For a long time, visiting and volunteering in orphanages has been a common component of short-term missions (STM) trips.
In more recent years, new research, evidence and information has come to light that has caused us to question whether this is a positive and helpful practice, or something which is exacerbating issues for children who are already vulnerable in developing countries.
This can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, however with knowledge comes responsibility. Therefore, in response to the evidence we now have about orphanage volunteering, we need to be willing to reflect on our practices and make whatever changes are necessary to fulfil our Biblical responsibility to defend the rights of the fatherless and uphold children's best interests.
Short-term missions should exemplify more than just good intentions; it should demonstrate thoughtfulness and engagement with best practice.
Who are the children in residential care?
Estimates suggest there are eight million children in the world today who live in residential care institutions or orphanages.
Most of us assume that children who live in an orphanage, children’s home or any form of residential care are there because they are orphans who have no suitable adult caregivers.
While this is the case for a small percentage of children in care, research shows that more than 80 percent of the eight million children estimated to be living in residential care around the world are children with one or both parents still alive.
“… any group living arrangement where children are looked after by paid staff in a specially designated facility. It covers a wide variety of settings ranging from emergency shelters and small group homes, to larger-scale institutions.”
This includes orphanages, children’s homes, children’s villages, shelters, rescue homes, etc.
Many families around the world face numerous challenges – including injustice, oppression, poverty, violence, death, addiction or sickness – that make providing for children’s basic needs incredibly challenging. As a result, the majority of children in orphanages are children with families who want their children to have a good future and have been led to believe that sending their child to an orphanage will result in them having better opportunities and a better life.
While well-run residential care centres can meet the children’s physical and educational needs, they are generally ill-equipped to meet a child’s emotional and psycho-social needs. These needs are central to a child's development and wellbeing and are best met in a family. In fact, when these needs are not met, children's cognitive, social and emotional development can be adversely affected. They can experience attachment disorders, behavioural problems, low self-esteem and struggle with their sense of identity and belonging.
Children belong in families where they can experience love, individual care and life-long connections that enable them to thrive as adults. Placing a child in any form of residential care should be a measure of last resort, temporary and never be used solely in response to poverty.
For more information regarding residential care visit ACCI's Kinnected website.
Why is sending a Short-term missions TEAM to an orphanage harmful?
It sounds counter-intuitive to suggest that sending a STM team to spend time with children living in an ‘orphanage’ isn’t a positive thing. Visiting or volunteering in residential care centres can be such a rewarding experience for teams, and children may really enjoy the attention while teams are there, but for several reasons it can result in a lot of harm.
REASON ONE: children need secure attachments
One of the most fundamental needs of a child is to form a secure attachment with a primary caregiver.
This attachment, or bond, creates the security a child needs to confidently explore their world, develop (cognitively, emotionally and physically), learn to trust, and form healthy relationships with others. A child without this secure attachment is missing something very critical in their life, and this can have serious ramifications for a child’s development and wellbeing.
It can result in children developing what is called an attachment disorder, which may lead to a child forming unhealthy and unnaturally quick bonds with people in an attempt to fill this need.
When volunteers or STM teams are brought in to care for children in residential care, children can often form such a bond with team members or volunteers, only to have it broken shortly after when the team or volunteer leaves.
This cycle of attachment and abandonment repeats with every team or volunteer that comes along, and the experience can exacerbate existing attachment disorders and expose each child to repeated patterns of emotional and psychological harm.
Yes! Children in residential care absolutely deserve love and attention but they deserve to have these needs met by stable permanent caregivers.
REASON TWO: children need to be protected from abuse
Unfortunately, not everyone who wants to volunteer in an orphanage has good intentions.
Orphanages are known targets for adults who seek opportunities to abuse or exploit children. Therefore, one of the best ways to prevent abuse is to limit the number of people who are allowed access to residential care centres to the professionally trained and thoroughly screened permanent staff who are essential to the children’s care and support.
