When Love Starts To Hurt

(From the July - September 2019 issue of VOX)

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Growing concern about overseas orphanages and the potentially harmful effect of volunteering in them, has led to a new report from Comhlámh that calls for a move away from the focus on orphanage care. Tearfund Ireland was part of the working group that produced the report “Children First - a global perspective on volunteering in orphanages and transforming care” based on international research. It was launched in May 2019 and is available to download from the Tearfund website. Here, Tearfund Ireland’s Emma Lynch explores the implications for Christians seeking to provide help and support to the most vulnerable people:

We are acutely aware that this is a painful and distressing issue for Christians who have volunteered and supported orphanages out of genuine love and compassion but evidence is emerging that our well-intentioned visits to help vulnerable children might be perpetuating an outdated and potentially harmful system of child care.

In the Bible, James encourages Christians to express our faith in caring for the orphan and the widow (James 1:26–27) and the Christian church has a long history of making orphan care a priority. But many children living in overseas orphanages today are not actually orphans. Most of the estimated 8 million children currently living in residential institutions – at least 80 per cent, according to Save the Children – have at least one living parent or family member who could care for them given the right support.

All too often, the reason children are placed in residential care is poverty. Relatives may believe that an orphanage or care home will provide their children with a better education, food and a roof over their head.

But ongoing research by the Better Care Network has shown that long-term institutional care is not in children’s best interests. Children who have grown up in orphanages often have significant cognitive and developmental delays, attachment disorders and mental health issues. What’s more, they often lack the social and life skills they need to become healthy functioning members of society.

Rethink Orphanages, puts it bluntly: “Young adults leaving institutional care are more likely to become victims of trafficking, exploitation, unemployment and homelessness and are at increased risk of suicide.”

Sadly, well-meaning support for orphanages – through donations, volunteering, tourist trips and mission work – could end up perpetrating a harmful cycle.

Sadly, well-meaning support for orphanages – through donations, volunteering, tourist trips and mission work – could end up perpetrating a harmful cycle. In the worst cases, orphanages have been established to generate income from donations and volunteers, and children have been exploited and trafficked from poor communities to pose as orphans.

Attachment issues are a significant problem. Well-meaning, unskilled volunteers are intensely loving towards the children in orphanages over a short period of time and then disappear out of the lives. This may then be repeated over and over again with profound implications for the young person.

The Bible talks about God’s compassion for the fatherless and His desire to place ‘the solitary in families’ Psalm 68:6. Tearfund Ireland has long supported programmes overseas, which help reintegrate children from institutional care back into families and communities – including through our current partners in Cambodia, Nepal and Zimbabwe.

We recognise that, to make orphanages a thing of the past and keep families together, there needs to be a significant shift in how individuals, organisations, corporations and governments support development overseas, including how we volunteer our gifts and time.

We want to encourage churches to support intiatives that keep families together and to familiarise themselves with the research about the impact of institutional care. We are not advocating knee-jerk reactions - the most important thing is to ensure the wellbeing of the children. Tearfund Ireland is able to provide tools to help with this process of careful and loving reevaluation of current models of care.

To find out more about the negative effects of orphanage volunteering and to find out how to be part of the solution go to www.loveyougive.org and watch the campaign video.