As Christians, we are often pulled towards the word “help.” It is a deeply routed foundation in the Christian faith, and has been the backbone of many church programs. The biblical basis for this is evident, and the mandate to love our neighbors is clear. Our churches are devoted to a multitude of programs to help those in need, including single mothers, seniors, divorcees, recovering addicts, immigrants, the homeless, missionaries and more. If you’e in one of these categories, odds are, you can find a church to support you in some way. There is one major demographic missing from church programs today however, one that was prominent 100 years ago, but has slowly diminished to an almost non-existence.
Now, before I dive into this, let me note that the word Orphan is a loaded word. Orphan is often used in the church community because it is the word most identifiable in Christian circles due to it’s biblical reference, but it is important to know that it is least appropriate in today’s society. So instead, I am going to use the term vulnerable children, and I encourage you to do the same. The biblical concept of Orphans refers to a variety of children, including: foster children, kids without parents who live in orphanages, and children whose parents have placed them for adoption. Society today, however, defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents to death. That definition just does not adequately portray the children we are advocating for. A child in foster care may still have a mother and father. A child through adoption likely still has a birth mother and father, and even children from orphanages often have at least one living parent. So moving forward, while the biblical reference is that of orphans, I will be referring to them as vulnerable children, outside of biblical verses.
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So what happened? How come 100 years ago the church was at the forefront of caring for children in need, and now you are lucky if you find even one church per city who supports vulnerable children? The bible certainly hasn’t changed. Of course there is the biblical representation of how God adopted all of mankind, but that is a deep theological post better left up to more qualified individuals. But as far as simple commandments go, the bible is quite clear:
James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”
Psalm 82:3 “Defend the weak and the fatherless.”
Psalm 68:5-6 “Father to the fatherless defender of widows – this is God, whose dwelling is hold. Got sets the lonely in families.”
Matthew 18:5 “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.”
Hosea 14:3 “In you the orphan finds mercy.”
If the bible is so clear on how Christians should respond to this need, how come it is one of the least recognized and involved church programs today? Over 100 years ago the church was the primary caretaker of children in need. Now they are not. I am not saying they were the experts, and we can all acknowledge there were many mistakes and atrocities that occurred under their watch. BUT they were involved. They were trying. The church facilitated the Orphan Train, sending thousands of children across the country looking for adoptive families. They facilitated unofficial foster homes, and they connected expecting mothers with adoptive parents, among many other things. Today, there are trained professionals in the social work system to navigate the world of foster care and adoption, which makes sense with all their intricacies, but the church has taken such a step back, that they are no longer involved, and it is causing major damage. The battle is great and the soldiers are few.
Let’s start with the need for families. In Canada there are more than 30, 000 kids waiting for adoption, and more than 70,000 kids in foster care. In the United States there are more than 438,000 children in foster care, and more than 107,000 waiting to be adopted. Worldwide, there are more than 20 million children waiting to be adopted. The numbers are there and the crisis is real. There is a HUGE need for adoptive and foster families. This is not just Christians responsibility either, the need is just too great . But Christians should certainly be involved, look at our mandate!! Yet, while 34% of Christians have considered adoption, only 1% have actually done it? WHY?
Of course adoption and foster care is not for everyone, and I don’t advocate anyone pursues either one, simply due to a biblical duty. It is hard work, involves the fragile life of a child, and requires dedication and passion from the person doing it. BUT I do think everyone can help in other ways. I do think the church needs to step up and facilitate more programs to help this demographic and support vulnerable children. In a local adoption group I belong to, the majority of members do not feel supported in their church. In fact, many many families no longer attend church. That is a problem.
With all of the resources and abilities of churches today, why is the most vulnerable group, being forgotten? Here is the problem. The 1%, those that do sign up to be foster parents or adoptive parents, get it. They know the need, they see the need, and they respond to the need. The need, however, is far too great. So current foster and adoptive parents take on a lot. Lots of kids, or lots of needs. The result: they are drowning. Twenty years ago, when people signed up to become foster parents, they signed up for the long haul. Most fostered well into their 50’s and 60’s, caring for hundreds of children who needed a family. Now, more than 50% of foster parents quit within the first year. Up to 65% have quit within their first 5 years. Adoption breakdowns are common. The system is broken and the need is so great, that it is just too much for the small number of people doing it to manage on their own. A large portion of today’s foster parents are elderly and have begun to retire. The need for baby and teen foster homes is particularly high.
Then there is the post-support. The odds of a foster or adoptive parent dealing with special needs or trauma related behaviors is 99%. It is not easy. Yet the post-support is just not there. There are no church programs set up to offer respite, bring meals, help out around the house, or even just take a child to the park. In fact, instead of support, most adoptive and foster parents instead feel isolated. Most stop getting invited to friends houses, their kids get excluded, family members distance themselves and they are left feeling alone. The majority of them at one point or another have struggled with depression or PTSD related to the trauma and needs of the children. They are left to burn out. So where does that leave the children? Damaged.
The result of too few adoptive parents is children aging out of the foster care system without ever being adopted. The stats for these kids are staggering. The majority of them will struggle with homelessness, addiction, suicide, mental health, depression, prostitution and more. The result of too few foster parents, is kids getting placed in overcrowded homes, kids being treated as a case, rather than a child, and kids living in hotels. Kids are moved around from home to home, sometimes dozens of times, even in their first few years of life, due to foster parents being burnt out and unsupported. These kids often end up suffering from trauma related challenges, will suffer with their own mental health issues into their adulthood, and have a high rate of having their own children taken into foster care, perpetuating the cycle. Kids living overseas in orphanages also face dire consequences. Many are tied to their cribs, left to die. Many have their bones frozen, their bodies stop growing, and their brain stops developing. Those that do make it to adulthood face similar challenges as kids aging out of foster care, and the rate of those trapped into sex trafficking is high. This is a crisis and it is being completely ignored by the church.
The United States, which is notoriously several decades ahead of Canada when it comes to “orphan ministries'” within the church, has begun to figure out ways to once again get involved. Numerous states have had the church and state partner together and end the wait for adoption for children in the foster care system. Hundreds of churches have programs aimed at awareness and support. Recruitment for adoptive and foster parents has become a vital role in the church in the United States. There are hundreds of conferences and getaways, all aimed towards adoptive and foster parents. Wrap around programs have been created to support those supporting the children and foster and adoptive parents are feeling loved.
Canada, where are you? While there are certainly some churches who have stepped up and begun this important work, the majority still won’t even entertain the idea. I have heard churches state that it is “not within their mandate.” I’ve heard other churches say they only support their own programs. Many believe it is better left up to the government, and not the churches problem. The majority of them will not even facilitate a conversation.
WHERE ARE YOU CHURCH? The children are hurting, those currently involved are hurting, and the need for help is HUGE! I know it can be scary, and can also be a lot of work, but there are so many ways to get involved. I know countless individuals that would take time off work, sell belongings, fund raise, and go into seemingly scary situations in the name of missions work. But this is also missions work. Please, I urge you, to consider this current need and to start making a difference now! Even if becoming an adoptive or foster parent is not for you, there are still many ways to get involved:
Become and adoptive or foster parent
Start a program in your church
Provide awareness opportunities from the pulpit
Bring a family a meal
Help a family with renovations
Provide a family with respite
Support of family with household chores or tasks
Invite a family over for fellowship
Include their children in an activity
And at the end of the day, pray. These kids need your support, and those involved need it to. Children are one of the most vulnerable demographic, and will grow up to be our future. Please consider joining the fight for these kids who desperately need someone to be their voice.
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