by Mike Douris Posted on Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Most volunteers and churches that get involved in orphan care go to bless children with the hope of making a difference in their lives. Understandably, those who serve are rarely thinking, “is what I am seeing best practice in action, is this program in the best interest of the children, where on the continuum of care does this program fit, or is this a program I – or my church - should support?”Like many things we get involved in, the initial motivation to serve is emotional. We may not immediately understand the complexities involved in the care provided to orphans and vulnerable children. But to be effective in anything, one must commit to complexity. Paul says we are to commit to excellence in Philippians 4:8. In other words, when it comes to caring for orphans and vulnerable children, let’s get into the weeds!Orphan Outreach’s ministry statement says:Orphan Outreach glorifies Jesus Christ by ministering to orphans around the world by meeting spiritual, physical, emotional and educational needs.Orphan Outreach serves more than 5,000 children annually through global orphan care, family preservation, foster care and adoption funding. We develop and support programs that prepare children for a fulfilling, independent Christian life in their community.Like most terminology in orphan care, definitions can be very much in the eye of the beholder and sometimes seem like nailing pudding to the wall. We talk in great detail to our partners about the continuum of care in a child’s life. But what does “Continuum of Care” mean? In basic terms, the continuum of care is different modalities of care along a spectrum of least restrictive to most restrictive. Each type of care has one single goal: to point towards the safest and most nurturing permanency plan for the child as is possible, given the resources available in any environment. Let’s unpack that definition a bit more. First of all, “different modalities of care” refers to all the types of care used to a child. For example, residential care (an orphanage or children’s home) is probably the program or modality a lay person is most familiar when one thinks of orphan care. Another type would be foster care or guardianship care which is also called kinship care - though in some systems those are slightly different (see what I mean by “complex?”).Generally speaking, when one looks at the continuum in relationship to methods to care for children, they look at “least restrictive to most restricted”. Programs that work with vulnerable children while they are in their own homes or in the community cared for by other family members would be least restrictive. These programs are sometimes called “family preservation” or “orphan prevention” programs, in that children are not removed from their families or communities. Foster care, kinship care, or guardianship would be a little more restrictive, since the child is removed from their family but still resides in a community setting. Residential care would be even more restrictive than that. The child is removed from their community and placed in a residential setting, which - at one time - was called an orphanage.I will be addressing the nuances of residential care in a future article but for the purposes of this article on the continuum of care just note that not all residential care is alike – a lot is lumped into that term.The next aspect of the continuum is the phrase of our definition, “all which are to point towards the safest and most nurturing permanency plan for the child”. The goal of all modalities is to provide a place for the child to grow up and feel secure and loved in the most family-like environment as possible. The first choice always is to try to keep children with parents – or with near relatives if the biological home is not a safe place to live. Support programs like family preservation, after-school programs and other community-based programs that work within communities to strengthen families can prevent children from having to be removed for abuse and neglect.No matter where the child is in the continuum of care, the goal is to move them into a safe permanent situation. The opportunities for the child will be different, based on their unique family situation, how well -developed the care system is in the country in which they live, the specific options available in those systems, and the unique psychological, physical, behavioral, and educational needs of the child. If they cannot – for whatever reason - stay in their biological family and no relative can be found to care for them - then the ideal situation is for the child to be adopted either domestically or internationally. The hard reality is that there are not enough families willing or able to adopt in the world, including the United States. Percentage wise very few children are adopted out of the pubic child protection systems around the world.In most developing countries, if a child must be removed from their biological family, they will enter a higher more restricted level of care in the continuum. A major problem in many developing countries is that there are not well-developed foster care programs or an emergency shelter option. The dependency on residential care for serving children who must be removed from their homes is very high. Latvia is a country that was once almost totally dependent on residential care. Over the last 12 years, the country has reduced that dependency by 50% through the development of foster care and expansion of their adoption culture, both domestically and internationally.Orphan Outreach has prioritized assisting the development of different modalities so that there are more options for the care of children in the countries we serve.Why is it important to know about the continuum of care in countries around the world? Well one reason is that the church is mandated to care for orphans in James 1:27. The bible is very clear on this point that the Lord considers Himself Father of the fatherless. We are his representatives on this earth and so we must as the church have a very intentional ministry to orphans as part of our mission strategy.The church can be and should be the place where orphan care, foster care and adoption flourishes. As the early church in Roman days was known to pick up babies who had been exposed to die by parents who did not want them – the church today should be known for our care for the orphans. This means we must understand how to connect to the continuum of care and make sure our outreach is done with excellence and in the best interest of the children we are mandated to serve.The church can be the greatest hope to orphans but is also many times out of ignorance the church funds activities and programs that are not in the best interest of children. We must do all we do with excellence and that means being deeply rooted in knowledge and experience so we can express genuine agape love – a love that totally without compromise is devoted to the object of that love – the children we serve.