I live in a culture that loves stories. History, traditions, social norms - and of course a healthy amount of gossip - are passed down and disseminated through stories. Stories are shared around the cook fires late at night (and there’s a story behind that too.) Ask a question of my neighbors that requires a culturally-informed answer and you’ll surely hear the words, “Let me tell you a story.” My friends here have inspired me and I too long to be a great story teller.
In addition to having my imagination tickled, I love the power that stories hold. Michael Margolis, strategic story teller and CEO of Get Storied, once said, The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world. You need to change your story.
Different sectors leverage stories differently to effect change. Many depend on the stories they tell in order to safeguard their own existence. For example, orphanages in Africa.
I’ve written before about my conviction that we need to be doing orphan care better, and how that fight has become personal to me in recent years. Still as time passes, whenever I see another round of praise for Traditional Orphanage X, my heart sinks. Why are we still on this path of heartache? Despite the ample research that shows the negative effects of institutionalism – and not to mention the social movement that led the U.S. to denounce orphanages decades ago – Americans are still obsessed with orphanages on every other continent. Why, I wonder aloud?
Then I remember my community. And the cook-fire. And the stories told that teach people what to believe. And the orphanage disgrace makes more sense. It’s the power of their stories. The stories the orphanages tell – stories of the kids in their care and the importance of their work – these stories are exported across an ocean and reach the ears of those primed to hear and respond and send money back the other direction. And that set of stories becomes an anthology with undeserved acclaim.
I understand on one level. "Liking" a facebook post of a cute baby in an orphanage is much less taxing than digesting an academic brief on the traumatic effects of institutionalism on children. When reality is too complex, the stories told by the orphanages curate everything down to a manageable size. The only trouble is that the stories being told represent a very specific bias.
I’ve seen it a few hundred times: Traditional Orphanage X posts, “Lie, lie, lie, all the lies, pray for us and our lies,” and instead of being disturbed by the falsehood, donors with all their power are moved with the emotionalism that these lies induce. The words coming from these orphanages is what drives the culture of orphan care around the world and I am desperate to see the storyline change for the better.
As per my title, I want to flesh out five lies orphanages tell. 'Lie' is an awfully strong word, I know. And I use it discourteously on purpose. A half truth, a partial truth, an over-generalized truth, an extrapolated truth – these are all lies with bow-ties on. But they are still lies. I’m sorry for being all prickly, but my patience is up. Kids are being abused every day and its for their sake that I’m willing to call it like I see it.
And so, with that bit of background, let me share with you the most common lies that I see coming out of orphanages.
five lies from the orphanage
Lie One: “Nobody wanted them.”
Such a heart wrenching statement, only sociopaths would remain unmoved, particularly when the post includes a picture of a beautiful baby with big eyes and dimples. And the moment those words go public, the orphanage workers are instant heroes for being the ones who DO want him!
Ugh. And my heart sinks. Out of all the lies, this one breaks me in so many ways, mostly because of how the conclusion is derived. Many people assume that if a mother willingly drops her child off at an orphanage, she MUST not want him. Likewise, it is assumed that if mom dies in childbirth and no one steps up to take the child that clearly the family MUST not want him either. What is often overlooked is that this conclusion is a sandcastle of assumption, and from where I’m standing, the mishandling of limited information is negligent.
The truth is that most abandonment and relinquishment happens not for lack of love (wanting the child) but because of fear. Fear that she won’t be able to feed her child. Fear that their home is inadequate. Fear that she’s “less than” what her child needs. Barring mental illness, which can absolutely lead a mother to do the unthinkable, one cannot hold her child in her arms and say, “nope, don’t want her.” We are designed by God to feel attachment and connectedness – a biological bond that does not “just” drop a piece of her heart off with strangers. A face value conclusion of “nobody wanted them” ignores the most profound workings of our own biology.
And so when a child is brought to an orphanage and the staff is told, “no one wanted him,” too many orphanage owners respond too quickly with, “Great! We do!” and immediately post excited selfies with the new baby while failing to acknowledge the shambles of a broken heart they’ve just shut out on the other side of the gate. A more compassionate and controlled person asks the question: “Did they really not want him or did they just not want to fail him?” The answer to that question is discovered by slowing down the dialogue and digging to the heart, where more often than not, one will find not cold and uncaring family members, but deeply concerned and fearful ones. The lack of due diligence in NOT having these conversations with biological families is irresponsible to say the least. We owe these families more respect and support than Lie One affords them.
Lie Two: “The family couldn’t take care of them.”
Ahh, a favorite in the orphan care world. I’ve debated this one with more than a few people and the most important question I can ask is, “What do you mean by that?” If I’m speaking with Americans, they will talk about food and clothes and education and the size of house. If I listen to a cursory assessment of said child’s situation… “There were like eight kids in that family! All of the kids were sleeping on the floor! They only had one change of clothes each! They ate the same thing for every meal!” and so on and so on… I almost want to chuckle as I decide how to delicately drop the bomb of relativism on the concerned American. Pardon my candor, but you just described 85% of rural Zambians. Do you really think we should institutionalize all of them?
Orphan care providers do no one justice by going to a foreign country and whipping out an American measuring stick. Yes, in the United States, multiple kids sleeping on the floor without clean clothing and eating cereal every day is probably going to get CPS involved. But there has to be a translation of standards whereby we accept and embrace what is truly acceptable in the orphans’ context.
