Mission trips to orphanages abroad (Africa, Asia, etc.): why you should avoid them
Millions of Christians wishing to make a difference, travel to countries across Africa, Asia and South America to participate on orphanage mission trips every year. Although done with the best of intentions, there are significant concerns about the effect this has on vulnerable children and how it is contributing to sustaining the global orphanage industry.
There are an estimated 8 million children living in orphanages across the world. We understandably assume that they are living there because they do not have a family to care for them. Although this is true for a small number, around 80% of children growing up in institutions today have at least one living parent.
What is an orphanage?
The word ‘orphanage’ describes a residential care institution where a group of unrelated children live together and receive care from paid staff members in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education.
Orphanages no longer exist in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia, but do still exist across Africa, Asia, South America and parts of Eastern Europe.
The term ‘orphanage’ itself is quite misleading, as it implies that all children living there are orphans i.e. both their parents have died. However, we know that this isn’t true and that around 80% of children growing up in these types of facilities have one or more living parents.
Other names used to describe an orphanage are: children’s homes, shelters, safe houses, children’s villages, transitional homes and residential care institutions.
It is now widely recognised that a key driver leading to children being separated from their families and placed into orphanages is poverty, not lack of caregivers as traditionally believed. For some families across the developing world, providing a good standard of care for children is extremely challenging. With few resources available to support them, parents can be led to believe that if they want their child to have the best start in life, they have no other option but to send them away to live in an orphanage.
Although well-run orphanages may be able to give children better access to education or health services, they can never replace the consistent, stable and life-long love and care provided by a family.
Over eighty years of research has shown us the damage which can be done to a child’s development and well-being by growing up in an institution. They can experience attachment disorders, behavioural issues, low self-esteem and confidence, and are more vulnerable to abuse, neglect, trafficking and exploitation. Read more about why growing up in an orphanage is harmful to children.
Scripture, social science and international guidance on child protection are in agreement that the very best environment in which to raise a child is in a healthy, loving family. When it is not possible or in the best interests of the child to stay with their parents, alternative, family-based models of care should be sought.
There is a growing movement among international and national policymakers, mission agencies, churches and nongovernmental organisations to shift away from an overreliance on residential care centres towards family-based models of care. For churches this requires some deep reflection on the ways we support children overseas through short-term mission trips and consideration on how we could do this better.
How do mission trips to orphanages harm children?
Each year hundreds of individuals and families travel to countries such as Haiti, Honduras and Ghana to take part in mission trips to orphanages. Motivated by wanting to fulfil Biblical responsibilities to the orphan, these trips have been a part of the practice of the global church for decades. However, with new knowledge comes a chance for reflection and change in order to do what is best by children.
1. Mission trips harm a child’s ability to form secure attachments
We know that in order to thrive, children need to be able to form a secure attachment with a primary caregiver. This attachment allows them to develop emotionally, physically and cognitively, to feel safe, to learn to trust and to form healthy relationships with others as they grow. Being without this secure attachment, a child can experience what’s known as attachment disorder, and can form quick and unnatural bonds with people in order to try to fulfil this need.
The number of children living in an orphanage usually greatly outweighs the number of paid carers. It is very common for children to develop attachment disorders simply because they do not receive the consistent and one-to-one care that they require to develop. This is made worse when you consider the role of volunteers and mission trip teams visiting orphanages in the hope of showing love and care to the children. The children attach quickly, only to have this bond broken when the volunteer or team member leaves in a matter of days or weeks - only for the cycle to start again when the next team or group of volunteers arrive. The repeated pattern of attachment and abandonment can do serious harm to a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.
All children the world over deserve to be shown affection and care in order to know that they are loved and are safe, and they deserve this to be provided by a permanent and stable caregiver.
2. Mission trips are helping to incentivise orphanage trafficking
The number of orphanages opening across the world has risen in parallel to the number of individuals, church groups and families wanting to visit or volunteer in orphanages each year. This is despite the number of orphans worldwide having decreased steadily over the past 18 years.
As awful as it is to comprehend, the good intentions of kind-hearted people are actually helping to create and sustain an industry profiting off the back of the exploitation of children. Money that pours in via sponsorship, donations, volunteer and mission trips to support residential care centres across the developing world means that efforts to reform the care system in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya are greatly weakened.
In some parts of the world, setting up and running an orphanage has become an extremely lucrative business venture. In order to reap the financial support of overseas donors and volunteers, corrupt orphanage owners actively recruit children from their families by promising access to high quality education and healthcare services. This practice has become know as orphanage trafficking and is a form of modern slavery, a very serious crime. Once in the orphanage, children are routinely neglected, abused and exploited for labour and sex - all in the name of profit.
