Orphanages are Changing for Good
The change has started. We are seeing orphanages in Cambodia transitioning into community and family support centers. They have not lost their vision to care for the most vulnerable children, but they are seeking better ways to accomplish it.
Tom Matuschka, Director of Asian Hope, took over one of Cambodia’s earliest and well-known orphanages in 2008. He began to see a pattern of problems as children matured, so he set out to learn more.
“What I found shook my beliefs to their core. The problems our kids were enduring were not uncommon, even in local, non-religious Cambodian orphanages. They were and are the normal result of raising children in residential care rather than in a functioning family. In all honesty, we came to the conclusion that God designed people to grow up and develop in a family—not an orphanage or a children’s home or even a group home. We as relational beings have a need for belonging and security that these non-family-based institutional solutions can’t satisfy.”
Family-based care means working together so that vulnerable children and orphans are raised within loving families in their own communities. It recognizes the need to move beyond “orphan care” under the control of outsiders, to empowering families and communities to care for their own vulnerable children.
Honestly, it’s complicated and difficult. But it’s not as complicated and costly as removing children from their families and communities, then returning them to society years later.
Truth is, family-based care is working in Cambodia – even among the very poor. But it’s also true we have a long way to go here.
We must acknowledge a painful truth. Poverty is the root cause behind most children being put in orphanages in Cambodia and worldwide. Nearly half of the children placed in Cambodian orphanages are sent by their own parents. On major holidays, the orphanages empty out as most children and staff go home to their parents and relatives.
Orphanages offer food, education, and other physical benefits that poor families need for their children. But putting a child in an orphanage is an inefficient and costly way meet these needs.
Roughly speaking, the cost of raising a child in an orphanage is five to ten times the cost of supporting the same child within a family, and that’s not counting the psychological and social costs.
Spien (which means, “The Bridge”) is a community-based organization working throughout Cambodia that supports nearly two thousand orphans living with relatives or in long-term foster care. In general, all it takes for Spien to keep a child living in a healthy family situation is a regular visit from a volunteer, a fresh set of clothing and school supplies each year, and about ten dollars worth of rice each month for the child and care provider.
“They have already lost their parents,” says Phan Chork, a Spien volunteer in Takeo Province. “In an orphanage, they will lose their uncles, aunts, grandmother and more. Even though they are poor and don’t have very much, they don’t want to be separated from their own family.”
“We must stop reacting to poverty by separating children from their families and communities,” says Mick Pease, who has trained orphanage directors and foster care providers around the world. “If they were your children,” he often asks, “would you be happy to see them living in an institution or a group home rather than in a family?”
But poverty is not the only issue. Many children face abuse and neglect at home, and some are exploited and even sold by their own parents. Step-parents in this culture are more likely to abuse children from previous relationships. Added to all of this, Cambodia has a legacy of violence, family-separations, and post-traumatic stress dating to the Khmer Rouge years.
Family-based care does not mean turning a blind eye to these problems. Nor should anyone naively think that orphanages are free from them either.
When a child cannot live with his or her own parents, experts and Cambodian government policies agree that the following options should be attempted in this order: 1) kinship care (placement with close relatives), 2) foster care leading to domestic adoption, and 3) residential care until a better alternative can be found.
Orphanages should be the last resort and a temporary one, because living with a family is better for a child’s development.
“A family is what every child wants, even after abuse and neglect,” says Mick Pease. “They want to belong to someone, not to an organization. They want to feel normal, not stigmatized. They want to have siblings and relatives and a community. They want things at home to be safe and right. Poverty is not what matters to a child most; it is being part of a family.”
Unfortunately, there are still too few organizations and resources dedicated to family-based care in Cambodia.
By contrast, recent mapping has indicated that more than 600 registered and unregistered orphanages have proliferated throughout the country. What was meant to be a “last resort” has often been the default solution instead.
We can do better than that.
Family-based care starts with prevention: taking steps to keep the most vulnerable children with their own parents and relatives so they will not be sent away to orphanages in the first place.
Organizations like Indochina Starfish Foundation, Cambodian Children’s Trust, and Transform Cambodia are running community-based programs that meet crucial needs: supplemental education, food support, and family interventions. They may not use the words “family-based care,” but they are keeping families together and preventing children from being sent to orphanages.
Orphanages can start by doing their utmost to prevent children from being separated from their parents due to problems that can be solved with other interventions. Why not make this a top priority and spend accordingly?
For the cost of raising two or three children in residential care, a trained social worker can be hired full time to work with local community leaders to preserve and strengthen families. For the cost of raising ten children, a team of workers can be employed to impact hundreds of children and their family members.
Are we thinking too small?
There is no line in the sand that stops orphanages from developing high quality family support services, including kinship and foster care programs. The orphanages of today could become the family support centers of tomorrow. We are already seeing orphanages around the world taking these steps.
Not every orphanage will have the capacity or vision to make such big changes, but every orphanage should practice prevention, and every orphanage can seek partnerships with family-based care organizations that provide kinship care, foster care, and domestic adoption services.
When orphanages and family-based care organizations work together, everyone wins.
Are you ready to take the next steps and support the family-based care revolution?
Donors – If you are a donor, please do not suddenly stop supporting an orphanage. But do use your influence to ask questions and press for needed changes. Learn from the resources on the back page, and consider committing new funding to projects that support community and family-based care.
Volunteers – Be wise. Experts have said for years short-term visits to orphanages are not good for the children. They need to form long-term attachments with consistent adults, but they are faced with high staff turnover and a constant flow of visitors in and out of their lives. This can damage a child’s development. If you volunteer, commit long term. If you organize group trips to orphanages, consider stopping them. See the resources on the back page for more about ethical volunteering and group trips.
Christians – Many people caring for orphans are Christians, including many pioneering leaders in family-based care, so it seems right to address Christians directly. The Bible says every person is made in the image of God and worthy of love and justice, and caring for widows and orphans and other marginalized people is central to biblical faith. This is good news! Keep in mind that in the Bible orphans were cared for in families: by relatives or foster/adoptive parents. Widows were supported so they could raise their own children. Surely Christians can agree that strengthening, restoring, and providing families for children in their own communities is a biblical calling.
Orphanage Leaders – This book is also for you, and we hope you receive it as a positive and encouraging challenge. Orphanages all over the world are re-evaluating and changing. There is no reason to draw a line between residential care and preserving and restoring children in families. Erase the line. If you want to learn more and explore making changes, look on the back page for organizations with people who can help and even walk through a transition with you. Exciting opportunities are ahead!
Readers – Thanks for joining us, now go out and share the story with others. Help drive this growing and needed conversation in positive directions. There is much more to say, and much to learn and do! See the back page for ideas, connections, and resources for the next steps from here.