James 1:27 calls us to care for orphans and widows. The Bible and international child welfare organizations use a very similar definition of orphan. A single orphan is a child that has lost one parent while a double orphan has lost both parents. Most orphan statistics include children in both categories. This definition has caused some confusion for individuals and faith-based organizations seeking to work with orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is important to remember that of the more than 145 million children classified as orphans worldwide, approximately 13 million have actually lost both parents. Evidence shows that the vast majority of "orphans" are living with a surviving parent, grandparent, or family member.
The term "vulnerable children" describes all children who have been determined to be in greatest need. The term 'orphans and vulnerable children' (OVC) describes all children who have lost one or both parents, whose parents have become too ill to care for and protect them, children living in extreme poverty, or those suffering from illness or disability. When programs target "AIDS orphans" only and do not include the wider community of vulnerable children they create problems by both privileging and stigmatizing the children receiving services. More information on vulnerable children is available on the UNICEF site.
The simple answer is family. Extended family members and the community are caring for the vast majority of orphaned and vulnerable children in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that over 90% of orphaned children in this region are cared for by a surviving parent, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, older siblings, or neighbors and community members acting as "foster families." Many of these families are living in extreme poverty, which is exacerbated as more children enter the home. For more information on caregivers click here.
Every child needs to be protected from neglect and abuse and provided with loving care no matter where he or she lives. Protecting children from abuse and neglect must be a community-wide responsibility. The community and the church can play an important role in supporting the safety and well-being of children within family care. Any program, such as those described in From Faith to Action that eases the burden on caregivers can help reduce the risk that children will be neglected, abused, or abandoned.
Family and community-based care means that children are growing up where they can best thrive - in a family. Community plays a key role in supporting family. Family and community-based care programs are any programs that help to keep children within a family. They might provide medicine to prevent the death of biological parents, locate and support foster families, provide counseling and home visit services, drop in centers for street children, and daycare centers. Many programs like these are started or run through the local church. Local solutions for orphans and vulnerable children ensure that every child has a family, while also protecting children from mistreatment and abuse. When the family and community are strengthened fewer children are neglected, abandoned, or placed into orphanages. Many faith-based examples of family and community-based care projects are highlighted on page 14 of Africa's Children.
Communities and local churches cannot provide for all of the needs of orphaned and vulnerable children alone. Governments have a responsibility to provide basic services, especially in areas such as public health, education, material assistance, and social protection. Community and faith-based organizations have an important role to play in advocating for - and helping families and children access - these critical services.
Orphanages are sometimes necessary as a temporary or last-resort response. There are times when they are needed to offer safety and provide for immediate needs. In these cases the best models are those that provide small group homes, modeled on family life, with trained houseparents who can give personal and consistent care. In all cases every effort should be made to connect children back to their extended family or community.
Many African countries and international organizations recognize the shortcomings of orphanages and discourage their use. Orphanages are expensive and can only reach small numbers of children. They can also become a way to access food, clothing, and education in poor communities when what is really needed is to make these necessities available on the household level. The most promising solutions are those that focus on preventing poverty and reasons for abandonment. Churches and faith-based organizations can do a lot in these communities to reduce dependency on orphanages.
Permanent care within a loving and supportive family is the ideal option for every child.
Where domestic adoption with extended family or community members is a viable option, governments and non-profits should work together to assess each child and potential family for adoption placement.
When domestic and local families are not a viable option, and after due diligence has been done to connect children to loving families in their community of origin, inter-country adoption can provide a loving, safe, and permanent option for orphaned children.
Inter-country adoption can never address the needs of all orphaned and vulnerable children as it does not address the root causes of orphaning and vulnerability. But as a piece of the continuum of care it can provide a vital solution for children who might otherwise grow up in institutional (orphanage) care.