what about orphanages? (part 2)

If you’re looking for Read-a-Long Details, TOMORROW! And here are some links if you missed Part 1 of the What About Orphanages? series and/or Meet the McCollums.

I do want to say something before I hand the blog over to John. This whole issue of orphan care is so vast and so complex, I can’t even begin to put a dent in it with a little series of posts here on my blog. There’s so much to say/learn/understand about so many things–like adoption (both domestic and foreign), foster care, maternity programs that are helping mamas keep their babies, education, and on and on and on.

Please don’t think I’m saying I have all the answers. Or even any really. God has just laid this on my heart, and I’m taking a small step toward learning more, educating others, and getting these precious children the love they deserve.

That’s all.

Oh! Before I forget, I’d love to extend a personal invite to anyone who’s interested in Orphan Care to attend an Orphan Summit right here in Columbus on March 9-10. Wess Stafford, President of Compassion International, will be the keynote speaker. If you’re from out of town and need a place to stay, I might just know of somewhere cheap and exciting. E-mail me.

That’s really all this time.

Take it away, John.

John: Before diving into the first set of questions, I wanted to point out that although there are some universal concerns about orphanages to address – and even some misconceptions to clear up – I can only speak with authority for Asia’s Hope. That having been said, many of the criticisms I hear about residential orphan care ring true to me, especially for organizations that provide care in a traditional institutional framework.

I would agree, for instance, that large institutional orphanages staffed with shift-workers – as opposed to family-style children’s homes with full-time moms and dads – tend to exacerbate rather than alleviate many problems facing orphaned or poor kids. Unfortunately, many people who rightly criticize poorly conceived and badly run institutions paint with an overly broad brush, ignoring the complexity of the issues facing orphaned kids, their communities and the organizations trying to serve them, and obscuring the differences between good and bad strategies for care.

I hope that this dialogue will provide some helpful perspective for your readers who wish to understand the issues at hand and advocate for best practices in orphan care.

Question: “Three out of four children living in orphanages are not orphans – they still have at least one parent alive.” (I got this quote from the article I linked to in the first post.) Is this true of Asia’s Hope orphanages?

First of all, I think that we have to clarify what we mean when we say “orphan.” Colloquially, most people think of an orphan as a child whose mother and father have both died. For our purposes at Asia’s Hope, however, we define an orphan as any child who has no parents who can or will care for them. So, while we do prioritize for admission kids whose parents have both died, we also provide care for kids who may have, for instance, a mother who has died and a father who is in prison or who has abandoned them.

Just yesterday we admitted a sibling group – two boys and a little girl – whose father had committed suicide, and whose mother had abandoned them. The kids had no food, no access to healthcare, no shelter and no education. Neither the villagers nor their extended family could or would take them in. Do these kids fit the popular definition of orphans? Maybe not. But they fit ours. So, offhand, I can’t quote you stats on how many of the 600 kids in our care have one parent living, but I can say that we only admit children for whom no other credible options exist.

We wholeheartedly support the organizations out there that provide different kinds of care – village-level education, preventative and emergency health services for poor families, well-baby care, advocacy for safe and humane working conditions for destitute laborers – these are all essential! But for a small percentage of poor children – those who have no one else to care for them, especially those who are at high risk for sexual and economic exploitation – we provide essential, lifesaving help.

Question: “Orphanages tend to separate children from their parents and from family life which is paramount for a healthy adulthood. Nothing is done to reunite children with their families and little is done to maintain strong relationships between children and their parents.” Is this true?

Well, as I explained in my previous answer, most of the kids in our care have already been separated from their parents, and have received little or no help from their extended families, either because the families do not have the resources to provide that care, or because the families have simply abandoned them. So, for many kids, a reunion with a biological family is impossible. And in many other cases, it is the remaining family members – aunts, uncles, cousins — who have been exploiting the kids, forcing them to work on the streets as beggars, or in the fields as farm laborers. To reintegrate the kids into this kind of situation would be unwise and unsafe. But where possible, we facilitate continued contact with extended families. Often family members will come to visit, and occasionally, our staff will accompany kids back to their villages to help maintain contact between the child and their community of origin.

