Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Orphan Care

After our family's 6 trips to Ghana and 5+ weeks living in the midst of orphan care last summer, I have had many thoughts swirling through my brain . For 8 months I have struggled to put these thoughts into a post.  I am a Momma to 3 children  who lived in institutions and the effects of that life is evident every day. Sometimes it's subtle and sometimes very prominent. So I've been thinking how to approach orphan care so that is sensitive to children, makes a lasting impact and reverses the cycle of poverty. Here are some things I am currently processing...

Moms and their babes in Ghana

1. Orphan care = Caring for Orphans

Sounds simplified, but this is where most of us start, definitely where I started. We become aware of millions of children who are labeled "orphans" and we feel compelled to help. Before jumping on a plane or adopting a child, my biggest hope is that we would educate ourselves  about orphans, who they are and what they need. In fact, most orphans have parents, grandparents or aunts/uncles who love them but can't for a variety of reasons to care of them. So the proper term for orphans may indeed be "vulnerable children" and there is so much we can do to keep these children connected to their families. That's the ultimate goal of orphan care, that there would be no more orphans. Some simple things we can do from the comfort of our home: pray, sponsor a child (email me and I can connect you with many wonderful organizations), support people who are working with vulnerable families and educate others about the condition of children here in the USA and overseas.

Emmi stocking shelves at the Fern House, a maternity home in Ghana. Helping vulnerable moms is definitely "orphan care"

2. Orphan Care does NOT  = adoption
Adoption is one part of orphan care and I do believe in the restoration and healing power of a loving family. I have 5 amazing children, 3 of them joined our family through adoption and I have parented them through their grief and healing. But too often adoption is seen as the first, best and only choice. In Ghana, 80-90% of children living in orphanages have families, they are not orphans the way we imagine them to be. So if you were to visit an orphanage there, don't assume adoption is the best  choice for most of them. Maybe the children need school and food sponsorship to return to their families? Maybe their mother needs a micro loan to get back on her feet? Maybe the parents/village need education on special needs or medical sponsorship so a child can live with their family? That's orphan care that makes more sense for most kids. And then, there are those children that need a new family, the 10-20% who have no other option ( and worldwide, 95% of orphans are over the age of 5, part of a sibling group and/or have moderate to severe special needs). Adoption makes sense for them, but please let a qualified social worker decide that for the child. Let every other alternative be sought for that child before they are uprooted. It's a painful journey for the child as well as the family and we must be ready to some day explain to that child that we explored every other option before adopting them.

Emmi washing baby equipment

3. How to visit orphanages in a child centered way

Over the summer, the orphanage that Afua lived in for the past 2 years would get a steady stream of tourist visitors. They would bring donations and then many times they asked to see the children. Their cameras were around their necks and sometimes they were allowed access to the children. Pictures were taken, kids received treats and hugs were exchanged. I spoke with many of these "orphan tourists" and they readily admitted a stop at an orphanage was a quick part of their trip similar to a visit to the Elmina slave castle, the art market and other tourist destinations in Ghana. Other orphanages allow week long visitors, repeat visitors and pop in visits as they know this is vital for their operations. This can be done in a child centered way or it can also be done in a way that leaves children with continual broken hearts. My biggest advice is to approach a visit in a way that allow the caregivers to maintain their role while supporting them behind the scenes. What are the tasks that are always in the back burner due to taking care of the children? Do the dishes, sweep the floors, help with inventory, fix anything you know how to fix or find your unique way to be an asset, not a tourist. If that is your focus, I am sure your time will be spent wisely.I would sometimes do a pop visit to an orphanage to deliver a package from a child's adoptive family. I consider that an honor and an exception to the rule. Each time, it helped the child know their family was coming and brighten their day. But more often, it's more meaningful to have a long term supportive role that lifts up those who do the daily work long after my trip is done.

Emmi's hard work was rewarded with advice from a special auntie. 

4. Long Term View

Orphan care should not be a one time mission trip or one Sunday topic at church. It's a lifelong commitment to helping children who are vulnerable. Why should we care? Because one day these children are the adults of the world and we want this planet to be filled with well adjusted, attached adults. Statistics show that children from institutions are more likely to commit crimes, become victims of human trafficking or repeat the cycle of poverty and orphan-hood. And just so we don't kid ourselves, institutions exist here in the United States as well. We don't call them orphanages, they are now residential care facilities. As those teens age out, we want to be sure they can enter society in a well adjusted manner and that each child has a family they can go to for support, advice and love.

Orphan care is so much more than adoption. There are thousands of children in Ghana who are vulnerable and only under 200 children children are adopted to the US each year. Adoption alone will not solve this issue.  Let's all find our piece of the puzzle and become part of the solution.