Most children in orphanages aren't actually orphans. This group wants to help them.

African children at school or orphanage Photo by bill wegener on Unsplash Bill wegener via Unsplash.

Shannon Senefeld always assumed that children in orphanages are mostly orphans. Most people make that assumption.

When Senefeld found out this was not the case, she was shocked.

In fact, the vast majority of children in orphanages around the world – between 80 and 90 percent – have at least one living parent or other family member, usually someone who loves them and wants them, Senefeld told CNA.

In some cases, families may not have the knowledge or equipment to care for a child with a disability, and orphanages offer specialized services.

Far more often, however, families simply lack resources, such as funds for education or health care, and believe that their child will have better access to these resources in an orphanage.

It's a problem that is largely unrecognized – by donors, government officials, and members of the general public. But Senefeld and her colleagues want to change that.

Senefeld is the Senior Vice President for Overseas Operations at Catholic Relief Services. Together with Lumos and Maestral International – two organizations that work to protect vulnerable children, especially in institutions and welfare systems – they have released a plan to reunite children in orphanages with their families.

The proposal, entitled "Changing the Way We Care," would turn orphanages into family support centers, using existing resources to provide services that parents need to care for their own children, at home.

Earlier this month, their proposal was selected from nearly 2,000 entries as one of four finalists in the 100&Change competition, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. The winning project, which will be announced in December, will win a $100 million grant, with the goal of making "measurable progress toward solving a significant problem" in the world today.

Senefeld explained that "a lot of children living in orphanages maintain contact with their family," maybe visiting them once a year if they can afford it.

Many times, parents will send their child to an orphanage out of poverty-driven desperation, hoping to return when their financial situation stabilizes.

"They might be thinking it's a temporary situation," Senefeld said, but frequently, parents are never able to pull together the resources to get their child back.

Meanwhile, children in orphanages slowly lose ties with their communities. Studies show that children raised in institutions have substantially higher rates of social and emotional problems than other children, Catholic Relief Services said. Children in orphanages are six times more likely to be exposed to violence, and four times more likely to be sexually abused than children raised in families.

Further complicating the situation, many orphanages operate outside of government regulations, and lack sufficient record-keeping practices, which can make it difficult to track children and reconnect them with their parents.

International adoptions initiated by couples in the United States and most other western countries are subject to strict protocols, designed to ensure that children are legally and ethically available for adoption, and that the rights of natural parents have been respected. However, not all countries observe these protocols.

The ultimate solution to the orphanage crisis is family care, Senefeld said.

Family care is not only the best option for the child's well-being, but also the most cost-effective option, she explained. "It costs about 10 times as much to raise a child in an orphanage as it does in a community setting in their home country."

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"We want to get those kids back into their family," Senefeld stressed. For those who truly are orphans, this means finding other relatives, or placing them in foster or adoption care.

"What's most important for us is that the child is in a family," she said.

"Many of the orphanages are run by really well-meaning people," Senefeld emphasized, adding that they often have developed expertise in specialized services for children with disabilities.

Catholic Relief Services hopes to connect caregivers directly with families, so they can use their expertise to train parents and to provide services in a community setting.

Also critical to the success of the project, Senefeld and her colleagues hope to work with governments to ensure that policies are put in place to prevent abusive practices, such as the trafficking of children.

"We want the government to actually support family-based care," she said. In some countries, the government offers orphanages a stipend for each child. Catholic Relief Services would like to see those stipends redirected to foster care or similar models.

Donors are a critical part of the picture as well. Individuals, faith communities and governments need to be educated about how to best help vulnerable children, Senefeld said. Rather than funding the construction of new orphanages overseas, their donations can be more effective in directly meeting children's needs in their own homes.

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If Catholic Relief Services wins the 100&Change challenge, they hope to implement the family care model in seven different countries – Guatemala, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon and Moldova – each with its own family, government, and cultural situations.

"People say, 'That's great, but it wouldn't work in my country'," Senefeld said. "This is a great way to show that this model works in a variety of different countries."

In fact, the family care model is working in a number of different countries already. For example, with the support of the government, Catholic Church, and a number of other non-profit groups, Rwanda is on track to close all of its orphanages and place the children there in family care settings.

The $100 million grant would be a huge step in allowing for a larger, coordinated effort for a global shift toward family-based care for children currently in orphanages.

While Senefeld would love to see Catholic Relief Services' proposal win the grant, she said that simply being chosen as one of the top entries has already been a significant victory in drawing attention to the situation. 

"For us, this has been a huge opportunity to just let people know," she explained. "I think it was a hidden issue."

Ultimately, she said, it's a matter of achieving justice for the 8 million children growing up in institutions worldwide.

"It's definitely challenging, but it's definitely doable."

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