On the other side of the equation, we work hard to provide a real family for the children in our care. We don’t have huge, institutional facilities; we build or rent single-family dwellings. We don’t hire shift-workers, who come and go; we recruit full-time, long-term moms and dads who become parents to the kids in their care. And we work to keep the homes small.

We’ve seen huge orphanages – sometimes with hundreds of kids. Every study we’ve read and every piece of anecdotal knowledge we’ve accumulated indicates that kids from those types of institutions fare poorly as adults. That’s why we try to admit only 20 to 25 kids per home, and we generally maintain a high 1:5 staff-to-child ratio. The kids in our care develop stable, lifelong relationships with real mothers and fathers, real brothers and sisters. We believe that this will provide our kids with the kind of loving family environment that all experts agree works best for kids, especially kids who have suffered the trauma of loss and extreme poverty.

Thanks, John. Stay tuned for Part 3 on Wednesday. And feel free to ask John (or me) any questions you might have or share your own personal stories of mission trips/orphan care in the comments.

40 thoughts on “what about orphanages? (part 2)

  1. Pingback: GraceConnect » Asia’s Hope Provides Essential, Lifesaving Help

  2. April Salvant

    Thanks for these posts. Marla, I work in Haiti and know Heather. My husband and I oversee a ministry (New Hope Haiti Mission) that has a licensed orphanage- or what I think is better described as a children’s home. We got involved with leadership during our adoption (2006-08) and moved to Haiti full time in October. Over the past 6 years I have learned a lot about orphan care and orphan advocacy.

    The 21 kids in the “home” have been together for the past 7-12 years (depending on when they came). We have full time house parents/directors (a Haitian pastor, his wife, and two sons), 9 staff (6 of which are women who there 24/5 with a staggered 2 days off) and then our family of 7 down the street. We are not perfect by any means, but I would say without a doubt we are a family!! There is love in our home. The kids are thriving at school, church, and in their relationships.

    It is HARD because so many people hear the word “orphanage” and their minds think of the dirty evil places that DO exist in this country. Those places do need to be shut down, no doubt! Or they think of the overcrowded institutions that neglect children. People tend to be black/white and say ALL orphanages are bad. It is frustrating to feel defensive. To feel like we are clumped in the same group as the exploiters. And struggle financially because people read an article and withdraw their support.

    {On a side note, I oppose volun-tourism.}

    Thanks so much for opening this discussion and thank you, John, for sharing what you are doing in Asia. I will be praying for you all.

    1. Marla Taviano

      Thanks so much for sharing this, April. I’ll be praying for you guys too. I’ve got a special place in my heart for Haiti–and those of you who are loving them up close and personal.

  3. Gretchen

    Thank you, Marla & John, for highlighting this subject. We are in the process of an adoption in Ethiopia, and while it pains me that it’s taking “forever”, your thoughts help me wait with a more grateful anticipation & with open hands. Adoption referrals have ground to nearly a halt from Ethiopia (at least thru our agency) in the last 9 months, but we are still receiving cautious optimism from them that things seem to be slowly on the move again. So hard to fight my selfish nature & not pout–BUT being a good parent means looking out for the best interest of our children–whether they are technically ours (yet) or not. I’m now still aching to hold this wee one, but incredibly comforted by the fact that our agency is fighting for what’s best for these children–by actively visiting orphanages & turning down those relationships (w/orphanages)w/even the slightest hint of impropriety/profit-seeking, etc. And so…our wait grows longer. Thank you for this re-affirmation that, as w/my birth children, things don’t always go as planned, parenting is messy, but, thankfully, God is ever-present, He loves these children, & His plan is sovereign. But is it okay to say, I really just want her here, now!!!? 😉

  4. Sharon

    Could you explain more about the homes? When you say the kids have real moms and dads versus other places that have shift workers, do the staff live there 24/7 or are you saying they have made a long term commitment and won’t be looking for a new job in a few months?

    As far as the kids having real siblings, do they regard one another as siblings or do the staff have their own children that stay there too?

