And then his throw-away line: “except I will not give anything to help any orphanage, and you shouldn’t either.”

Tough words, but words that reflect many—possibly most—of those who are serious about orphan care. The word orphanage has become an epitaph, conjuring images of a Twistian warehouse of discarded children.

There is a very clear—and growing—animus against residential care in the U.S. and throughout the world.

In many countries, there are actually laws on the books which will force, over a fairly short period of time, the closure of all residential care programs. Why? Probably because some of the places are bad. Really bad. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Those of us working with large group homes will not even use the word “orphanage” any more; “residential care” is a much warmer, less threatening term.

What sometimes, okay, pretty often, gets under my skin is that those of us who know residential care works are not supposed to respond to the broadsides. But we must.  There is another side to this story, and there are many, many people out there working in large-scale residential care programs who are making an extraordinary difference in the lives of mortal-risk children—

and their metrics prove it.


So let’s talk about the contexts in which residential care is the right answer, not just an inferior substitute for foster care.

1. Where foster care is not an option
In many countries, there simply are no foster home possibilities. In Brazil, where we serve, we do not have the good foster care homes with which to work. By and large, they do not exist. The only workable foster homes are those that organizations like Hope Unlimited for Children have created. I do not want our kids in foster care in Brazil, because the options available there are not the kind of places I want any child to experience.

2. Where the foster care system is broken
Here is one I do not understand. Every conference I attend talks about the importance of foster care. But then they get to the numbers, and the stark reality is that foster care is failing in the U.S. and in many contexts around the world. Kids who age out of foster care–statistically–are going to wind up in jail, on the streets, or dependent upon the state for their well-being. And, as often as not, their children—the next generation—will be right back in the same cycle of poverty and dependency.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Across the U.S., many churches and Christian families are transforming the foster care system. God bless them for doing so. But effective, compassionate, stable foster families certainly seem to be the outliers.

3. Where kids are not placeable
I once spoke up during a conference on orphan care, defending the viability of residential programs. After that one workshop, person after person came up to me, their comments essentially the same, just set in different contexts.

“I have a shelter for girls who have been trafficked in the Philippines; my girls cannot be adopted.”

“Our home for boys of the street is the only chance these kids have; they would destroy a foster home.”

And the stories went on seemingly interminably. People who were pouring their hearts and lives into kids they knew could not be placed anywhere else—and they wanted their work to be affirmed, instead of just dismissed as another “bad orphanage.”

4. Where a transformational culture is needed
I am going to come back to this one in a future post and talk at length, but suffice it to say that for certain kids—like street children, child soldiers, trafficked kids—a transformational culture that molds and shapes them through the positive influence of their peers can be the only way to redirect their lives.

5. Where the residential program has a superior track record to foster care
This is absolutely against the grain, but it must be said. There are practitioners all over the world—and a growing body of academic research to support them—who know that what they provide in residential care is far, far superior to most foster care. I’ll place our graduate metrics from the City of Youth up against virtually any foster care system anywhere. We are home for our kids. They experience family. They get to be kids—and we see the transformation.

Is residential care the answer for every child without family, or even for a majority?

No, but it is time we recognize that it IS the answer for many, many children—and time we affirm those working to make transformative homes for children who need them.

My questions for you:  Do you have experience—positive or negative—with foster care or residential care?  What can be done to make each better?

Looking forward to reading your comments.

3 Responses to Five Contexts where Residential Care Works

  1. John McCollum March 3, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    David, I couldn’t agree more. I wrote a similar piece with a different, but complimentary, set of criteria. You can check it out here:

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