Forum Panel Talks about Necessary Paradigm Shift from Orphanages to Family-based Care
The panel at the World Without Orphans Forum with Patrick Rutikanga (left) and Phil Aspegren (middle). | Christian Daily International

On the third day of the World Without Orphans global forum that is currently taking place in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a panel discussion highlighted a central issue the orphan care movement is wrestling with today: the need to move away from institutionalized care in orphanages and finding solutions that ensure children grow up in permanent families.

Institutionalized care has been proven to be an outdated model that fails to meet some of the most essential needs of children and leaves them ill-prepared to flourish in life once they grow out of the system. There is no better place for children to grow up than in a stable family structure. Several testimonies at the forum by those who grew up in as well as those who led orphanages attested to the vastly different long-term outcomes between those who only experienced an orphanage versus children who were eventually placed in families.

The required paradigm shifts to introduce a new approach of orphan care, however, may seem daunting considering the decades of investments by churches and Christian ministries into orphanages as a primary form of caring for vulnerable children.

According to a 2021 study conducted by the Barna Group that surveyed 3,000 U.S. Christians to understand their perceptions and support of orphanages, almost one fifth of all respondents (19%) gave financial support to orphanages, children’s homes and other types of residential care. Projecting the donated average amounts to the total U.S. Christian population, approximately US$2.5 billion is given to these kinds of institutions on an annual basis. Furthermore, 91% of the survey respondents believe that orphanages are essential and 86% see them as positive, according to the same study – although 96% also agree that family structures are optimal.

While the study was focused on Christians in the United States, the views are similar in other parts of the world. Therefore, leaders within the orphan care movement are eager to change the perceptions and help Christians understand – and financially support – the new family-based models.

A success story from Rwanda

The first panelist who was introduced was Patrick Rutikanga who transformed an orphanage in Kigali into a trauma-informed community center for vulnerable children and their families.

Rutikanga shared the story of the orphanage his grandparents founded in Rwanda in 1946. It started simply by taking children into their home and later, their number grew to about sixty children before the genocide started in 1994. But once the genocide began, the orphanage ended up becoming a safe house for some 400 mostly Tutsi children whom they protected amid the killings.

“After that time, there were a lot of orphans obviously, but we wanted to work with the government to try to see how they can reintegrate children with families,” he said. “But there were a lot of wounds in the social fabric of the family, with many families deteriorated. So, children would go to families and then they would come back to the center.”

“It wasn’t until 2012 where the government of Rwanda reinstated the policy again, working with different international organizations, churches and ministries and individual people, to see how kids could be integrated in families. At that time, we had 125 children. And from 2012 to 2014, all of them were able to be reintegrated in families,” he said.

Asked about the challenges they faced in the transition away from orphanage to community center that serves families, Rutikanga acknowledged that it was not an easy journey.

“Of course there are a lot of challenges, but what I do really see as a big challenge is the mindset, the shift from industrial mindset to relational mindset,” he said. “We tend to think about what our kids need: education, yes, clothing, yes, food, yes. But there is more to that.”

“Sometimes, even for our partners, it’s so hard to really show them the other path and seeing beyond the immediate situation. These kids really need more than just clothing, objects and food. They need affection and love from a family-based care,” he emphasized.

According to the book of James, true religion is…

The second panelist to speak was Phil Aspegren, the founder of Casa Viva, a ministry specializing in promoting family-like solutions for children in different countries around the world.

Referring to the Bible verse in James 1:27 that is frequently quoted in orphan context, he rhetorically asked: “Is it true or false? True religion is building orphanages.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s not what true religion is.” Instead, the focus should be on caring for the fatherless child and looking out for his or her best interest. Therefore, Casa Viva’s focus is on changing the thinking of those who lead orphanages to go beyond institutional care.

“We’re helping orphanages realize, ‘We are not an orphanage. That’s not why we exist. Instead, we are an organization that acts in the best interest of children, youth, and families,’” Aspegren explained.

“They can become an agency or a ministry that is more than just the orphanage. We’ve confused what is our goal with our method. Our method is an orphanage, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to care for children well. So that’s the first thing that I point out. Children’s homes are learning that they can do more than just care for children and families. They can be the solution that is reintegrating children back to biological families,” he said.

The second step is to move towards a personalization of care that looks at the needs of each individual child and finds ways to get them out of the institution and back into a family.

“Many of us in this room started this work in an orphanage, but who among us said, ‘you know what I really hope to do? I hope to institutionalize children.’ No, nobody said that. Everybody wants to do well and we’re doing the best that we can knowing what we knew,” Aspegren said. “With the personalization of care, the goal is to humanize each child and to say: if we have 25 children living here in our orphanage, we’re going to need 25 solutions because there are no two children who are the same, no two children who need the same thing. And we need to create the right solution for each child.”

Casa Viva works with a spectrum that considers the situation of the child. The first and ideal scenario is always to bring the children back into the original family.

“Can we get these children back with their own moms and dads? What would have to change? How could we support those children with their own parents?” Aspegren explains, illustrating the shift away from simply placing a child into an institution and towards making every effort to actually find solutions that resolve the root issues.

If moving them back into the original core family is not possible, the next best option is the extended family. And if that is not possible, they would explore what it would take to see the children adopted or cared for long-term in a family.

“It is possible,” Aspegren emphasized. “We are seeing children’s homes around the world making the shift from just offering a children’s home, just offering this facility, to become a program that offers full spectrums of care, having social workers, finding those biological families and go out visiting those kids when they reunify them.”

“They also start developing prevention programs, developing foster care and adoption programs. It is possible,” he said and pointed out how the results are incomparably different as entire families are cared for and restored.

In many cases, children end up in institutionalized care not because their parents died and there is no one left but because their life circumstances don’t allow them to care for them. The new paradigm, therefore, looks at the whole family situation.

Returning to James 1:27, Aspegren then asked one more rhetorical question, “The Bible says your true religion is this caring for orphans. Is it true or false?”

“It’s half true,” he cautioned, adding that “we care for orphans, but we skip the second part! True religion is caring for orphans, that is correct, but it is only us that separate the orphan from the widow.”

“Many times, the widow is the orphan’s mom,” he said. “And we need to learn to love the widows in the same way that we’re loving the orphan.”

Originally published by Christian Daily International

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