In this second of our four-part series, Home for Good founder Krish Kandiah chats to Hope and Homes for Children’s Steve Coffey, and begins to unpick the link between a biblical understanding of family and the Western Church’s historic support of orphanages.
SC: How did your own personal experience lead you to where you are now, in terms of thinking about orphanages overseas?
KK: Weirdly, my wife and I, after we got involved in fostering and adoption, always thought that in retirement we’d go and take those skills and use them somewhere else in the world. Maybe in Africa—you can read all sorts of stories, see all sorts of movies about there being an orphan crisis there. So why wouldn’t we want to go and set up an orphanage, or work alongside an orphanage, and help children in that way? Then a number of different events happened that made us think about that differently. Hearing statistics about the number of children currently in orphanages around the world who have living parents, it seems ridiculous. Children who could be flourishing in a family—if that family were properly supported—but are in institutions instead, seems to be a really bad idea.
We began to recognise that the Western Church has been supporting orphanages around the world out of a sense of wanting to make a difference, out of generosity, out of good intentions. But unintentionally keeping children in institutions is not helping them to thrive and flourish. The stats around children in orphanages who struggle with mental health; who struggle with making normalised family relationships after being in an orphanage; who are more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation… Those all alerted us to the problem that orphanages are not good for children.
It seems to be the case that orphanages don’t serve orphans. Orphanages seem to create orphans. Once an orphanage is in a town, families that might be at the edge of poverty, or might be struggling to educate their children, relinquish their children to the orphanage—thinking they’re doing good, but actually are making their children more vulnerable.
A whole bunch of factors alerted us to the need and we recognise that a lot of money and support visits were coming from the UK Church to the rest of the world. And so we thought, here’s something that we can do. We can help to educate and inspire and encourage Christians to be a bit more thoughtful about what they’re doing. And instead of supporting orphanages, finding ways to help reunify these children with their families. Where that’s not possible, to find alternative family care locally through fostering and adoption.
“It seems to be the case that orphanages don’t serve orphans. Orphanages seem to create orphans.”
SC: What does the Bible say about families?
KK: A really well-known Bible verse is in Psalm 68, where it says, “God sets the lonely in families.” It’s in reference to God describing himself as a father to the fatherless, and a protector of widows and orphans. Right there is just one little cameo, if you like, of God’s intention for family to be the place where children flourish.
Similarly, in the New Testament, it talks a lot about God adopting us into his family. There you have a little blueprint, that God saw humanity in need, saw that we’d got ourselves into all sorts of trouble, and wants to meet that need by adopting us into his family. So you’ve got two powerful pictures. One, God’s concern for the vulnerable, putting them in families. And the other is God’s concern for us, putting us in his family. You put those two together and you’ve got quite a powerful picture that family is the place where God wants us to flourish.
Again, why wouldn’t we want that for children all around the world? Why would we want that for our own children, but not want it for children in the majority world? In one sense it’s equalising the provision, so it isn’t just “family is what we want for kids in the West, but institutions are what we want for kids everywhere else.” That would seem to be an unhelpful distinction.
“You’ve got two powerful pictures. One, God’s concern for the vulnerable, putting them in families. And the other is God’s concern for us, putting us in his family. You put those two together and you’ve got quite a powerful picture that family is the place where God wants us to flourish.”
SC: What about those who would say, “Yes, of course. I get it. The Bible says about family. But orphanages exist because they’re a necessary evil. They’re needed, and that’s why it’s important to support them.”
KK: I think often there’s a misconception of what everyday life is like in some of the countries around the world. So many people have a skewed picture of Africa. When you think of Africa, you think of a photo from a charity website, or an earthquake, or a flood, and actually that isn’t the experience of everybody in Africa. There are middle class people in Africa as well as the bottom billion, so because of that skewed view I think we catastrophise the orphan crisis.
There are lots of places in Africa where children are unnecessarily institutionalised and, at best, orphanages are an intervention to help in a crisis but not a destination where children ought to be living long-term. Our feeling is there is enough people and facilities for most of the children in orphanages to go home to have a normal family life and to be allowed to flourish—and I don’t want to deprive children of that opportunity.
In partnership with Hope and Homes for Children and other global experts, Home for Good have launched the Homecoming project to raise awareness of the global orphanage crisis, and to encourage Christians to transition their support towards family-based alternatives.