    1. Marla Taviano

      I’m sure John will answer this, but I’ll chime in too. Most of our experience is with Prek Eng 3, one of the orphanages outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Savong and Pisey are the Mom and Dad, and yes, the kiddos really look at them as a mom and dad. Savong and Pisey have 2 kids of their own–Srey Rose is 10, Eden is 2. They all (27 people total) live together in a small, but adequate home. They also have 2 full-time helpers, Moum and Khoum. Khoum is a single mom of a 3yo girl who also lives there. Whatever these kids need, their parents provide. It’s a long-term commitment.

      The kids really truly think of themselves as brothers and sisters. 20 kids + the 3 who have parents. Several of them are sibling sets. Sophan, Cheata, and Sophy are brother and sisters. Longdich and Kimhou are sisters. Rebekah and Timothy are brother and sister.

      They tease each other, hug each other, the big ones help with the little ones, carry them around. It’s a beautiful thing. Our girls loved, loved, loved our time at the orphanage (we went about 12 times while we were there). It’s so un-orphanage, so like a huge family. But no huger than say the Duggars. 🙂

      1. Sharon

        Thanks Marla. lol about not being bigger than the Duggars household! That is so amazing that the kids are able to have a stable family, with parents and siblings.

        Two more questions:

        1) Do the parents of each home raise support or how do they make a living?

        2) How do the kids end up there? Do the staff find them on the street or does someone bring them there?

        1. Marla Taviano

          Each orphanage is fully sponsored by a church in the States or Canada. I think it costs about $4000/month to support an orphanage. Ours is actually sponsored by 2 churches. Our church is responsible for 16 of the kiddos, and a smaller church in TX takes care of 4.

          The parents are Cambodian (as are the staff). I’m not sure what their “salary” is, but taking care of the kiddos is their full-time job.

          I’ll let John answer #2.

        2. John McCollum


          Marla’s right. Each home is funded through a church partnership that Asia’s Hope International recruits and moderates. Our stable funding model makes all the difference in the world. The church sends their full support every month, and it’s their job to raise the money internally. Asia’s Hope provides ideas, resources and assistance, but each church does it a little differently — some through sponsorships, some right out of the church budget. This also allows us to keep our organization in North America super small. Right now, we have 150 staff overseas, and only 3 in the states — one of them part-time.

          This allows us to hire staff parents not for their fundraising ability or rolodex, but for their qualities as parents and pastors. They receive a salary and all of the funds needed for the kids. Although they have to budget, they don’t have to worry about where the money’s coming from. Given the huge task of caring for so many kids, it’s great to not have to worry about where the rice is coming from on a daily basis.

          The kids come to us a number of ways. We’re fully registered with local governments, so many of them come as referrals from local officials or social welfare offices. Others are referred from local churches, others from NGOs who don’t specialize in orphan care. And still others are brought by relatives who have heard about Asia’s Hope.

    2. John McCollum

      Sharon, great questions.

      We don’t ask anyone to sign lifelong contracts or anything like that, but we do ask our home parents to consider accepting the position on an ongoing and presumably permanent move.

      So, if a set of home parents owns a house or pastors a church, they leave behind the house and leave behind their congregation and the bring any of their own children to Asia’s Hope and commit to living as parents to the orphaned kids we bring into their new home.

      Now certainly there are primary emotional attachments that parents have with their biological kids and kids have with their biological siblings that can never — and should never — be weakened.

      But you’ll find that the kids at our homes really do see each other as brothers and sisters, and they look forward to life-long relationships with those kids.

      As far as other staff goes, we have a mix of 24/7 caretakers and others — teachers and helpers — who go “go home” at night. But even those are long-term placements; we don’t tend to have high turnover or lots of different people coming in, attaching and detaching from the kids.

      You’d be hard pressed to walk into one of our homes and tell which kids are related biologically, or even which kids are the bio kids of staff parents.

      The homes run something like a culturally-contextualized version of one of those TLC shows featuring really big families. The big kids help out a lot, and there’s lots of love.

