Airport reunions, Brain Development and Vulnerable Children

In this guest post, Child and Maternal Health Nurse Terese gives insight into some of the many complex issues caused by institutional care.

“In a few months, my husband and I will be driving to the airport to meet our daughter who will have been studying in the US for a semester. We will be excited to be reunited with our daughter after missing her for six months. It’s obvious that we don’t want to pick up just any 21 year old young woman. We can’t wait to see our special daughter!

I could describe a hundred different interactions that many of us experience every day, like this, which demonstrate the important of irreplaceable relationships in families. They are so common that we mostly don’t notice that everywhere in the world, human beings are expressing deep and intimate feelings for those who are most important to them. From the youngest baby to the oldest person, this experience is universal. Even when these relationships are difficult, people always long for this connection.

The depth and intimacy of our family relationships are what make life meaningful. If we don’t experience this in our childhood, we will likely spend the rest of our lives trying to create this in the families we form as adults.

That is why, in my interactions with families, as a Child and Maternal Health Nurse, I not only check that the baby is growing well and meeting developmental milestones, but also observe the nature of the relationship between the baby and parents. The quality of this relationship is the foundation for everything that is necessary to the child to thrive and develop into an adult who can enjoy life, function well and be compassionate to others.

A concept in developmental psychology called attachment theory seeks to understand the nature and importance of this connection in relation to childhood development.

We all have a lived experience of attachment theory, as we have all been cared for as children. We now live with the impact of these experiences; good, bad but never indifferent.

It is complex to understand how this theory relates to vulnerable children in residential care. The experiences of childhood are woven into our everyday lives, embedded in our personalities and ways of going about life. And because we can’t remember those early years, the intense experience of forming a bond with our parents is not easily reflected upon. 

Some aspects of attachment theory that I have found helpful to think about include:

  1. The infant brain is immature at birth. The basic structures are in place but the connections (synapses) between the brain cells (neurons) are not fully developed. This means there are infinite possibilities for the wiring of the brain at birth. These connections are formed by the environment and interactions that a baby experiences. The crucial time for the establishment of these connections is the first few years of life. These repeated experiences become the wiring of the brain.

  2. A baby is born with instinctive behaviours that seek closeness with their caregiver who will comfort, protect and nurture them. A child must have the opportunity to attach to at least one consistent person to achieve optimum development. When a child makes these important connections, the relationship is much deeper than someone they simply become familiar with, as we might with a work colleague. This relationship with the primary caregiver is hardwired into the architecture of the brain.

  1. The process of attachment occurs regardless of the quality of the care provided. A baby cannot discriminate between a nurturing parent and neglectful or abusive parent. Even in situations where a child needs to be removed from a family due to abuse, the child will still be traumatized by the loss of this relationship.

In light of this, it is essential that children, where possible, continue to live with their biological family. It is far better to provide support for the family to help them to thrive. The resources invested in this will also assist the extended family and wider community. If this is not possible, care within the extended family is the next best option. Residential care should be the last resort when all other options have been explored, and even then, for as short a time as possible.

To put this into a context that helps us understand from a child’s perspective: 

Imagine for a moment that you are taken away from all of your significant relationships to live in a different community. You have no power to stop this and you are completely cut off from everyone you know. It may be in response to a trauma your family has experienced (i.e. a death or illness), a natural disaster or a longer term situation, like poverty or unemployment. In any case, this situation is extremely distressing and you desperately need your family to cope. To exacerbate the tragedy, you now live with others who are also traumatized because they were also separated from their family and community.

This scenario is the lived experience for many children placed in residential care. Decades of research show that 80 to 90% of children in residential care have one or more parents alive, and the primary reason for placing them in care is poverty, not abuse or neglect or being orphaned. Parents are desperate to ensure that their children receive adequate food, clothing and education.

To address the issues of poverty, and help families continue to have the resources they need for their children, is complex. It needs local community involvement and a multi-disciplinary approach. But surprisingly, once established, family- based care costs about 7 x less than funding a children’s home or orphanage. Think of the possibilities of being able to reach 7x more children with same amount of money currently allocated to funding an orphanage! It also has the added benefit of being able to support whole families and their communities.  

Instinctively, we understand that children, where possible should remain in families.  If something happened to us where we couldn’t look after our children, we would want our children to be cared in an environment as close as possible to a family experience. Do we find it difficult to identify with parents in another culture and country, as having the same feelings of deep connection and love for their children, as we have for our children? Or perhaps many of us are unaware, that most children in orphanages are not true orphans and that better options such as family preservation or family based care is being introduced all over the world.

After reading this blog, I encourage you to reflect on the following:

  • Notice attachment in your everyday life. Being connected to your family and friends isn’t an optional extra in life. We don’t want to replace someone we love with someone else. When we lose someone we love, the grief is profound. Think about this in the context of a child being placed in residential care.

