In the U.S., orphanages have long been phased out. Today social services are in place to support families and orphaned and other vulnerable children are cared for in foster homes until a permanent family is found or their existing family is able to care for them again. If we don’t accept orphanages in the U.S., why should we accept them in Guatemala, Haiti, and Ethiopia?
Most people don’t realize that 80 to 90 percent of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. Most often what drives families apart is poverty, disease, and natural disasters. Many poor parents are told that an orphanage will take better care of their child, so they reluctantly let them go thinking they will have a better life. But we know this rarely happens; in addition to losing the love and care of family, these children can experience delays in development or be exploited, trafficked, and abused. They grow up unprepared to handle life on their own and end up struggling to function as a productive member of their community.
Why then, would we encourage something that weakens the family, that takes children away from the care and love they need in order to flourish? Yet that is what many well-meaning Catholics and other good-hearted people do by supporting orphanages through donations and mission trips. These people are acting out of the best intentions and it is easy to see why they think they are doing something good for these children. But the truth is they are not.
At Catholic Relief Services, we recognize that now is the time to end the institutionalization of children everywhere. Growing up in orphanages is damaging to children, their families, and our Catholic beliefs. But we can only succeed with the support of Catholics in the United States.
The reintegration of children back into families is already proven effective in countries such as Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Rwanda, Moldova, and more. In Moldova, there is a 71 percent reduction in the number of children in institutions. Findings consistently show that most parents, when given the right support, will keep their child at home rather than place them in an orphanage.
As a global Catholic organization, we are in a unique position to make this a reality. CRS, in partnership with Lumos and Maestral International, is changing the way children are cared for around the world. As a semi-finalist in the MacArthur Foundation’s “100&Change” competition, we have the chance to access $100 million to solve a key global problem of our time. We are committed to ending the practice of putting children in orphanages and, instead, reuniting them with their families while supporting those families so they can stay together. We believe our work will be the catalyst that will benefit millions of children and families.
We all must discard our traditional notions about orphanages and become part of the solution. Rather than supporting orphanages, we can re-channel the generous support directed at orphanages to supporting families so they can provide adequate and loving care.
As Catholics, we know our family extends beyond our homes and communities to the larger global community and one human family that is all part of God’s family. If we work together, we can strengthen families by keeping them together. It is the Catholic thing to do.
Image: Sara Fajardo/CRS