      The homes themselves also benefit from a relationship with the other Asia’s Hope homes in their city, sometimes sharing large lots which begin to look something like subdivisions. And they all fellowship together, and fall under the supervision and administration of Asia’s Hope national directors.

      Does that help?

      1. Sharon

        Thank you. I have a much better idea of how it works now. It is truly amazing what you guys are doing, John. Thank you for what I’m sure are many sacrifices you (and your family) have made to serve these kids.

        And Marla, thank you for introducing us all to Asia’s Hope. You are so good at introducing us to worthy causes/organizations.

        1. John McCollum

          Thanks, Sharon.

          We’re constantly amazed by what God’s been doing, and we’re just trying to do our best. He’s certainly blessed us, and we’re honored to get a chance to do our part.

  5. Shannon Wheeler

    We’ve been involved in orphan care as a result of a failed adoption of a boy in Ukraine, who we determined we would not abandon, even though his adoption was impossible and he’s now aged-out. For a couple years we’ve worked with the center he lives at, and it’s been fun to see friends (like Marla!) get excited to give to these kids at Christmas or be pen pals, and my husband and I were blown away at the amazing-ness of this place when we went. It IS a home and it IS a family, and maybe a small handfull of kids are technically “orphans,” where far more are as you’ve described, kids with parents who for whatever reason cannot care for them. I’ll share the link to the center, because it is phenomenal. And as much as we hear of places not doing right by kids, this is one place that is serving the Lord and serving children well. http://www.sunshine-kiev.org/

    God’s taken our family in directions so different than how I’d neatly planned. We’ve been broken a thousand times over by seeing the face of Jesus looking back at us as we spend time with those we are blessed to serve. Currently a family of 8 Afghani refugees who lived in Ukraine for 15 years (five of the kids were at Sunshine Center for 5 years, so we have known them for a while) just moved to my city, as a result of God letting us serve them and connect with them in Ukraine. Now they are part of our lives every day! (I’ve stopped trying to guess what God is doing…. He is so much better at planning my life than I am.)

    Thank you for doing this series. It’s very relevant and very important. I’m looking forward to what is still to come!

    1. John McCollum

      Shannon, it’s exciting to meet other people whose first introduction to orphan care was through the international adoption process.

      I think that adoptive parents (or those who tried to become adoptive parents) present a real opportunity for the long-term, in-country care of orphans.

      In a number of churches, we’re seeing adoptive parents really push the congregation forward into care for all kinds of orphans — those who might come to the States and those who never will.

      I also appreciate how you said “…so different than how I’d neatly planned.” Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the heart of a man, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” How true.

      1. Shannon Wheeler

        Thank you. I started out very adoption-focused, and I was not really aware of the pain that comes with adoption in so many cases, when kids leave cultures they love and languages they love and friends they love. We are so thankful that “our” Sasha has Sunshine and that we had the chance to walk through his village with him, visit the house he lived in with his parents and that God knew Sasha needed to stay in Ukraine but he also needed a family, and I had to let go of my dream for Sasha’s life and be able to trust God’s wisdom. And I really have been changed in a lot of my thinking – I very much value the in-country care of children, and so many kids CAN’T be adopted, and for many they would rather stay in their country and have family-type support to transition to adulthood, and we see that model at Sunshine. They have a life-skills program, they don’t put kids out at 16, and they ARE a family. Kids who’ve grown up there have had weddings in the yard, they go there for their “home” moments, and the kids who leave (like our Afghani family) miss it so much my heart hurts to hear their longing for Sunshine. I’ve been convicted of my attitude that came from simple, honest ignorance, that all kids would love to be adopted and come to America to a loving family. I’ve heard other adoptive families disparage the conditions or the traditions of countries their kids come from right in front of their children, and it’s very sad. There are good organizations out there providing really well for kids. I volunteer with Project HOPEFUL, and one of the pieces we look at and discussed with a man in Kiev who works there for children’s services is how to come alongside in-country care for kids, so more kids can have what Sunshine offers. We have to see the preciousness of cultures outside of our own, and that is so honoring of children, and if we adopt kids internationally, I think it’s so important we try to help kids keep their culture, try to learn their language, try to make food they like and not try to assimilate kids to be “American” when they have hearts shaped by places that are incredibly dear to them. This is just my rambling after a few years of having my ideas shaken up by the way God has stripped down all that is “me” about my adoption thoughts, and He’s been showing me that there are many ways He wants us as His Church to care for the orphan.

