Why the world doesn’t have an orphanage problem…


 Changing the conversation about caring for vulnerable children

Oops… it seems we might’ve got this backwards?!

Recently we’ve been preparing for a website update. After a couple of years of huge change and growth for SFAC, much of our current site is out of date. 

Thinking about what we wanted our website to say led us to start carefully considering our language. How do we explain this weird thing that we do?! 

We’re a children’s charity but we don’t work with children… Hmm…

And we don’t have any projects of our own. We only exist in cooperation with other organisations’ projects. (Perhaps you could call us a parasite charity?! … Eww!)

As part of this process we’ve been considering “the problem” that SFAC solves – what is it we exist to do? These attempts to clearly articulate what we do have led to some surprising conclusions, including the thought that perhaps what the way we’ve been explaining it up until now hasn’t been quite right…

Eek… how do we get out of this one?! And just exactly where did the confusion arise?

We’ve been saying that the problem we’re working to fix is this:
Far too many kids around the world are growing up in orphanages instead of families and we want to see them get back into families.

I can hear your confusion… “But isn’t that what you do?!”

And, to a large extent, the answer is still “Yep, we do!”

But at the same time as thinking through our language another thing has been happening. We’ve been hearing more and more reports of orphanages closing down and children being sent back to families.

Surely that’s cause for celebration, right?! Mission Accomplished – the Happy Ever After ending is here – Woohoo!!

The problem is orphanages can’t “just” be closed and families can’t “just” be reunited after years apart. Well, not without some serious casualties along the way. Clear procedures need to be in place to ensure the whole process is safe and in the best interests of each child involved. 

We’re also hearing about people setting up foster care programmes without knowing how to assess whether or not a family would be safe carers or have the capacity to care for a child, especially a child with a history of trauma and difficult experiences. You only have to look at well established foster care systems in countries like the UK and Australia to know that just transferring a child from a children’s home/orphanage or from their own family to a foster family is no guarantee they will thrive! It takes a lot of work, the use of some fairly specific skill sets and professional knowledge to ensure these transitions are safe.

For the child being moved, if it’s just a transition from one unsafe environment to another then it’s definitely not a “Woohoo” moment! 
So, does the world have an orphanage problem, an “orphanage crisis”, or is there something else going on? 
It seems to us, there’s a different kind of problem and it has two parts. 

Part 1. Good Intentions

The vast majority of people we work with in this area (caring for or making decisions on behalf of children) have good intentions. Hopefully that includes us too! We all want to protect and care for vulnerable children, to give them a better chance in life. Connected to these good intentions is a tendency towards a knee-jerk, quick fix reaction.There are very few people who don’t experience some kind of emotional response to seeing or hearing about a child in distress or a child having to carry responsibility beyond their years. We find ourselves just wanting to scoop these kids up and take them home! 

(Sidenote: This is why many well respected charities continue to use distressing images – aka “poverty porn” – in their fundraising campaigns despite a growing awareness of the ethical issues around doing so). 
What’s so wrong with big emotions and good intentions, I hear you ask?! This is where we get to the second part of the problem…

Part 2. Poor Practise

When good intentions combine with fast, emotion driven action they often lead to poor practice. 
And poor practice can lead to children being harmed unnecessarily or, in extreme cases, dying – completely the opposite of what our good intentions and emotional responses set out to do.

Let’s be clear, good intentions are definitely not bad but they’re only a starting point. Without the right knowledge, skills and resources they’re all but useless. Our emotional reactions are also entirely valid and appropriate. The problem occurs when we act out of these emotions, quickly and without proper thought and research. Our first impulse is rarely the right, most sustainable, long term solution to a problem.

The first step in any endeavour involving the lives of another, must be to acknowledge what we don’t know; where we’re not qualified and where the limits of our experience and expertise lie. This is especially important when we’re intervening in the lives of an already vulnerable population like children. 

We’re realising that it’s these problems our work at SFAC addresses. We do it by educating, equipping and empowering people around the world, turning their good intentions into good practice, their emotional responses into the motivation to stick around for the long haul and find lasting solutions.

So how did we get into this muddle and what have we learnt?! 

As we’ve worked through these things we could see that, when it comes to our language, our focus has been in the wrong place. By focussing our conversations on the model of care – Family vs Orphanage – we, and many other organisations, have been getting stuck on the What. 

What do I do to protect children? Do I care for them in a group setting, in their biological family, with extended family? With foster carers. Oh, and what about adoption?… 

We’ve been getting stuck on the model of care and, in the process, we’ve been forgetting about the Why. Why do we place so much emphasis on children growing up in families? 

Because we know, for the vast majority of children, this is where they will thrive. This is where they’ll have the best chance to make their way to becoming confident, independent adults who contribute to society in whatever way they’re able. It’s also consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 9, if you want to get specific!). 

We all want children to thrive. 

But, as I said earlier, we also know that not all families are safe and just because a child is placed in another family doesn’t mean they will thrive.

So with the Why (we want all children to thrive) in mind, it’s time to move on to the How? How do we determine what each child needs, and, once we’ve determined that, decide where those needs will best be met now, and into the future. 

This. This is our job. This is the problem SFAC solves – this How gap that lies between good intentions and good practice.

We educate people working with and making decisions on behalf of children, equipping and empowering them to assess every child’s individual needs.

When this is done well, the What – the type of care most likely to meet those needs – becomes evident.  

In order to thrive, children need to be and feel safe and to have somewhere to belong. The people, the place and the things that will give them this sense of security and identity will be different for every single child. 

Every child is unique. Their care should be too.

This is, and always has been, SFAC’s foundation. We’re not solving an “orphanage problem”. We’re turning good intentions into good practice so that every child is treated as the unique individual they are, giving them the best chance to thrive. 

P.S. This article raises so many issues – we may have left you feeling like you have more questions than answers! Feel free to get in touch with those questions and keep an eye out here and on our social media channels – you’ll be hearing much more from us on these topics in 2020.

Image Credit:  Andre Guerra on Unsplash

Scroll to Top