Evidence demonstrates that children thrive best in a family. Experience shows that in the absence of interventions and services to strengthen the care of children within families, orphanages can proliferate and “pull” children from families for the wrong reasons. Parents and communities may see orphanages as a solution to difficult circumstances. Local governments and communities might also see this as a quicker and easier fix rather than investing time, human, and financial resources into strengthening families and addressing the root causes that place families at risk of separation. Orphanages are too frequently promoted as offering more, in a material sense, than some families are able to provide, without recognizing the vital role that emotional and social relationships play in a child’s development. It is the latter that is found within a family setting.
It is essential that factors contributing to the loss of parental care are reduced and fewer children are placed in orphanages. Communities can be mobilized and strengthened in ways that lead to a stronger safety net for parents, families, and their children. For example, increasing the number and support of community-based social workers that can identify, assess, and refer vulnerable children and families to appropriate services is critical. Additionally, research has shown that a combination of access to basic services, together with economic support, is fundamental to helping families stay together.
The Role of Government and Country Policy
International guidance recognizes the importance of a family environment and the government’s role in providing support that enables families to care for and protect children and fulfill their rights. They recommend committing resources to family strengthening efforts to prevent family separation.
In most instances, children are placed in orphanages by family members that feel desperate and in need of support. Children are placed in orphanages due to the lack of access to social services such as education, health care, daycare facilities, or specialized services for children with disabilities. Findings consistently show that most parents, when presented with some support from the community, government, and/or social services, would resoundingly choose to keep their children at home. Studies conducted in multiple contexts have also demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of preventing separation and supporting family-based alternatives over orphanages.
Research has proven the long-term benefits of investing in children as compared to investments made later in life. Investing in efforts that support families and children, such as early childhood education programs, reduces stress on parents and helps increase the likelihood that children will develop into healthy and productive members of society later in life.
Faith-Based Responses to Orphans and Vulnerable Children
Faith-based organizations have historically played and continue to play an important role in the provision of care and support to the poor and the vulnerable. Churches and other faith-based initiatives are often the first to identify and respond to children and families in need. Pastors often have the trust of their community members and can speak and act with authority, helping to mobilize and lead local responses. In many HIV-affected communities throughout Africa and around the world, faith-based groups have provided support ranging from food and shelter to home-based care and spiritual counseling. Many of these initiatives are small, but the impact they have upon strengthening families is significant.
Research in Zimbabwe found that local faith-based initiatives were providing a significant amount of help that was derived from the community itself, demonstrating the resiliency of communities and the innate sustainability of such actions. Faith-based communities in Rwanda have been actively engaged in promoting deinstitutionalization by emphasizing the importance of family in weekly sermons and community outreach. Acknowledging the central role that faith plays in Rwandan communities, religious leaders have been recognized players in the national care reform effort.