        1. John McCollum

          That’s great, Shannon.

          I think it’s so important for adoptive parents to make the journey from “What’s good for my family?” which is, to be honest, almost always our motivation for adoption to “What’s the best for kids?” which is a pre-requisite for doing long-term, sustainable work.

          1. Danielle

            This SO resonates in my heart! In our adoption journey God has really brought us from “What’s best for us?” to “What’s best for her?” This is such a hard process to go through since it reveals so much of our sinful motivations for adoption, even when we thought there were none. It’s such a hard question to ask, because I know the answer may not be what my heart wants to hear. That verse from Proverbs is so good and true!

      1. Shannon Wheeler

        He so IS! Thank you for loving Ilia and blessing her at Christmas. She’s excited to go snowboarding today with a new friend from church. She is struggling with English and really longing to connect with people (you couldn’t find a more people-person kind of girl -she is SO fun), and she’s very homesick for Ukraine. Thank you for being part of her story here in America and sharing the love of Jesus with her. I’m enjoying your series on orphanages! Great idea!

    1. John McCollum

      Pastor Amber, Marla is a friend of mine who is interviewing me on this website about orphan care, specifically Asia’s Hope.

      Marla, et al, Pastor Amber is a man I met in Northeastern India. We hope, God willing, to hire him and his wife in the near future to start an orphan home in the town of Pedong.

  6. Melissa Irwin

    Thanks for the info! When I first began in orphan care, I believed they all had lost their parents. Slowly I began to realize through different conversations that some of our kiddos in Zim do have a grandmother or a parent. But as you have stated is your experience, several of our kiddos have been rejected or abandoned. In one case, one of the boys I’m ministering to… His grandfather tried to kill him because he lost a cow from the herd. Another of the teenage girls that I am ministering to; her mother has had 5 children by 5 men, is HIV positive and has no desire to care for her children, so she ran off leaving them in the brush. And finally another girl just finished school and was reunited with her grandmother. Within 48 hours her grandmother sold her to a man in their rural village. The young girl ran away and is protected, for now. We call these “vulnerable” children. While they may have a parent or a grandparent, their plight is no less tragic.

    1. John McCollum


      Boy, do those stories sound familiar.

      You know, in many of the places we work, there’s neither a linguistic nor a cultural difference between the word “orphan” and, say, “desperately poor child.” We try to be clear when we’re talking to Westerners because we want to be as transparent as possible.

      We also had to come to some sort of a consensus with our Asian staff — we don’t want to become a boarding school for poor kids, kids whose families expect them to return when they’ve gotten a basic education. There are organizations that specialize in that kind of care. We, however, feel called to the kids whose parents have either died, abandoned them, or are unable to give even the most basic care and want to relinquish them permanently.

      It’s these kids who are at the very highest risk of being trafficked.

      Unfortunately, there ARE unscrupulous people out there who trick merely poor families into giving up their kids — the parents think they’re sending the kids to a school, but they’re really sending them to an institution that wants to use them to get more funding — or worse, an group that wants to exploit them more overtly.

      And unfortunately — and it pains me as an adoptive parent to say — some adoption agencies in Cambodia (and other countries) used these types of tactics to persuade poor families to give up their kids for international adoption. Neither the biological nor the adoptive parents were aware. The adoption facilitators got rich, and scandal ensued.

      That’s why its currently impossible to adopt from Cambodia, and why we’re not at all interested in getting involved in the adoption business. It provides a profit motive, and it invites problems we’re not willing to engage.

      Unfortunately, when stories like these hit the world press, it raises the level of suspicion of groups that are really trying to do the right thing the right way for the right reasons.

      Keep up the good work.

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