What I find really interesting is the juxtaposition of this Lie with fundraising efforts. How many times have I seen, “Look at our new baby! His family couldn’t take care of him, so they brought him to us. Who wants to sponsor this little angel?” And every time, I’m all HOLD THE PHONE. Are you seriously with a straight face saying, “His mama didn’t have the means and hey, hey, neither do we! Huzzah!” In short, you’re brazenly admitting that the only reason why you get to keep this baby and his family is because you have rich friends and a PayPal account and they don’t. Shameful doesn’t even come close.
Every family considering relinquishment because of poverty deserves to hear,
“You can manage. And this is your child. And he needs you! And I will leverage my connections to make sure you have what you need. I will not rest until you feel safe and successful again.”
Lie Three: “They deserve a ‘better life.’”
Privilege on a platter with a side of the American Dream, I have little patience for this ugly little sentence. My only rebuttal is: No. They deserve their real family. I think most orphanages exist under the pretense that physical care is the most important thing a child needs and that it must be provided without regard to the emotional price-tag. In fact, orphanages basically have to think this way otherwise they’d have to close themselves down.
While orphanage workers are so concerned about the food and clothes that the child isn’t getting (and won’t ever get as long as Lie Two is still in play,) what isn’t being taken into account when children are being admitted to institutions is the primal wound that is being inflicted upon the child by separating him from biological family. Abandonment is perhaps the most traumatic event that can take place in a human’s life and no amount of new clothing and fancy food can replace that.
And so, this “better life” that orphanages are giving these kids? There’s actually no evidence of it. Children raised in institutions suffer physically, mentally and emotionally FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. Ignoring these facts is ludicrous and yet, for the love of orphanages, this is where we are.
Lie Four: “We saved a child.”
More blatant white-saviorism there ne’er was. A mother should never have to choose between feeding her child and keeping him. Orphanages dangle life and death before parents and extended family by saying, We will take care of your child and give him an education BUT you have to sign over your legal rights to us. Lies Two and Three are used to strong-arm signatures of relinquishment that then become the anecdotes of Lie One and the fire burns in my bones as I type out the words, “You didn’t save them, you stole them.” When a child is robbed of his biological family, his cultural connection, his lineage, his identity, and subjected to the trauma of abandonment because the people with the financial means to help the family chose not to? There are no purple hearts for this.
Lie Five: “We’re doing the best we can.”
Mmm. So tricky. In case reading thus far has branded me as the worst cynic, let me lower my guard just a little and say, I hear this. I hear you. Because of the circles we run in, we know many of these orphanage workers personally. They are not monsters. I don’t know anyone who gives up a comfortable life to come and serve the least of these who is not honest-to-goodness trying their best. This Lie deserves at least that much acknowledgement.
But here’s the rub. Doing “the best that we can” does not absolve responsibility to do better. As has been noted, supporting orphans well means supporting their extended support network in ways that allow the child to remain with family. I’ve hashed this with orphanage workers before and there are several common objections:
We can’t just give money – drunk uncle will spend it all on booze.
If we give clothes and food, other children in the family end up wearing and eating it.
We don’t have the staff capacity to interact with the community on that level.
It’s too much effort.
Etc. etc. etc.
So, train family mentors. So, work through churches. So, clothe the siblings too. So, work on your community integration. So, bring in some actual social workers. So, do what it takes and don’t punk out because if that were your kid, you’d sell a kidney to make it work. These are not pie in the sky solutions. Where there is a will there is a way; but most orphanages just aren’t in the market for a new way.
And it’s here where I need to respond to everyone who has been reading through these Lies and is dying to rebut, “NOT ALL!!!” Let me join your chorus: Yes! NOT ALL!
We know organizations that are inspiring movements with their work in reunification. Groups that have heeded wisdom and now work tirelessly to get kids back with their real families. People who do everything they can to empower families to care for their children without guilt or fear. These are the angel warriors that give me hope. As a mother with a son who was cared for by some of the good ones, I know his caretakers would have moved heaven and hell to see him reunified, and when that was impossible, they moved heaven and hell to make sure he had a forever family. And on a larger scale, we should all be watching what is unfolding in Rwanda - on track to become Africa's first orphanage-free country! Bless.
But at the very same time, far too many orphanages exist that continue to thrive under the above lies. What is worse, new orphanages are being constructed every day. And every penny raised for construction costs is thanks to these five Lies.
Savin’ babies that nobody wanted and whose families never could have cared for them properly anyway and so how nice it is that we can give them a “family” and a better life.
And the donors of the first world just douse their consciences with white saviorism like hot fudge on a sundae and they think how sweet it is to be a part of this awesome work… all the while Jesus is weeping that his children are being exploited, wounded and sold.
A better story is out there. One of hope and healing. One of restorative justice. And as it is told, my deepest prayer is that the support for Lies would dry up completely. Because it’s funding that drives all of this, after all. And isn’t that a demon to be exorcised. Orphanages afraid to change their “business model” because it would be costly. Because this is how they’ve always done it, and it pays the bills. Paralyzed by the fear of, “who will fund us if we don’t have any babies on site to claim as our own?”
And that’s where God’s people need to step in and say, We will. We will fund reunification and first families. We will support mothers and extended kin. We will fight trauma with our financial power. As key stakeholders in this hot mess we believe that better can be done and we unleash the purse strings to see that happen.
And when that story gets told? I promise you, it will change everything.