On 24 June 1942 Captain Reginald Alexander Ingleby Ball found himself in an impossible situation. His troops had been fighting for hours against the axis armies in northern Africa but were outnumbered and overpowered.
When he spotted a gap in the enemy lines, he gave the order to retreat. Then he himself moved forward to provide covering fire. When the last of his men were safe, he turned to flee only to receive a fatal bullet in the back of his head. He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross for heroism in battle.
Captain Reginald Ball’s bereaved wife, Evelyn, also found herself in an impossible situation. She was left with three girls under the age of five, and she could no longer afford to feed them. As Anglo-Indians, her children were deemed subhuman at that time, and she feared for their lives. Outnumbered and overpowered she was forced to hand them to the authorities who placed them in three different remote orphanages around India.
When Reginald’s mother back in England learned of her son’s death and her grandchildren’s plight, she took action. She got on a boat to India, tracked the three girls down and rescued them from the three orphanages. She dedicated the rest of her life to their care and education, eventually also securing jobs and homes for each of them in the UK. Incredibly, she also tracked down their mother and reunited the four of them.
Reginald and Evelyn were my grandparents. Their eldest daughter, June, was my mother. I have always been extremely grateful that someone recognised that June did not belong in an orphanage and enabled her to be reunited with her family.
Poverty, discrimination, war and tragedy may have left my mother, June, a ‘single orphan’ but she was still someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s grandchild. When she was in the orphanage, I wonder if she ever imagined that someone would come and claim her. I wonder if she dreamed of the family she had lost or of the family she would find again.
The global picture
Children who have families but who end up in orphanages because of war, tragedy, discrimination and poverty are not just an accident of history from 60 years ago. It continues to happen all over the world today.
Faith to Action, a US-based nonprofit charity, recently unearthed some shocking statistics: “The vast majority of children in residential care globally are not double orphans. Depending on the region, upwards of 50–90 per cent of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, for example, a 2012 situation analysis found that 95–98 per cent of children below three years of age in formal care were not orphans. They had parents who, for one reason or another, felt they could not care for them. A study of orphanages in Ghana found that between 80–90 per cent of the children in care had families that, with some support, would be able to care for them.”
The overwhelming majority of children in orphanages, children’s villages and residential care today are like my mum. Despite the unfortunate events that have happened, they still have biological family who, with the right support, may be able to care for them. Perhaps a parent or a grandparent. Maybe siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins.
These terrible statistics offer us a tremendous opportunity. We can be part of these children’s new stories. We can help to reunite them with family members or, if that is not possible, help them to be reparented through local fostering or adoption. We can ensure they receive education, care, housing and employment opportunities, just like my mum did. But why isn’t this happening already?
Firstly, it seems that many of the world’s orphanages rely on children staying put in order to receive the maximum funding. I have been told by government officials in Ukraine and workers on the ground in Uganda that empty beds in orphanages are considered a problem; orphanage workers actively go and recruit new children to fill them. I felt particularly discouraged by this in Kiev after I had met many local Christian adopters who had sacrificially adopted dozens of children out of Soviet style institutions. No sooner had the children found alternative homes, the orphanage staff were out recruiting new children to take their places. The orphanage had become a monster that needed feeding because there were staff salaries to pay and facilities to maintain, and empty beds meant less money to keep the institution going. Even worse, some reports indicate that certain profiteering orphanages may even pay parents to relinquish their children so that the institution can make money through inflated international adoption fees. What if orphanages are surplusto-requirement, outdated institutions that instead of meeting a need are creating demand at the expense of the very children they claim to be trying to help?
Secondly, the Church may be seen as complicit in this problem. Christians, as some of the most generous benefactors of charitable causes, have poured money into getting children off the streets and into orphanages. The Church has therefore become a huge supporter, visitor and builder of orphanages around the world. But sadly, at times, our good intentions are producing negative consequences. Sometimes our orphanage support has been focused more on the immediate emotional benefit it offers us, than the best interests of the children. It may be far better, in fact, to support children to leave orphanages and provide the funding that is required to build the social work infrastructure so that children can either return to their families or resettle in alternative local families where they can best thrive.
Sons and daughters
Helping vulnerable children to thrive is surely part of our God-given mission. The generous, gracious God who inspires us to give to and care for the vulnerable, also wants us to follow his example as the one who “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6), to care for the widow and orphan (James 1:27) as our own flesh and blood, and to be as inclusive and welcoming in our relationships as possible. The overarching story of the Bible is one of God’s incredible and personal hospitality towards us. Paul even dares to describe our relationship with God as an adoption story (see Ephesians 1:5).
Many of us know the power of this in our own families. Personally, I have had the privilege of welcoming many children into my family through local adoption and fostering. They have given us as much, if not more, than we have given them. Our family has been stretched and squeezed, but it has been a pleasure and a privilege to watch children from broken and difficult backgrounds begin to heal. Most of them have only been with us temporarily as we have worked with the authorities to reunite them with their birth family or see them settled in new, permanent families. Either way, I have seen the restorative power that a family can bring to vulnerable children.
In the UK and US care systems, residential care is used as an absolute last resort. For decades now we have closed our orphanages and have worked hard to promote family based care – reunification, kinship care, fostering and adoption. But at the same time, we in the UK and US have continued to export and support orphanages all around the world.
There is a major discrepancy here. We have bolstered a system abroad that we would deem entirely unsuitable and unhealthy for our own children.