  • If you are a parent, empathise with parents who are desperate enough to put their child in residential care. How would you feel if you had to be separated from your child due to tragic circumstances?

  • Imagine the difference for a child between living in an institution or family-based care. Take the time to consider why orphanages do not exist anymore in Australia.

We cannot be part of a system that allows children to live outside of a family environment without exhausting all other options. We wouldn’t want anything less for our own children.  We shouldn’t want anything less for vulnerable children living in other cultures.

"I Had Made It So Much Worse." Previous Volunteer Discloses Glaring Issues With Orphanage Tourism

Recently we asked several people who have previously volunteered in residential care institutions to share their stories. Renee grew up in Sydney with a passion for Missions. Whilst studying cross cultural ministry, she worked in Indonesia where she visited several orphanages. During this time she began to realise that the system she was supporting was hurting families. Since then she has done further work across South East Asia, Japan, and Uganda and is now a passionate advocate for seeing children in families. This is her story. 

“I remember clearly the first time I visited an orphanage. I had grown up my whole life in church and through this I had heard so many stories about amazing Children's Homes filled with kids who, we were told, had nowhere else to go and had been rescued from a horrible fate. So naturally as we entered the beautifully well kept gardens of this orphanage I was excited and ready to pour out my heart of compassion. We sat in a big room as the children sung, read bible verses and prayed for us. My heart was full! It was just so incredible to see these children living in this “oasis”. So when the orphanage director invited me to stay in her home on the orphanage grounds I jumped at the chance to “make a real difference" in these children’s lives. Little did I know how much would change in a few months.  

I remember the first time I got this sinking feeling that something just wasn’t right. Another group of potential supporters had arrived and the children had to quickly race to put away their homework, stop their chores and change into their best clothes to sing, read and pray for another group of foreigners. Suddenly that first night no longer seemed like a wonderful moment but a well-rehearsed show put on by a director who used a group of children to help make money. I tried to ignore that nagging feeling that something wasn’t right every time I noticed the children’s reluctance to put on their little performance week-in and week-out. But when I think of one little girl there, I can never again shake off that feeling. I’m not sure how old she was. Maybe 7 or 8. She was sweet, kind and clearly desperately searching for love. Love that I was happy to shower upon her. One day I asked the director what her story was and she simply said, “we found her with her mother begging on the street so we brought her here.” I sat shocked. What about the mother? You took her child and just left her on the street? A child taken and a woman left all alone with nothing. How was that love? This girl had a mother, but wasn’t she an orphan? Weren’t they all orphans? With each family visit and heartbreaking farewell I discovered not. They simply came from families who could not provide what was offered by the children's home like enough food and a good education. There had to be a better way! 

On my last day I remember the look on that little girl’s face as I said my last goodbye and got into the car. The look of abandonment. The look of desperate loneliness. The look of a child who just wanted to go home. I still can see that face so clearly ingrained in my mind. That nagging feeling returned. Something was definitely wrong. I hadn’t helped her. I had made it so much worse. "There has to be a better way? There has to be?" I thought. Thankfully the following month I found out about Kinnected and I felt a wave of relief. There was a better way! And I wanted to be a part of it.” 

If you would like to share your experience of volunteering in a children’s home or orphanage, please contact us through our website. 

How Moon Found Two Families

Moon was brought to the New Smile Organisation at around eighteen months old. When she arrived, her identity was obscure. Her birth certificate had been edited, and both her name, and her parent’s names had been replaced. Moon had huge behavioural issues, and was difficult for staff to manage. She would throw big tantrums, which were upsetting to watch. As she grew up, she was told that she had been found in the trash, and didn’t have any family.

In the middle of 2017, a new team of social workers and a manager were recruited to work on reintegration, after donors realised that many children in the home had families. The new team immediately threw themselves into family tracing. After months of searching for Moon’s family, they learnt that her mother had passed away, and the identity of her father was unknown. In the midst of this sad news though, they learnt that Moon had many other relatives, and they were able to meet them.

Moon’s family were elated to hear that she was alive! When Moon was taken her family had been devastated. The family had heard rumours that Moon had been taken away to Siem Reap by a lady in a white skirt, but with little resources, were unable to trace her by themselves.


The team desired to find a safe and loving family placement for Moon, and so they began to look into the possibility of reintegrating her with her biological family. Moon was taken by social workers to visit them on various occasions. Through putting together a comprehensive family assessment, social worker’s came to realise that placing her back permanently with her family wouldn’t be ideal. While Moon would always have a special connection to her biological relatives, and would be able to visit them for special holidays, living with them long term would not be in her best interests. Moon still needed to find a stable family placement. In September 2018 she was moved into a loving foster family. 

