Where Do Orphans Come From?

This is part one of a four part series, during which we will unpack some of the leading issues linked to the orphan crisis. The first three blog posts will focus on leading issues that impact the orphan crisis, while the last blog post will unpack our approach to caring for orphans and addressing these issues. 

  • Total estimated number of orphans worldwide:  150 Million
  • Estimated number that have lost only their mother:  34.5 Million
  • Estimated number that have lost only their father:  101 Million
  • Estimated number of double orphans:  17.6 million
  • Estimated number of children on streets or in residential care:  2-8 Million (CAFO)

The numbers are daunting. Even more daunting is the realization that every single number represents a child whose life has been drastically altered by pain, loss, and heartache. 

So, how did it happen? How are we living in 2016 and staring into the eyes of 150 million orphaned children that need homes? 

The orphan cycle is an epidemic that echoes the sorrow and darkness of a broken world. Answers to the orphan crisis are complex, never instantly gratifying, and wrapped up in a myriad of obstacles. Yet, as we seek the day every orphaned child has a home, we must exercise due diligence to fully understand why we’re facing an orphan crisis in the first place. Simply giving someone a bandage is not always enough. Sometimes it’s important to know why they’re bleeding . . . because sometimes you should do more than offer a bandage.


According to the United Nations Development Programme, "while the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half between 1990 and 2015–from 1.9 billion to 836 million–too many are still struggling for the most basic human needs." More than 800 million people are living on less that $1.25 per daymaking poverty the leading cause of family disruption. 

And poverty, as we know, trickles down into every other facet of life. When your bank account runs dry, everything else suffers . . . food choices, medical care, educational opportunities, etc. More than 90 million children under the age of five are dangerously underweight, while 25% of people across the continent of Africa continue to go hungry (UNDP). Each day, 16,000 children die from preventable diseases like measles and tuberculosis, while hundreds of women die daily during pregnancy or from child-birth related complications (UNDP). As of 2014, 795 million people worldwide are considered chronically underweight (UNDP). It's difficult to overemphasize the toll that poverty takes on families.

Beyond the physical affects that we can see, poverty impacts the mental and spiritual well being of individuals. Peter Greer, CEO of Hope International, asked a group of Rwandan women living on less than $2 a day, "How do you define poverty?" These were the top five answers he received:

  1. Poverty is an empty heart
  2. Poverty is not knowing your abilities or strengths
  3. Poverty is not being able to make progress
  4. Poverty is isolation
  5. Poverty is no hope or belief in yourself

Not what you expected?

For these women (Greer), as for many others in similar situations, poverty has gone far beyond impacting access to food, medical care, education, and other opportunities. Poverty has disrupted their relationships, robbed them of their dignity, and destroyed their self-worth.

Some families in the US find temporary relief and assistance through their local churches or government assistance programs, but what happens when those don't exist? What happens when those in your village are struggling with the same things you are, yet nobody is discussing the issues? What happens when you're looking at the five mouths to feed and trying to determine which children get to eat today?

Though children make up only about one third of the world's population, they account for nearly half of those living in extreme poverty (SOS). The world's most vulnerable are the most affected by global poverty. And poverty is part of a vicious and heartbreaking cycle.

A child who becomes orphaned due to poverty, HIV/AIDS, war, natural disaster, or other causes, quickly becomes vulnerable to a variety of other threats: extreme poverty, human trafficking, becoming a child soldier, etc. And the cycle risks continuing on, spinning out of control, as that child eventually has children of his or her own, making them vulnerable as well.

If poverty lays a foundation for family disruption, then combating poverty is essential to addressing the orphan crisis. If families are weakened when they are impoverished, economic empowerment can help breathe new life into those dark, lonely places and strengthen families.




by Lori Resmer

Over the past years, I have had the privilege of leading multiple teams overseas through World Orphans Journey trip. As (previous) director of the ministry, I have observed several other teams that have traveled overseas under the leadership of other outstanding team leaders. Part of my job that I love is the discipleship process that allows me to educate and teach team members about what God’s Word says about orphan care, about our role and responsibility in tackling orphan-causing issues, and about the various models of orphan care that other organizations employ. I have noticed in the past decade or so that God is doing an amazing work in the hearts of His people in regards to orphan care. The Church is finally starting to rise up and carry out the mandate in Scripture to rescue and care for the fatherless, widow and the poor around the world. Social media, the internet, photography and video, and the ease of travel in this day and age has only increased our awareness of the orphan crisis and extreme levels of poverty in the majority world. I am excited that we are finally starting to respond; however, I feel a huge burden to speak into a particular issue today that I have come across time and again while working with individuals along the way.

I won’t beat around the bush: I fear that we’re doing it all wrong. My concern is that our hearts are leading the way and we are not doing what is in the best interest of the children that we are trying to help. Let me explain….

