An alarming connection exists between residential care facilities, such as orphanages and children’s homes, and human trafficking. Orphanage trafficking occurs when children from vulnerable families are actively recruited into residential care for profit or other forms of exploitation within the orphanage. Often a child finder is hired by an orphanage to go out and recruit children through deception or coercion of family members.
What is commonly misunderstood by well-meaning volunteers and donors is that of the millions of children living in orphanages around the world, research shows that in many countries, the vast majority have a mother or father who is alive. Poverty, not orphanhood, is the most common driving factor leading parents to place their children in orphanages.
In the U.S. and around the world, faith-based and other organizations and individuals are known to contribute significant funding and resources to support orphanages and children’s homes. A Barna Group study showed that U.S. Christians alone fund residential care facilities globally to the tune of approximately $2.5 billion each year. Orphanage volunteering is also a popular choice for students and recent graduates who have a desire to travel with a ‘purpose’ and demonstrate their altruism, as well as for religious groups seeking to serve.
While not every orphanage participates in orphanage trafficking, this significant level of giving and volunteering has created a situation where children can be seen as a financial opportunity by those with ill intentions.
But this dynamic can change, and U.S. donors can be a part of something better.
The agency of empowered parents
Shifting support from residential models of care to strengthening families and supporting family-based models of care is a realistic solution. Family-centered support allows parents the opportunity to care well for their children, ensures better outcomes for their development, and avoids contributing to the problem of orphanage trafficking.
Decades of research have found that, compared to children in residential facilities, children in families, even poor families, develop better. Children who spend time in orphanages don’t develop the way their peers raised in families do, and they also often struggle later in life. Family provides the love, belonging and identity children need to thrive into adulthood.
Prevention through de-institutionalization
In 2019, every member country of the United Nations General Assembly publicly committed to ending the institutionalization of children and, in a historic resolution, pledged to prioritize family-based care in their countries. The resolution serves as a reminder that governments and communities have an important role in ending orphanage trafficking, as do each of us as individuals.
This mission is gaining traction. As a recent example, the Inter-Parliamentary Union adopted a monumental Resolution in October that charges its 180 member states with creating legislation that targets orphanage trafficking and ultimately promotes safe, family-based solutions for orphaned and vulnerable children.
Additionally, in Ukraine, First Lady Olena Zelenska is getting involved. The war with Russia has fueled a push for orphaned and vulnerable children to be protected within family settings. Through reunification, foster care or adoption, Zelenska is championing family-centered care to give the children affected by the devastations of war the best possible outcome.
It’s time for all of us to recognize that not all charity that seems good, is good.
One simple action we can take right now that will directly impact child trafficking around the globe is to sign this petition that Hopeland, the organization I co-founded, initially presented this fall at the Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting. It’s already over 43,000 signatures strong, and that number is growing. Then, spread the word, and tell your friends, your family, your church and your community to sign it as well. After that, consider shifting your giving toward data-driven, family-strengthening efforts.
This is how we can care for orphaned and vulnerable children today. Collectively, these small but tangible acts are powerful steps toward permanently ending orphanage trafficking.