By visiting or volunteering in orphanages across the world we contribute to the demand for ‘orphans’, ensuring that more children are unnecessarily separated from their families and exploited as commodities for financial gain.
3. Mission trips make children vulnerable to abuse
The vast majority of people who wish to volunteer in an orphanage have nothing but the best interests of children at heart, but unfortunately that is not true of everyone. Orphanages, which are often unregulated and unregistered, are a target for adults who wish to abuse or exploit children. The best way of preventing such abuse from occurring is to restrict the number of people who can gain access to residential care centres to the professionally trained and permanent staff essential to the child’s care. When a child’s safety and wellbeing cannot be absolutely guaranteed, it is better to be overly cautious and stop the practice of mission trips and volunteering programs to orphanages altogether.
4. Mission trips are hindering care reforms which are in the best interest of children
Governments across the world have committed to reforming their countries’ care systems to enable them to transition away from the use of orphanages and towards better family-based care. This includes tackling the underlying reasons why some families feel the need to send their children to live in orphanages, by making sure that support services are available and accessible to everyone.
Mission trips to orphanages are inhibiting these reforms because they continue to ensure resources are directed to an out-dated model of care instead of towards family or community-based methods. Alternatives, such as adoption or foster care, continue to be under resourced and so the cycle of dependency on orphanages continues.
In order to see the best outcomes for children everywhere we need to shift our support away from orphanages and towards better, more effective alternatives. Find out more about how you can plan an ethical mission trip abroad.
Visiting orphanages that you sponsor or donate to
You may be considering organising or partaking in a mission trip to an orphanage that you or your church sponsors or donates to throughout the year. Regardless of whether you have a pre-existing relationship with an orphanage it is still not a good idea to visit. Please see our page on donations to find out more information about how your money could be used to support children to remain with their families instead of growing up in harmful institutions.
What if my mission trip is to visit a ‘good’ orphanage?
Not all orphanages are corrupt. Many are doing their best for the children in their care and some even purposefully try to innact ‘family-like’ care by either housing a small number of children at a time or creating smaller clusters of children who have one primary caregiver.
However, it is important to stress that no orphanage - no matter how well run or how closely they try to mirror a family - is the preferred option for a child. Orphanages are never able to provide children with the same level of stability and long-term support than a family can.
Orphanages, as a model of care, are fundamentally flawed. That is why the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and many other countries across the world no longer place children in orphanages, but instead operate a family-based care system. In order to best support children in other countries we need to stop supporting orphanages and instead turn our attention to family-based care alternatives.
What is family or community based care?
Deinstitutionalisation, in the context of residential care, refers to the process of reforming child care systems and moving away from orphanages to family and community-based care instead. This means developing appropriate services to replace orphanages, such as kinship care, foster care and adoption, as well as work done to support families to remain together from the off.
Deinstitutionalisation also includes reintegrating children who are currently living in orphanages back into their families and wider communities.
When children aren’t able to stay with their families or it's not in a child's best interest, family-based alternatives should be sought out. These include:
- Kinship care - where a child grows up with relatives
- Foster care - where a child grows up in a family that is not their own, but ideally from the same community as them
- Emergency foster care - this can be required if a child needs to leave quickly for reasons of safety, but should only be temporary whilst a longer term care plan is arranged.
In order to see children receive the best start in life possible, we need to see a shift in support away from orphanages across Africa, Asia and South America and towards family and community-based care alternatives. Read how you and your church can be a part of this international effort.
If we stop supporting orphanages, what will happen to real orphans?
Although 80% of children in orphanages have family that could care for them if given the right support, it is true that some children do not have family to return to. In these situations, alternative family-based care, such as foster care, would be identified. Shelters and other short-term child protection facilities that provide immediate support for highly vulnerable children whilst appropriate alternative care is identified, play an important role in the child protection system. Their role is highly specialised and should only ever be a short-term solution. It is never appropriate for mission teams or volunteers to work in this context.
Where can I go to find out more?
If you’d like to continue to develop your knowledge on the issue of Christian mission trips to orphanages, or if you are currently supporting an orphanage and would like some advice, we suggest taking a look at some of the resources developed by our faith-based partner organisations.
ACCI Missions, who also run the fantastic Kinnected website.
Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO)
Catholic Relief Service (CRS)
Faith to Action
SOE (Standards of Excellence in Short-term Mission)
If you would like to discuss anything you have read here today or are seeking further advice, please contact us and we’d be happy to help.