I just had a phone conversation with a lovely young lady this past week who recently served with World Orphans on a one-week Journey trip to Haiti. She is passionate, educated, well-traveled and absolutely loves the Lord. She has a huge desire to take care of orphans around the world and is actually starting a non-profit ministry to allow her the platform to do so. I was ecstatic for her and proud of her willingness to make a difference! That is the goal and heartbeat of Journey Trips – to empower people to take action as an orphan advocate. However, I saw something on Facebook one day that made my heart sink. One of her ministry goals was to start an orphanage in the following year. I screamed at my computer, as if me voicing my concerns would make a difference, “NO! Please don’t do that!!”  I felt such an incredible burden after reviewing her website and reading through their goals and plans. I had to do something. So I picked up the phone.

We had a great conversation and she took everything I had to say with such grace. I feel as though my relationship with her allowed me the opportunity to speak into this and hopefully shed light on why I am so adamant about NOT starting/funding/partnering with orphanages. Below is a conclusion of my conversation with her, with various bullet points summarizing what I communicated that day:

First off, God did not intend for ANY person to be institutionalized. He created us to be in families. If that is the case, then why are we so passionate about orphanages? Why do we glamorize “orphanages” and “orphan homes” and applaud those who go over to invest and work in them? Yes, it’s great that people have a heart for the orphan….but again, my fear is that we’re doing it all wrong. There HAS to be a better way to care for orphans than by putting them in an institution. “God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing…” Psalm 68:6.

If we build an orphanage, it WILL be filled with children…but that’s not necessarily a good thing. In the movie Field of Dreams, there’s a voice that says, “If you build it, they will come.” That rings so true with orphanages, as well. You see, what many of us don’t realize is that many of children who are living in orphanages aren’t even orphans! I was astonished to see the statistics on this. In Liberia, for example, 98% of the children living in orphanages in that country have one surviving parent. In Sri Lanka that number is 92%, and in Zimbabwe 40%. I saw this first-hand when I was serving in Haiti. We were working one day at a small orphanage and there was a knock at the front gate. One of the workers answered the door and found a mother with her two children. The mother pleaded with the orphanage for them to take her children because she didn’t have the means to care for them anymore. What we discovered is that this is a COMMON thing that orphanage directors face around the globe.  Orphan Care Network says it like this: “These statistics reflect a very common dynamic: In communities under severe economic stress, increasing the number of places in residential care results in children being pushed out of poor households to fill those places.” It’s a sad reality, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of parents living in poverty or who are faced with other dire circumstances. Think about it, if you had children and had no way of providing adequate food, medicine, or education for them, would you not consider taking them to a nearby orphanage to see if they could take them in so that you’re children wouldn’t starve? I know I would. Those parents aren’t bad parents – they are just hopeless and in survival mode. So we have to ask ourselves the question: if most of the children that are institutionalized actually have family but have been brought to that facility because their parents or other family members didn’t have the adequate means to care for them in the first place, wouldn’t it make more sense for us to assist those FAMILIES so that they can stay together? That, to me, seems to be the best solution and one worth figuring out.

Growing up in an orphanage has an adverse effect on personality, emotional and social development. Several studies have shown that EVERY child that spends significant time in an orphanage displays “symptoms of inadequate personality development such as aggression, attention-demanding behavior, sleep disturbance, over-affection and repelling affection” (The Urban Halo, Craig Greenfield). I’ve seen this first-hand in orphanages during my travels as well. Individuals on short-term mission teams tend to think they must be something special when a child at an orphanage is overly affectionate with them during a visit. We think, “Oh, look how sweet he is! He has been holding onto me all day and won’t let go of my hand.” (I’ve mistakenly assumed this as well prior to my study on this particular topic.) What we don’t understand, though, is that that very child is that way with every single visitor that comes to the orphanage because “over-affection” is actually a psychosocial issue. This is a phenomena that results from children not have available, appropriate, nurturing and stable mother-figures in their life. These children have failed to have the opportunity to attach to a caretaker and are deprived of this deep emotional need being met; therefore, they are overly affectionate with anyone that will give them the time of day. Other studies show that IQ is severely affected, especially when children are institutionalized at a young age. Also, researchers have found that even when high quality orphanages are adequately staffed and children are receiving attention and love, there was still a statistically significant difference in emotional stability between those children and similar children in foster care. Also, the ones living in orphanages had a greater tendency to depression. This point is one of my biggest concerns! I feel as though many well-intended individuals around the world think that if they construct an orphanage that has brightly-colored walls, adequate staff to provide love and attention to the children, funding to provide 2-3 meals a day, and an educational program to keep the children in school, then they are doing a great thing and are taking excellent care of those children. Not to be judgmental or critical, but is that really a great thing in light of all the research and studies that have been done? Is that really a great thing considering the fact that those children WILL struggle and face major developmental delays given their institutionalization? I believe that the hearts of people who are starting orphanages are BEAUTIFUL, please don’t get me wrong. I just believe those hearts are misguided. That passion and love for the fatherless just needs to be redirected so that the best interests of the children are considered first and foremost.

