By Sean Callahan
Catholic Relief Services, in partnership with Lumos and Maestral International, is working to change the way “orphaned” children are cared for around the world.
As a semi-finalist in the MacArthur Foundation’s “100&Change” competition, we have the chance to access $100 million to solve a key global problem of our time. To us, that problem is putting children into orphanages. We are committed to instead reunite them with their families while supporting those families so they can stay together. We believe our work will be the catalyst that will benefit millions of children and families.
In the U.S., orphanages have long been phased out. Orphaned and other vulnerable children are cared for in foster homes until a permanent family is found or their existing family is able to care for them again. Social services are in place to support families. Why should we not just accept, but encourage and support orphanages in places like Guatemala, Haiti and Ethiopia when we don’t accept them here?
Few realize that 80 to 90 percent of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. Most often, it is poverty, disease and natural disasters that is driving families apart, not the death of parents.
Many poor parents are told that an orphanage will take better care of their child, so they reluctantly let them go thinking their child will have a better life. But we know this rarely happens; losing the love and care of family, these children usually experience delays in development, and can be exploited, trafficked and abused. Too often they grow up unprepared to handle life on their own and end up struggling to function as a productive member of their community.
Why then, would we encourage something that weakens the family, that takes children away from the care and love they need in order to flourish? Yet that is what many well-meaning, good-hearted people do by supporting orphanages through their donations. We know that many of these are Catholics – our supporters who are acting out of the best of intentions. It is easy to see why these people think they are doing something good for these children, but the truth is -- they are not.
At Catholic Relief Services, we recognize that now is the time to end the institutionalization of children everywhere. Growing up in orphanages is damaging to children, their families and, indeed, to our Catholic beliefs. But we can only succeed with the support of people in the United States who have traditionally supported orphanages overseas.
The reintegration of children back into families is already proven effective in countries such as Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Rwanda, Moldova and more. In Moldova, there has been a 71% reduction in the number of children in institutions. Findings consistently show that most parents, when given the right support, will keep their child at home rather than place them in an orphanage.
As a global Catholic organization, we are in a unique position to make this a reality. But we all must discard our traditional notions about orphanages and become part of the solution. Rather than supporting orphanages, we can re-channel the generous support directed at orphanages to supporting families so they can provide adequate and loving care.
Every child both needs and deserves a family. But this can only become reality if we change the way we care.
Sean Callahan is the President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas relief and development agency of the Catholic community in the U.S.