Caring for the Orphan: Are U.S. Christians Doing it Right?

This blog represents the opinion of the Faith to Action Initiative, one of Barna’s research partners for a recent study on orphan care. To read the full report—published online by the Faith to Action Initiative—or access other valuable resources produced alongside the study, click here.

Recently, Barna Group worked with the Faith to Action Initiative and Changing the Way We Care℠ to conduct a survey of 3,000 U.S. Christians in order to better understand their perceptions and support of orphanages. The results of this study are surprising as the data reveal significant support for a form of care for vulnerable children that is counter to decades of research and current best practices.

It is clear that American Christians are responding to the biblical mandate to care for the orphan; one out of five respondents report donating to orphanages, children’s homes or other forms of residential care for children. Among U.S. Christians, support for orphanages is shown both with monetary gifts—it is projected that an estimated $3.3 billion dollars are donated each year by these individuals alone—and hands-on action—an estimated 4 million from this group have visited orphanages on mission trips to show their support.

The study highlights the fact that the vast majority of U.S. Christians (86%) believe orphanages are a positive response to the needs of vulnerable children. An even greater percentage (91%) say orphanages are necessary for these children. Data also suggest that American Christians believe a significant way for them to respond to the needs of orphans is through supporting orphanages.

Decades of research, however, consistently demonstrate the limitations of orphanages in supporting the healthy development of children. Additionally, according to Lumos—a non-profit organization working to end the systematic institutionalization of children—the majority of children in orphanages (over 80%) are not actually orphans. They have a living parent—and those who do not have living parents have extended family who can care for them.

If this is the case, then why have these children been placed in an orphanage? Data show poverty is the most common reason why this happens, with adults placing children in this type of care to meet basic material needs or provide them access to education.

The Faith to Action Initiative believes that, with the right support, parents and family members are often the best source of care for children. If care within a child’s biological family is not possible, alternative families—such as through foster care or adoption—allow the child to stay in a family setting.

Spiritually Open

There is a growing global movement that recognizes family, not orphanages, as the best environment for children and young people to receive the love, belonging and protection they need in order to flourish.

The United Nations’ adoption of the 2019 Resolution on the Rights of the Child saw 130 nations commit to eliminating the use of institutional care and prioritizing family care for children in their countries. Additionally, an expanding coalition of Christians around the world are advocating for a change. In the past year, nearly 100 faith-based organizations and churches have shown their support through signing the Global Church Pledge to See Children Thrive in Safe and Loving Families.

Alongside the national and religious movements mentioned above, orphanages around the world are also transforming the way they care for children, working diligently to safely place children back in the care of families while also supporting these families to care well for the children in their household. Other organizations are currently focused on strengthening families through livelihood training and micro-finance, helping children access education, providing daycare and offering parent support groups to prevent vulnerable children from being placed in orphanages.

This study shows the overwhelming commitment and generosity of U.S. Christians toward orphaned children. However, American Christians’ support of orphanages through donations and short-term mission trips may unknowingly perpetuate a model that in many cases is not necessary. To be successful, the movement towards caring for children in families will require shifting American Christians’ support away from the idea of orphanages, refocusing it instead on strengthening and supporting the families who are raising these children.

Encouragingly, this survey data show that four in five respondents (81%) believe ending the need for orphanages around the world is a worthwhile goal.

Once made aware of the importance of family for all children, Christians will play a vital role in shifting away from a reliance on orphanages and instead mobilize to see children supported in safe, loving families by helping transform the lives of children and their households across the globe.

CoLab: Reimagining Children’s Ministry

Additional reading:

Feature image by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash.

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