Finally, orphanages are expensive and lack sustainability when compared to community-based orphan care models. On average it costs about $2,000/year per child in an orphanage setting whereas a child that is supported in a home in a community can be adequately supported for about $30/month (about $360/year).  Again, if we look at the fact that most orphans are “economic orphans,” meaning they are only residing in the orphanage because of economic stressors, then it makes total sense for a ministry/organization to keep the child in a family and in a community and help support that family to care for the child. By keeping children in the community and empowering families to care for their own children or extended family members, a nation is strengthened and economic growth and development can begin to occur. Microfinance is a huge need that would allow us to see HUGE change in communities if organizations and ministries would focus their attention on empowering and training families to be self-sustainable instead of building orphanages. Many families have the skills but just don’t have the resources and/or the initial capital to get a small business off the ground. If we could empower and equip families to do that, then they would be able to sustain their families and wouldn’t be knocking down the doors of orphanages looking for ways to provide a meal to their starving children.

My conversation ended with this particular young lady by reinforcing the fact that orphanages are not BAD…and I want to reiterate that again for you as a reader. Many of you, I’m sure, have some sort of connection with an orphanage in some part of the world and perhaps even know and love children or the staff that work there. I do, as well, and will continue to support them as best as I can given the resources and knowledge that I have.  I have no intention of abandoning those places! However, if I were to ever be asked by that orphanage director what my opinion was on the best care for those children that are currently in his/her orphanage, I would tell them that it’s essential that they not be ignored or forgotten. The solution isn’t to turn our backs on existing orphanages or orphan homes. But a radical shift in our thinking and how to operate those facilities would be the first step. How can we perhaps “de-institutionalize” those children and help to reintegrate them into society? Can we trace each child’s family and possibly reunify those children with family members and redirect the funds that we were using at the orphanage to help train and equip the family to care for that child in their home? If families are legitimately nowhere to be found OR the family members that are discovered are not capable of properly caring for those children (i.e. abuse is suspected or the parent has a physical/mental disability that disallows them to properly care for themselves, much less a child), then at that point can we equip and train families within a local church to be foster parents.  I mean, God has provided the mandate for the Church to care for orphans, right? So why not start with the local church right there in the community where that child was born? Why not re-train the orphanage workers to be social workers to visit the children in their new homes and ensure that proper care is being provided? God created families and he intends for us to be in them. So let’s invest in solutions that allow for orphans to be in loving HOMES. That is the only way to tackle the worldwide orphan crisis.

My appeal to passionate, well-intending individuals out there, Christian or not, is to let your head guide your heart. As I mentioned, I love the hearts of those people who are giving, sacrificing, and serving all because they want to make a difference in the life of a child. Praise God for you if you are one of those individuals! But my prayer is that you seek wisdom, study the topic thoroughly, network with as many individuals as you can, and make sure that in the end, you are pursuing a solution that is MOST beneficial to the child. May we all be challenged to not do things that seemingly appear to be good for orphans. And heaven forbid may we be challenged to not just do things because they make us feel good about ourselves at the end of the day. Let’s put the orphan above ourselves and ask the question: If this were my kid, what type of environment would I want them in? I doubt any of us would resort to placing them in institutions or “children’s homes” knowing the likely outcome of their emotional, social, physical and mental state.

May we all “learn to do good, seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the cause of orphans, and fight for the rights of widows” with wisdom and discernment (Isaiah 1:17).



Orphan-Causing Issue: Human Trafficking

A variety of global issues impact the orphan crisis. Poverty, as we discussed, is the leading cause of family disruption. Human trafficking also affects the orphan population. As defined by the UN, human trafficking is "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation" (UNODC). While we often associate sex slavery with human trafficking, that is only one form of human trafficking. Every year, men, women, and children are trafficked for a variety of reasons, including forced labor, slavery, organ harvesting, and sexual exploitation.

Approximately 21 million people have been trafficked throughout the world, and 55% of those being trafficked are women and girls. While the majority of the victims are over the age of 18, a staggering 26% of people trafficked are children (approximately 5.5 million). Children are used for prostitution, sex tourism, pornography, forced marriage, sweatshop work, begging, armed services, and migrant farming (UNICEF). The average age of a child victim is between ages 11 and 14 (Ark of Hope).  