When Grace gave birth to triplets, Ben, Bryan and Billy, the hospital social workers were concerned that the family might not be able to cope. The babies were at risk of being placed in an orphanage. The authorities made contact with Hope and Homes for Children’s partner organisation in Uganda, Child’s i Foundation, who paid for the triplets’ medical bills, milk and food as well as giving Grace and her husband training in parenting, nutrition and hygiene.
“Even though I was up against the wall, there was no way that I was going to give up my children to an orphanage,” Grace says.
The family were also helped to set up two small businesses – one selling charcoal and another selling homemade chapattis and samosas to children on their way to school.
There seems to be a lacuna in our understanding of which I have been equally guilty. On the one hand, I celebrated my own mother’s story of being freed from an orphanage in India, and on the other I have helped support orphanages in places like Zambia and Uganda. Somehow I failed to connect the dots. Perhaps it was because I thought modern orphanages were somehow safer. Perhaps it was because I thought Christian orphanages were somehow better. Perhaps it was because I assumed orphanages were filled with double orphans who had no family. Sadly, the statistics regarding children in institutional care prove me wrong on all three counts.
But are orphanages, although not ideal, still in fact necessary? At the very least if they are preventing children from dying on the streets, then are they serving a purpose? I have heard this line of inquiry many times. For perspective, imagine that you were at your local shopping centre when you came across a young child who was lost and looking unwell. Your first instinct would be to look for the child’s parents. If no caregivers could be located, you would probably take the child to a hospital or a police station. You would have done your good deed for the day and assumed the child was in safe hands. But imagine you found out several years later that the child was still at the police station or hospital. The child was attending school and had friends, but nobody had ever really made any effort to track down family and reunite them. You would know that something had gone badly wrong. You might even question your own role in the child’s misfortune.
This is effectively what we have done to vulnerable children around the world. We may feel that we have done the right thing in our support for orphanages, but orphanages at their best are short-term solutions in an emergency. Orphanages are like lifeboats, perhaps temporarily necessary in a crisis but not the best place for a child to live permanently. Children flourish in families. If that family can be their birth family so much the better, but if that is impossible then alternative families could be found through local fostering or adoption.
There are places around the world where people are sitting up and taking notice of the shift away from orphanages, and the inherent risks they involve. After the Rwandan genocide of 1994, orphanages were avoided in some areas by aid workers who were committed to finding families – original or new – to look after the displaced children. The Rohingya refugees are also showing a remarkable commitment to keeping children in family-based care despite the crisis situation facing the whole population. In the Ukraine and Costa Rica, orphanages are beginning to close as charities and churches work together to find families who are willing to care for children suffering from even the most severe long-term effects of institutional care.
On the other hand, there are still many places around the world where orphanages are making life worse for children. Sadly, there have been a number of high-profile cases of sexual exploitation and financial misconduct in orphanages. The Australian government has recently recognised “orphanage trafficking” as a form of modern slavery. Some orphanages are continuing to use their children in overt fundraising activities such as travelling “orphan choirs”. I have noticed the gruelling schedules these choirs have when they tour the UK and have recently discovered that some of the choirs have children as young as six old travelling from city to city, staying with a different host family each night for over six months. I would not be comfortable with my children doing that. Who is making the best-interest determination for individual children going on these tours? If it is not social workers or family members, but the institution that is profiting, then there could be a significant conflict of interest. Increasingly, travelling children’s choirs are being recognised as exploitative, and our churches, by hosting and promoting these tours, are becoming implicated in this exploitation.
There are many orphanages around the world being run by Christians with little or no experience in child psychology, international development, child protection, cultural studies or social work. Many of these orphanages avoid government engagement and registration. Although they are well-intentioned, the best research shows their work may sadly be doing more harm than good.
Choosing the right priorities
The tide is turning. Time is running out for orphanages. The last thing we need is an ‘Oxfam-style’ scandal to bring the whole system to crisis point. If we act now we can make sure that each child in an orphanage who ought to be in a family is helped as soon as possible. Tracing, assessing and supporting birth families, or finding appropriate adoptive or fostering families, need to be our top priorities. If a child in an orphanage is someone’s daughter, son, grandchild, niece, nephew or sibling then let’s work together to restore those relationships. If a child in an orphanage could one day be someone’s mum or dad, then they need first-hand experience of the power of family.
Many people say that “there’s no place like home”. When my mum said it, I knew just how deeply that sentiment truly ran for her. Even at the end of her life, she insisted on being cared for in her home surrounded by her family. In her memory I am committed to making sure children around the world can find a home life beyond orphanages. Together we can recover and discover family connections for millions of children.
Advice on what to do next
What should I do if I am currently financially supporting an orphanage?
Thank you for your passion, commitment and generosity towards children in crisis. Please do not stop your giving abruptly as this may lead to unplanned transitions. Instead, ask the orphanage how they are working towards family reunification or alternative family-based care in their locality. Ask that your money is spent on those things.
I have or am considering visiting an orphanage. What advice do you have for me?
Thank you for your willingness to give your time as well as your money for the sake of children in crisis. Please check that the children you intend to interact with have not already suffered relationship losses and breakdowns in the past, as short-term visitors can often reinforce that trauma. Perhaps use your time and skills to find and help charities that are committed to providing family-based care for children or are focused on strengthening families.
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Photos: Hope and Homes for Children