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How to support children and families facing extreme poverty due to COVID-19

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March 9, 2021

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a creeping global disaster is taking hold of families that can’t be fixed with a vaccine. A tsunami of children are at risk of being institutionalized in orphanages due to crippling poverty and loss of life as a result of the pandemic.

While churches may want to rush to help these displaced COVID-19 victims by donating to orphanages, it is also important to consider ways we might support these children and prevent them from being institutionalized in the first place.

A growing problem

In addition to the loss of parents and caregivers, the pandemic’s economic devastation is expected to pull as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty this year, according to the World Bank. This will be the first time this century that the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase rather than continuing its historic decline. An estimated 5.4 million children are already living in orphanages around the world—a number that will surely rise alongside the increasing number of impoverished families.

There is a direct connection between poverty and the institutionalization of vulnerable children. As much as 80 percent of children in orphanages today have a living parent. Furthermore, preliminary research shows that the children who have lost a parent due to COVID often still have a remaining parent and other family members to care for them. In times of crisis, without access to support, parents make the hard choice to place their children in an orphanage because they are unable to provide for them.

The proliferation of orphanages should concern every Christian because it is a direct affront to God’s design for families. With the right support, parents or close relatives can care for the majority of would-be orphans. If living with a biological family is not an option, local foster care and adoption are great secondary options that provide what a child needs most: a loving family. Decades of research show that children develop best in families, not orphanages.

The good news is, many churches are now choosing to move toward missions programs that support family-based care for orphans and vulnerable children. There’s something we can all do to help.

3 ways the church can help

First, it’s imperative that we know the facts and understand our role. Chances are, requests for more financial support for orphan care will rise along with the number of extreme poor. If you personally donate to a ministry that operates one or more orphanages, or your church does so with your tithe dollars, then it’s not just a distant concern. This question hits home for all of us: Is your charity answering the biblical call to care for the orphan by ensuring that they can live in a loving family? Or is it unintentionally tearing families apart?

Second, churches and other ministries in the United States have always played a crucial role in responding to global disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and other natural catastrophes consistently raise millions of dollars in donations to charitable relief efforts, as was seen with the response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico. The economic impact of COVID-19 must be considered in this category of global emergencies worthy of our attention and donations. In emergencies such as this, it is critical to fill the funding gaps and support local recovery efforts before children are placed in orphanages.

Third, international ministries and organizations must lead in solving this global problem. In 2019, the United Nations unanimously passed the Resolution on the Rights of the Child, which confirmed a commitment to prioritizing strengthening families over placing children in institutions. A growing group of over 60 Christian nonprofit organizations, including my own, affirmed that priority with the creation of the Global Church Pledge to See Children Thriving in Safe and Loving Families. Little did we know that our resolve would be so greatly tested by a global pandemic.

It takes a village

The problems facing children and families around the world are enormous and can feel overwhelming, especially as we are still dealing with COVID-19’s toll on our own lives. No single organization, government, or other entity is going to be able to tackle the problem on its own, but we can all do something. You can start by signing the Global Church Pledge, where you will learn more about the specific ways you can help at the individual or local church level.

There are millions of COVID-19 victims who are not in hospitals. They are headed for—or are already institutionalized in—orphanages. It’s time for churches to mobilize on behalf of these vulnerable children so they can thrive within a loving family, either by staying with their own parents or by being placed with other family members or a foster family. Children need families, and families reeling from the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 need our support to care well for their children.

Elli Oswald

Elli Oswald is the executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition of organizations focused on promoting best practices in care for orphans and vulnerable children. Read More by this Author