Why are people being trafficked? What is the purpose? Human trafficking is an incredibly lucrative business, as is evidenced by these statistics from Human Rights First:

"Human trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers, according to the ILO [Internal Labor Organization]. The following is a breakdown of profits, by sector:

  • $99 billion from commercial sexual exploitation
  • $34 billion in construction, manufacturing, mining, and utilities
  • $9 billion in agriculture, including forestry, and fishing
  • $8 billion dollars is saved annually by private households that employ domestic workers under conditions of forced labor"

Men, women, and children are trafficked through a variety of means. Sometimes they are tricked into believing they have been offered a job. Sometimes they are held captive through violence. Sometimes they are sold by another person. In some of the worst cases, mothers and fathers may willingly sell their children as a means of providing for the rest of the family or they may give them to a trafficker that they mistakenly believe will be a loving parent.

It’s easy to see the variety of ways that human trafficking can tear a family apart, regardless of which member of the family is trafficked. When a mother or father is removed from the picture, a child’s future is in jeopardy. Likewise, a child who has been trafficked immediately is in danger of a variety of other atrocities, and may even continue the orphan cycle when he/she has a child of his/her own. 







AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases caused more deaths worldwide in 2010 and 2011 than cancer, car accidents, and heart disease. To put this into better perspective based on percentages, check out the list below from the World Health Organization’s (branch of the United Nations) report.i

Furthermore, what is tragic about many of these deaths is that many of the cases are largely preventable through the modern technology and medicine of this current day and age. However, because of the lack of awareness, resources, and distribution, particularly in poverty stricken countries, avoidable deadly diseases are contracted daily that fuel the unnecessary loss of millions of lives. The aftermath of the massacre caused by AIDS and other diseases every year creates one of the largest and most devastating spokes in the cycle of the orphan.

As the fourth leading cause for death in the world, AIDS cannot be ignored when talking about the most dangerous diseases affecting vulnerable orphaned children.ii There are currently 33.2 million people living with HIV with 22.5 million of those infected being located in Sub-Saharan Africa, 61% of which are female.iii The ONE Campaign estimates that 15.2 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS worldwide.iv Many HIV positive men will prey upon orphaned children, especially girls, out of the belief that having sex with a young virgin will cure them of their illness. In some cultures, it is thought that the younger the virgin the more likely a cure will ensue. Other orphans become infected as a result of being forced to prostitute themselves after being sold by their family, abducted by pimps, or even voluntarily out of not knowing of any other way to survive. Other orphans or impoverished children will enter into sexual situations that they are manipulated or driven to out of desperation, and the cycle continues.v

The ONE Campaign has made great strides toward breaking this spoke of the orphan cycle particularly through bipartisan lobbying efforts in the United States government and other awareness efforts abroad. Both Republicans and Democrats alike have been able to unite to make an impact that will greatly reduce the number of people suffering from AIDS and other diseases in the future. According to ONE, both Bush and Obama have continued to keep the United States committed to tackling the disease since Clinton pushed it to the forefront in the 90’s. The impact has been exponential as there are now 6.6 million people receiving treatment as opposed to a much smaller 100,000 in 2002. The ONE campaign has not relented in their determination as they note that, “…despite great progress, for every person who goes on treatment, nearly two more are infected. There are an estimated nine million people still in need of treatment.”vi

While it can be somewhat common to hear about the AIDS epidemic, there are other deadly diseases that are wrongly overlooked. One such disease is mosquito-borne malaria that runs rampant, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Americas. About one million deaths occur every year due to malaria. In Africa it kills more children than any other disease, but malaria is completely preventable. Bed nets and insect repellent alone would greatly reduce the risk of obtaining this sickness. Other control measures include spraying insecticides or draining the still water in which the mosquitoes breed. It can be extremely complex for impoverished peoples who lack necessary resources or education needed to gain access to these simple protective devices. Children often become orphaned by losing their parents to this illness and become more susceptible to also becoming infected because they no longer have someone to look after them or teach them how to protect themselves from it. Thankfully many organizations are working to provide treated mosquito nets to needy families. One such organization is Nothing But Nets, which has been able to provide over four million life-saving nets to at-risk families.vii Other organizations effectively meeting this need for many individuals are Netting Nations, Compassion International, and Nets for Life Africa.

Among other purely preventable killers are food-borne and water-borne diseases that combined cause the death of 3.6 million people each year.viii About 2 million babies under the age of five are taken all too soon because of acute respiratory infections and another 1.5 million to diarrhea-related illnesses.ix To a typical American mind, this magnitude of death due to food and water alone seems unfathomable. But the natural disasters, inadequate health care, wars and poverty that many other countries face all contribute to these devastating numbers becoming a reality. These are not just numbers. These millions are all God’s children that may be missing the knowledge of their Savior and a chance at an abundant life that God desires for each one of them.