While the vast majority of people who want to help in an orphanage are not abusers, opening the doors to well-meaning people opens it to everyone. With children’s safety at stake it's much better to be cautious and make all residential care centres off limits to teams.
REASON THREE: visiting and volunteering in orphanages fuels the orphanage industry and incentivises orphanage trafficking
It’s devastating to think that the global church’s desire to help children by supporting and visiting orphanages could potentially contribute to children being separated from their families, or even worse, fuel an industry in which children are being recruited and trafficked into care for financial gain.
Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest this is happening. The number of orphanages and children’s homes in countries like Cambodia, Uganda, Nepal and India have increased in sync with the rising interest in orphanages from donors, churches, STM teams and volunteers – even though the number of actual orphans has decreased.
This seems to be happening for two reasons:
- Firstly, when donations and funds are primarily given to support residential care, it leaves very little resource to develop family and community-based services that can prevent family breakdown (and are better suited to most children’s needs).
This incentivises family separation because without family and community-based services, families experiencing hardship are often left with no other choice but to access support from orphanages, which is conditional upon relinquishing their children into care.
- Secondly, in a number of countries where visiting or volunteering in orphanages is widespread, establishing an orphanage has become a profitable business and unscrupulous individuals are recruiting children from families and placing them in orphanages for the purpose of exploitation and in order to elicit financial support from overseas donors and volunteers.
Children's identities as orphans are often falsified, either through fake stories or fake documents. This a form of trafficking and a serious crime. As a result, visiting and volunteering in residential care centres – even the legitimate and transparent ones – can contribute to the perception that there is a demand for so-called orphans in ‘orphanages’ and a ready supply of people willing to pay to visit them. Unbeknown to the visitors and volunteers, the children caught up in the ‘orphanage industry’ may not be orphans at all but children who have sadly become a commodity.
Who is being exploited in orphanage trafficking?
Children and their families are clearly the primary people being exploited in orphanage trafficking. however, they are not the only ones. Unscrupulous orphanages and recruiters are also preying on and exploiting the good intentions of donors, volunteers and STM teams. While this is not happening in every orphanage or in every case of orphanage volunteering, the practice is widespread in certain countries.
It's also important to note that in some cases children are not being trafficked into care, however they are being kept in care for far longer than what is in their best interests or required because of the risk of losing donor support should children return home. This is equally concerning and unethical.
In Australia, as a result of a Senate Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act, recommendations are in place to actually prevent Australian volunteers and donors from fuelling the orphanage industry. This is in recognition of the seriousness of orphanage trafficking and the fact that foreign volunteering and funding act as the two primary drivers that incentivise this crime. The final report, 'Hidden in Plain Sight', is now available and includes a full chapter on orphanage trafficking and the proposed measures.
REASON FOUR: volunteering in residential care institutions is hindering care reform efforts
Many countries are going through a process of reforming their social welfare and care systems to transition away from a high dependence on residential care and ensuring education and support services are accessible to families at the community level. This includes governments enacting new laws, policies and plans to drive these positive changes.
Volunteering and STM efforts that continue to focus on orphanages are actually inhibiting these reform processes.
This is because they continue to direct resources towards orphanages rather than towards family and community-based alternatives. As a result, programs such as foster care, kinship care and family preservation remain under resourced and struggle to emerge. This in turn reinforces the over dependence on institutions and the cycle continues. When the efforts to develop robust child protection systems are undermined, all children are adversely affected.
Defending the fatherless and vulnerable children means putting all other agendas aside and putting children’s best interests first.
This includes the agendas of our churches, organisations, our missions programs, and even those of our ministry friends. In some instances, redirecting STM from visiting orphanages is going to mean we have to have some difficult conversations with people we’ve been in relationship with for a long time.
As Christians, we are called to speak truth and advocate for those whose voices are silenced, especially vulnerable children. While we should approach these conversations with love and respect, we shouldn’t be silent and we should never perpetuate something we know is harmful to others.
