For a Season or For a Lifetime (#ServeOrphansWell)
by Julie Cramer Posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2016
In Psalm 68, the psalmist calls God “a father to the fatherless,” who “sets the deserted in families” (vv. 5–6 mev). Even before the Incarnate Christ called his first disciple, God had established himself as a family man.
Coming to terms
The difference between instability and stability for an orphan is the hope and promise of permanency. In the world of child welfare, the term carries long-term implications if ignored—or, in the case of Orphan Outreach (OO) and its partners—fully embraced.“It’s easy not to think about orphans when it is just Child X somewhere, but everything changes when you have a face and a name and there is a specific child who needs a home,” says OO’s Dace Rence, director of Miera Osta (Orphan Outreach's partner NGO in Latvia). Fourteen years ago, Dace met a 5-year-old girl that stole her heart, and she and her husband became her guardians—they gave her permanency, the reassurance that she would have a bed to sleep in and people to welcome her home from school without fail.In the countries in which Orphan Outreach works and partners with field ministries, the focus has been on residential systems for orphan care. Expanding the cultural vocabulary to include foster care, trauma-informed care, family preservation, and permanency is one important task facing Rey Diaz, OO’s executive director.“In an ideal world, every child would be placed in a loving and healthy family. But in a broken world, that is just not a reality. So, some children find homes in orphanages or group homes, and in most countries, this is the prevalent model,” says Diaz. “Although we believe there is a place for residential care for children, we also believe that every country should have a full continuum of care that includes foster care and adoption. Children thrive and flourish in families. There might not be enough foster families for every child yet, but slowly but surely we want to identify, recruit, equip, and support more and more foster families.”
Making such holistic care possible requires face-to-face discussions with orphanage directors, local churches, prospective families, and government officials—both at home and abroad. This best practice is so critical, in fact, that, in the United States, Congress passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act in 2015 that addressed the issue of permanency.Foster care, as a door to permanency, is common in the United States; however, for residents in other countries, the concept is new. Take Honduras, for instance. According to Diaz, private foster care there is nonexistent. “If a child is abused, abandoned, or neglected, he is taken from the family and put in an orphanage. Some orphanages are great, some are horrible. And because there are so many kids in the system, it can take months or years for the child to get to a safe family, if at all. We are working with the government to develop a private foster care program. Not only would the kids immediately be placed in a family, but they would also have a permanency plan within the first 30 days. So, if the child has extended family that is safe, the child can return to the family sooner rather than later. If there is no family, the child would be placed in the foster care family. Since all studies show that children thrive developmentally in families, we need to do everything within our power to make sure every child has a chance to be in one. Foster families and domestic adoptive families are lifelines to these children who are stuck in a broken system.”If Honduras is anything like Latvia, the program will flourish. Only a few years ago, Miera Osta worked with other ministries and agencies to launch a foster care program with five foster families. Today, the program has more than 400 foster families.“The main challenges are working with governments,” Diaz shares. “The governments are boggled down with so many issues that foster care is at the bottom of their list. But we are making headway. It is going to be a slow process.”Part of the solution is helping families to adopt. OO recently announced its new ministry, Joseph’s DreamCoat (JDC), which provides grants to families in the United States wanting to adopt either domestically or internationally. Margo Isbell, JDC’s grants coordinator, assists families with paperwork and guides them through the process.“Joseph’s DreamCoat brings the orphan into a forever family,” says Isbell, who is herself an adoptive mother. The first grant was provided this fall to a family adopting from China; the goal is to provide grants quarterly to qualified families.
Just more than a decade ago, state-run orphanages were Latvia’s child welfare bread and butter. Foster care was an entirely foreign concept, with only 10 to 15 foster families in the entire country. Today, more than 500 foster care families offer children an alternative to orphanages.“Half of the children that come into the system are placed in families,” Rence says. “There are still issues with foster families. They are not supervised or trained as well as they should be. They are mainly older people from the countryside. There is still a lot to be done.”Part of OO’s efforts in Eastern Europe include promoting Christian Alliance for Orphans, which hosts annual “Orphan Sunday” events in churches worldwide to educate people on the importance of foster care and adoption. A watershed organization linking 180 respected orphan care agencies, CAFO “unites a movement of organizations, churches and individuals worldwide.” Rence works with the Latvia chapter.“We organize trainings and seminars in churches and tell people how they can get involved,” she said. “Churches are interested. We’re slowly getting there.”Education and engagement is also necessary to debunk the misconceptions that all orphans have criminal records and are too traumatized to live normal lives. The stigma runs so deep in Latvia—where adoption is free—that people who do adopt typically do not tell others, including the child (most adopt infants). Other factors cause families to hesitate to adopt.“The majority of our people live in Soviet-type apartments and they are limited by space. And here, most moms work so they have no bonding time with the child. But it is so crucial,” Rence says. “We are working with the government to pass new legislation to award adoptive parents the same benefits as if they had a biological child. That’s part of what CAFO does. Maybe in the next year or two, that could happen.”
Challenging the church
“it’s not a part of our mindset to reach out to serve people outside our own church,” Rence adds. “When Latvia regained its independence, it was recovering in all areas. It’s been a long way for the church. The mentality has always been to wait for someone else to come and help. For 20 years or so, the Americans would send missionaries to work. The church is slowly rising in that sense—they are learning to serve.”In a state-run orphanage in Jelgava that houses an average of 65 children, a local, 200-member Pentecostal church has adopted the orphanage. It began when OO hired two young women from the congregation to serve as interpreters for U.S. mission teams one summer.“They fell in love with the kids. Now, church members follow up with them twice a month. And a Baptist church also provides volunteers,” Rence shares. “We have another program near a Soviet-era naval port. It’s full of addictions, abuse, and unemployment. We have a day center for the kids in that area. They are social orphans. They have homes, but their parents don’t care about them.The children are constantly under stress. We work with 50 to 60 elementary school-aged children and teenagers. Some young people have grown out of our program and now work with the program. There is one guy, he’s 26 now and he got married this summer. He was one of those kids from a bad home and he attended the day center.”Permanent homes for children—be it in the United States or in Kenya—allow children to bloom. In fact, permanency can happen long-distance with enough thoughtfulness and effort. Rence tells the story this way:“A couple from Washington state came to the day center one summer, and met this young man. They fell in love with him,” she says. “They returned home, but for years they supported him financially so he could attend school. Eventually, they invited him to visit them in America. He never had a father, so their example, their presence, their support made a huge difference in his life. Now he has broken the cycle. He has a job and an apartment. He’s building his home. Without that support, I don’t know where he would be. God is super faithful and that has taught me to trust. I tend to get discouraged and feel hopeless by what I see. I wonder if things aren’t ever going to change.? But the lord has taught me to remain faithful in doing my job and trusting that in the right time he is going to send someone else to do their part. Even if I don’t see the results—he will remain faithful. He cares about these kids more than I ever could.”Learn more about Joseph's DreamCoat - your contribution will allow even more families to grow through adoption!