Excitement coursed through Diana Zaxaryan as the realization hit: she was going to have another baby. She and her husband loved parenting their firstborn, and they couldn’t wait to add another long-lashed beauty to their brood. Yes, they lived in a sparsely-populated district of Armenia, a developing nation, and resources were sometimes scarce. But the Zaxaryans both had steady employment, a loving family, and their faith. What more could they need?
Within weeks of Eliana’s birth in 2013, the answer became heartbreakingly clear: an orphanage.
“For us, it is very painful that she [lived] in an orphanage,” Diana says through a translator.
When I relay Diana’s story to my American friends, most blink in surprise, piecing together how a non-criminal family with jobs and children already thriving at home would end up with another child at an orphanage. Aren’t those places for parentless kids—you know, orphans?
The short answer, for the majority of children who live in institutionalized settings globally, is no.
The more complete answer is being broadcast through a worldwide movement that is slowly gaining ground within evangelical churches: orphanages are permanently harming children and families.
And many American Christians have unwittingly been supporting the system for decades.
Foundation of Poverty
Traditionally (at least in Hollywood), orphanages care for children without mothers and/or fathers. But according to orphan care organizations like J.K. Rowling’s Lumos, more than eighty percent of the world’s eight million orphanage residents have at least one living parent. In some nations, the percentage is even higher; it can be oddly difficult to find an “orphanage kid” who doesn’t have a living mom or dad.
So what gives? According to experts, the root cause is almost always based in poverty.
A common scenario: a family in poverty struggles with food insecurity, safety, lack of educational access and/or disability. A local orphanage, funded by the government and (often faith-based) First Worlders, offers to raise the children and do what the family can’t. Most parents would sacrifice anything for their kids, so when an orphanage offers—not always truthfully—shelter, food, schooling, healthcare, and sometimes the chance of a richer adoptive family, institutionalization suddenly becomes attractive. A family is traumatized, therefore, with hopes of the child’s survival.
And that’s a best-case scenario. In the worst cases, children are murdered by proxy of neglect and abuse, or trafficked for “orphanage tourists” and coerced international adoptions.
My husband and I adopted a five-year-old daughter from Eliana’s orphanage in 2016. Like Eliana, Guyana has both two loving parents and severe spina bifida. If not for outside interference, both girls would, in all likelihood, have no access to the level of care each requires (specialized surgeons, advanced therapies, highly-technical medical equipment, etc.). And Guyana’s and Eliana’s orphanage was a “good” one; the Catholic nuns there genuinely love each child and do their best for each charge.
Yet our years with Guyana—including communicating with her first family and studying the orphanage issue overall—has since revealed a level of complexity and nuance that we had previously overlooked. Our dream family, we have learned, came at the expense of another family’s nightmare.
Neither side regrets their actions, and each is grateful for the other. But I will never be able to erase the fact that I have played a role in another mother’s heartbreak; I am able to parent her precious daughter because I was born in one place and she in another.
Families Over Facebook
Each orphanage resident’s situation is different. Some have relatives who visit. Most kids, to their American visitors’ surprise, are not available for adoption. But all who stay in their orphanage to a certain age (it varies by country) will eventually be kicked out, usually with little to zero support or preparation—if they live that long.
In Eliana’s case, the Zaxaryans desperately wanted to parent, but “her sickness is so that it is impossible to cure [here],” Diana says. “We wish very much that this moment our child will be with us.” Instead, she and her husband learned after the fact that Eliana was adopted by American pastors after spending several years at a Yerevan orphanage.
And more than fifty years of sociological research shows that orphanages—even the “best” ones—are tremendously harmful to children.
“I think people think that if the orphanage is clean, kids are receiving meals, and the basic Maslow hierarchy is being met, then it’s a good orphanage,” says Stacey Gagnon, the founder of Lost Sparrows, a nonprofit that works to establish foster care systems in Eastern Europe. “But the emotional damage will supersede anything physical they’ve experienced.”
And American Christians are often the ones inflicting that damage. When well-meaning American churchgoers visit orphanages bearing gifts, donations, and social media selfie skills, they’re unintentionally teaching children that caretakers don’t stay, that they must perform to have their basic needs met (picture dancing and singing “orphans” welcoming foreigners), and that the only permanent fixture in life is uncertainty.
Research shows that because of these conditions, children from orphanages often have attachment disorders. They also often have very short and troubled life spans after leaving the only “home” they’ve ever known.
“But I’m so nice to the kids! I send checks!” people might protest. Indeed, more than sixty percent of Americans would consider giving money to an overseas orphanage, financially participating in a “supply and demand” cycle for orphanages to stay open. Heartbreakingly, nearly half would rather give to an orphanage (that can provide a glossy fridge photo and occasionally a tax deduction) than to a family in “need” of an orphanage.
So the cycle repeats: parents need systemic help to raise their child, an orphanage gets the funds and attention instead, the family separates and lovely Americans help however they can to keep not the family running, but the institution. And most have no idea!
Psalm 68:6 tells us that God sets the lonely in families. Though families can vary greatly in appearance and style, it always hits me how the verse never says, nor does any other Scripture, that our Lord sets the lonely in institutions.
Perhaps it’s time for a shift within our churches—not to turn away from caring for orphans, but toward caring better. What if we volunteered and gave to charities that kept families together instead of physically separating them? What if we listened to voices like Diana’s instead of assuming first parents are dead or defective?
What if we focused not just on emptying orphanages through adoption and family reunification (and we should!), but also on orphan prevention through building hospitals, schools, and other social systems allowing families in poverty to keep their future kids, as we are able to in the States? What if we saw orphan care as part of a bigger picture, with ties to areas like clean water, economic opportunity, social and medical support for the disabled, and more?
Perhaps fewer mothers would grieve like Diana. She stares at a photo of Eliana, now half a world away, smiling and fully American.
“I wish that she knows that we love her very much and we miss her a lot,” she whispers. “We wish very much that she would grow with her brother and sister in one family. We didn't wish that she would grow so far from us.”
Cover image by frank mckenna.