A better way: REDIRECTING GOOD INTENTIONS
HOW CAN STM TEAMS BEST HELP VULNERABLE CHILDREN?
For all the reasons outlined above. it's important we put an end to orphanage volunteering, including in the context of STM.
The best way STM teams can help orphaned and vulnerable children is by helping local churches and organisations that support their families and relatives to care for them.
Look for opportunities to:
- prevent family breakdown;
- address poverty and education issues in local communities;
- support and strengthen families and children’s caregivers in the community;
- build the capacity of those with the long-term duty of care for children;
- learn about the issues that affect the world’s most vulnerable children; and
- advocate for children and their families in our own countries.
By pursuing these types of opportunities, we will be well on our way to facilitating STM trips that support children in a way that is legitimate, sustainable and in their best interests.
+ Case Study: Redirecting STM teams in Uganda
Care4Kids (C4K) Uganda was originally founded as an ‘orphanage’ in Jinja. Yet, in 2013 as a part of ACCI’s Kinnected Program, C4K begun the process of transitioning to family-based care, and focused its efforts on the reunification of children with their families, as well as community strengthening programs.
C4K’s transition to a family-based model has also meant a transition with regards to how the organisation engages with volunteers and STM teams. As Colleen (C4K CEO) explains, “Once we became part of the Kinnected program, we also started to look at our policies around volunteers. We started to do research in the surrounding villages on the impact of institutional care on [those who’d left care, or ‘care leavers’]. One care leaver talked about how she’d form relationships really quickly [with volunteers in the orphanage]; she’d really connect to a person and then all of a sudden, they would leave and she’d never see them again. This resulted in trauma, which she had carried into her adult life. This research then led me to talk to our own kids about the impact of volunteers on them. I started to see that it affected them even if they didn’t voice it.”
C4K completely stopped volunteers and STM teams from coming to the home and working directly with the children. The organisation adopted new policies in order to uphold children’s rights, wellbeing, needs and protection above all other considerations.
As a result of this, C4K has had churches, ministry groups and individuals giving the organisation a difficult time and threatening to pull support and sponsorship. “These things have been challenging,” Colleen admits. “Yet, people are starting to understand it now.” In fact, one person who threatened to pull sponsorship has now doubled their support and in 2016 sent a STM team to Uganda to take part in family and community strengthening programs.
At the end of 2016, C4K reintegrated the last of the children in care back into families. The orphanage building was repurposed and now houses an early-learning centre for local children.
HOW DO WE BRING AN END TO STM TRIPS to ORPHANAGEs?
While it's not easy to challenge and change a practice that is so intertwined with the global church’s understanding of missions and compassion, the good news is it's very achievable! There are many practical things which we can do to begin to shed light on this issue and see STM redirected towards programs that will have far more positive long-term outcomes for children.
If you are from a sending church or organisation you could:
- Put a policy in place that prevents STM or individuals from visiting or volunteering with orphanages.
- Raise awareness within your church leadership and congregation about the harms associated with volunteering or visiting orphanages.
- Raise this issue with any current partners you might have who do allow STM teams to visit children in residential care and consider suspending teams until you are confident this has been addressed.
- Choose to only partner with and send STM teams to organisations that do not run residential care or do not allow teams and volunteers access to children in residential care.
- Include a session on residential care in your pre-trip training in order to educate team members before they depart.
If you are a receiving organisation you could:
- Include a no visiting or volunteering in residential care clause in your child protection policy and code of conduct.
- Include information about orphanage volunteering in the information pack you provide to potential teams or sending organisations/partners.
- Include a session on the situation of children in residential care, in your country of operation, in the team’s orientation and briefing session.
- Invite a child protection/child advocacy organisation to come and do a presentation with the team on the issue as a part of its itinerary.
For more information :
KINNECTED WEBSITE - ACCI Relief
#SMARTVOLUNTEERING FACTSHEET - Australian Government
Banner Image: Bandith Nhep