Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Verb: Make (suffering, deficiency, or a problem) less severe. Synonyms: relieve - mitigate - ease - soothe - palliate - allay

Every so often we hear of a church or group from North America coming to build another new orphanage in Haiti.

We don't doubt that these churches and the people involved have good hearts and intentions; not at all. We only doubt that good intentions equal all good outcomes.

The people that come here to start some new orphanage program all believe they're doing something very helpful and very needed.

I wrote about this  last June. I recognize it is redundant to write the same thoughts again, but it is heavy on my heart again after receiving an email from a church starting to fund raise to build a new building and start a new program. They said, "We want to alleviate the orphan problem and answer the call of James 1:27."

When I shared our honest opinions (which they asked for) they said, "We've already made our announcement and begun fundraising, it's too late."

Building new buildings and taking in new children isn't the only (or the best) way to get involved in helping to alleviate the orphan crisis in the world. (In our opinion that might even do the opposite of alleviate.)

Right now it seems like this is the trendy thing to do and as with so many things in church history, we are now doing it because "it is just what we do" and not because it makes sense or has proven to be effective.

Many children in orphanages (the vast majority) have living extended family members; most even have a parent living. "Orphan" doesn't mean dead parents anymore. 

Hang around in Haiti or any other materially poor country for a while to observe the way a new orphanage works and you'll likely see some (or many) of these things happen:

  • A beautiful new building starts out with fresh paint, full staff, many supplies, and a leader from the western church/group to oversee and administrate
  • When birth families are interviewed and choose to place their kids, they make that decision assuming that their kids will have more food, more education, more opportunity
  • Children lose the familiarity of their home, family, routine 
  • Lack of cultural and language understanding means some children are taken from families that could have easily kept their children in their own care  - the orphanage fills to capacity quickly
  • Money is raised to help feed and clothe and shelter poor "orphans" - Start-up costs are incredibly high
  • Employees of orphanage struggle to see all that is being provided to kids that reside in orphanage and they find it unfair - they begin to steal supplies in order to provide the same for their own children a quarter of a mile away 
  • A plan to keep things small is in place but pressure is great and requests to take more children come in every day
  • Exceptions are made and more children are taken in
  • Communication between the two cultures is difficult and frustrating for all parties involved
  • Sexual abuse is a rampant problem in institutions where staff to child ratio is rarely adequate 
  • Cultural norms are very different, the expat usually isn't aware of what goes on when he/she is not there  - let alone when he/she is there
  • Pride "covers" the real issues from the donors, nobody tells the truth during the semi-annual report from the pulpit - the donor hears orphans are being helped and everything is great
  • Expat in charge gets overwhelmed with so many cultural challenges and miscommunication and quits in the first couple of years
  • A new leader arrives, the same pattern repeats itself
  • The orphanage is turned over to a native "Pastor" - He starts out with the best of intentions
  • No accountability system in place the Pastor receives money monthly to run the orphanage - culturally he is under tremendous pressure to share the money that he has coming in with his family and community - culturally he cannot NOT share it  
  • Pastor begins to mismanage funds
  • Conditions decline, children aren't fed well, staff doesn't always get paid and don't always show up, sexual abuse worsens, conditions are appalling 
  • Church of North America with the best of intentions end up unintentionally funding the abuse and neglect of children 
We've all seen that adoption can be a beautiful and redemptive thing, the problem is, most kids will never be adopted. Most orphanages are not even licensed to offer adoption as an option. Because such a tiny percent of children are ever eligible for adoption, churches that start orphanages are signing up to raise kids in an institution for life. That's not a small commitment. 

What does life in an institution really mean? Among other disturbing things, this article stated:

"It may seem obvious that an isolated, parentless toddler — with or without social contact with peers — will suffer emotionally from lack of parental love. What’s not obvious is that without devoted, repeated acts of love, a child’s brain doesn’t make the growth hormone needed for proper mental and physical development and numerous other imbalances are also created."

{Read morehttp://healthland.time.com/2012/05/24/the-measure-of-a-mothers-love-how-early-deprivation-derails-child-development/#ixzz1w4pqbIKw}

How can we believe that investing the time, energy, and money into building an orphanage and institutionalizing children in a country and culture that we don't understand is best practice?

There must be other ways to address the orphan crisis.

Consider the story of 'BB' and her family...

BB had her first child (a daughter)at age 16.  She went on to have seven more kids over the next 23 years. Her first three children (a boy and two girls) live and have always lived in Haiti and are now adults. BB's last five children (two boys, three girls) have all been placed for adoption. Two sons live in California, one daughter in Washington, and two daughters were adopted by a family from Minnesota.

BB's first-born daughter 'J' followed in her mother's footsteps, having her first child as a teenager.  BB's second oldest daughter 'L' did the same. Between her two oldest daughters, three of BB's grandchildren have been placed in institutions.  (For those counting that is 8 children related to BB that have been placed.)

BB and both of her adult daughters are healthy and strong, smart and capable.

What if they'd been supported in some other way? What if upon seeking to place her first son BB would have met someone that said "How can we help you keep and raise your son and how can we help you prevent future unplanned pregnancies?" What if BB had met someone that invested in the orphan crisis by helping prevent poverty orphans?  What if BB had been offered support and encouragement to stop the cycle of having and placing children? What if BB's two oldest daughters had seen their mother fight to keep and raise her subsequent children?  Would they so easily decide to place their own children had they seen that? What if BB had been given access to family planning education and information? Would eight children from this family have been placed?

Any group (faith based or otherwise) that wants to invest in alleviating the orphan crisis should consider finding ways to keep families together before operating a program that institutionalizes children.

Removing children from their families and placing them in an institution doesn't so much alleviate the problem as it does change the problem.

Sometimes as wealthy consumers we get to thinking that because we have financial means to put up a nice building and stock it with nice things that we're better suited to raise poor children than their own poor families. That is arrogant and in most cases incorrect. Mothers and fathers without material wealth live joy-filled and inspirational lives. Poor people are capable of loving their children just as well and their love doesn't depend on their ability to provide material things. Given some support their choices would become much less dire.

There are hundreds and hundreds of buildings housing orphans in this country. They are literally all over the place. While a handful of them are doing a beautiful job providing high quality care, the majority are places you'd never want to leave your child.

Want to help your church or civic group engage in fighting this problem? Desire to be part of alleviating the situation?
  • Invest in programs and organizations helping families through education or through job training so they can earn an income and be encouraged to raise their own children. They need help.
  • Invest in programs that seek to empower women and offer them information about child spacing, family planning, and bonding. They need help.
  • Invest in the well-run orphanage programs already operating, they are ahead in understanding the culture and challenges. They need help.
  • Don't want to help an existing organization? Okay. Rather than start another new orphanage, start a new program that promotes families remaining together. 

Verb: Make (suffering, deficiency, or a problem) less severe.