“Government makes a very poor parent,” lamented a friend recently. She’s served children in the U.S. foster system for three decades and wasn’t dismissing government’s role in protecting children from abuse. She’d just seen too many times to count that bureaucracy, regulations and hired hands cannot provide the things children need most.
This awareness of limitation, however—disappointing as it is for many government planners—also gives shape to a positive vision. To do right by foster youth and orphans worldwide, we must not seek a single “grand solution.” Rather, we must look first to caring families, especially those supported by a community of faith.
My friend’s observation about the inadequacy of large-scale parenting is affirmed by the research. The statistics awaiting young adults who “emancipate” from the U.S. foster system without being adopted are sheer tragedy. By their mid-20s, less than half are employed. More than 80 percent of males have been arrested, versus 17 percent overall. With women, 68 percent are on food stamps, compared to 7 percent overall. As a lead researcher concluded after a sweeping 2010 study, “We took them away from their parents on the assumption that we as a society would do a better job of raising them. We’ve invested a lot money and time in their care, and by many measures they’re still doing very poorly.”
This reality is just as evident globally. Studies almost universally show that even short stints in orphanages can produce a spectrum of negative consequences, from stunted size and intellect to emotional trauma. One startling yet representative study in Romania by Harvard professor Charles Nelson found that up to age 3, children’s IQ decreased by nearly one point for every two months spent in an orphanage.
All this is not to say that large scale efforts to care for orphans are not required. Physical needs like food, water and medicine can—and sometimes must—be effectively addressed by large institutions. But for a child to thrive, not merely survive, much more is needed. These are things government simply cannot provide: the love and nurture of family.
This realization ties us in a Gordian knot. We have a mass scale need that cannot be solved en masse. Roughly 500,000 children live in the U.S. foster system. Globally, 18.3 million orphans have lost both parents. Yet meeting their fundamental needs is best done one child at a time, with the open hearts and homes of caring families. No bureaucracy, no assembly-line service delivery, no government declaration can produce that.
So it is that faith convictions must play a defining role. Simply put, the morality of a God-empty universe requires only that we ensure our own genes survive. The sacrifices required to love an orphan or foster youth are, quite simply, too great. This is especially true in light of the wounds many carry, from physical deformity to emotional trauma. The strongest, perhaps only, motivation sufficient to embrace this challenge is an animating conviction that every child is created in the image of God and of immeasurable worth. Likewise, it is the faith community sharing such convictions that can provide the support and practical aid a family needs to walk this joyful-but-challenging road.
Does all this suggest governments and large NGOs have no role? Certainly not. It’s just that any serious approach to improving outcomes for foster youth in the U.S. and orphans worldwide must center on families. In the U.S., this includes strategies that promote and incentivize adoption as top priorities, including tax credits and active recruiting. It also requires lowering bureaucratic hurdles that currently make both adoption and fostering painfully complex. To enlist those families most likely to participate, it’s vital that religious agencies and individuals be welcomed and respected.
Globally, orphan initiatives must also emphasize family-based solutions. At the front end, micro-credit, health and related efforts that help keep families intact are vital. When needed, orphanages should be used primarily for transitional care. Ultimately, a full spectrum of responses should include local adoption and foster families, small orphan homes, and (whenever local families are not available) inter-country adoption.
What this can look like is increasingly visible across the U.S. and beyond. In Colorado, church families have taken the lead role in caring for foster youth—cutting the number of “waiting” children by more than 50 percent in two years. Similar church-based efforts can be seen from Florida to Arkansas to Illinois to Texas. These and countless other churches are involved globally as well—including inter-country adoption, international church-to-church orphan care partnerships, and support of indigenous adoption movements from Ukraine to Ethiopia.
Children facing the world without parents know profound want, and a vast spectrum of creative, compassionate responses are certainly needed. But if we are serious about meeting their deepest needs, no mass-produced solution will suffice. It must happen one by one, in the homes of families motivated by faith and love to transform the life of a child.
(Reposted from the April 22, 2011 post of http://conhomeusa.typepad.com/)