When Moon first moved, the family faced many challenges with her behaviour. However, as the family understood her background, and what was driving many of these issues, they were able to work through these together. The family loves Moon and treats her as and equal member. They asked to adopt her so that she can stay with them forever! Moon is growing big and strong, and is incredibly smart, and beautiful. When social worker’s visited the family after three months, Moon said this: “Pa and Mom love and care [for] me. I am happy and I have some friends at school and around my home.” 


Moon is now seven years old, and she is thriving in her new family. She remains connected to her biological relatives through regular visits, and is now seeing an art therapist, who is helping her work through some of her challenges. She is growing stronger daily, and her story is an inspiration to many! 

ARE GOOD INTENTIONS GOOD ENOUGH? Protecting Children in Short-Term Missions

by Rebecca Nhep

If there is one thing I have learnt after 16 years of working in international missions and development it is that it is exhaustingly complex! Issues don’t fit into neat boxes, pat answers can’t find their place and cookie cutter solutions usually create more problems than they fix. All of the assumptions I carried into my ‘career’ have become myths debunked and the sobering reality that I and others like me are left to grapple with is that it is dangerously easy to do harm- even with the best of intentions. If this is the case even for those of us who have invested years into learning a language, culture, and taking a deep dive into certain social or missional issues, what about short-term mission? How much more of a concern is it when applied to the activities of short-term teams? 

There are voices out there that will emphatically argue that we should do away with short-term teams altogether. I on the other hand think there is a potential worth harnessing within short term missions, an opportunity for reciprocal learning and advocacy worth promoting. Yet, for such potential to be realised and for adverse outcomes to be avoided short-term missions must become more reflective, more conscious of complexity, and be built upon a strong foundation of ethics.


Ethical frameworks for making decisions typically include assessing the answer to three questions:  

  • Is the goal good?                    

  • Is the motivation good?         

  • Are the directing principles (means) good?

If the goal is good, the motivation is good and the means are good, then it is deemed ethical. The added complexity however with regard to short term missions (STM) is that there is more than one group of actors involved and often unequal power dynamics between actors based on a flow of financial resources. So whose goal and motivation are we assessing? Is the ‘means’ good for who? The church/donor or sending organisation? The receiving organisation? The team members? Or the local community, program ‘beneficiaries’ or children who the teams seek to interact with?


When the only ethical lens applied to a STM trip is a team or church-centric one, children can easily become the perfect ‘means’ of creating an impacting, moving, life changing experience for team members. We see this when teams want to be directly involved in caring for children in orphanages; which can be a deeply moving experience for a team member, and highly detrimental for the child’s development and wellbeing. We see this when teams want to get involved with child survivors of trafficking in aftercare shelters; which will no doubt stir team members to become passionate about preventing human trafficking, but is highly inappropriate with respect to the child’s rehabilitation. When STM trip itineraries are designed without adequate regard for how the team and their activities impact children’s wellbeing, then regardless of how beneficial it is for the team, the practice is deemed unethical.

Ethical STM trips therefore assess the ‘good’ of the goal, motivation and means from the margins, or in other words, from the vantage point of the party with the least amount of power in the relationship. When applied to team’s engagement with children, ethics from the margins demands that protecting children’s best interests supersede all other motivations and goals, and forms the primary directing principle.


Ensuring a STM team engages ethically with children and upholds children’s’ best interests is a matter of applying a child protection and safeguarding lens across all stages of a STM program- from recruiting and preparation to on-field engagement. ACC International in collaboration with Better Volunteering Better Care has recently released the Child Protection in Short-Term Missions Manual and Toolkit, a comprehensive tool outlining a Biblical framework for protecting children, core principles for enhancing children’s wellbeing through STM, key considerations for avoiding harm, along with practical tools, case studies, self assessment forms, checklists, and hand outs for teams. The manual also includes a section on short-term teams and orphanages, and unpacks the harmful effects orphanage volunteering can have on individual children, the role it plays in fuelling an exploitative ‘orphanage industry’, and the reasons why ACCI, along with many other organisations across the globe, are calling for an end to this practice.


You can visit our Ethical Short-Term Missions & Volunteering website and use it as a guide to ensure your organisation or church’s STM program is ethical and upholds children’s best interests.

Proverbs 31:8-9 encourages us to speak and act on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and defend their rights. You can do this for vulnerable children by adding your voice to the call to stop orphanage volunteering by clicking on the petition link Stop Orphanage Volunteering.

You can also read our next blog post on The Love You Give campaign and get involved by watching the film, sharing it with your networks or hosting a screening.

If you have further questions, want more information or send ACCI an email at if you want to discuss this with one of our team.  


Doing good is complex. The Love You Give is a story about how well-meaning volunteers are unknowingly breaking up families by volunteering in orphanages.

Watch the film, share it or host a screening and help us share the message that we need to #ChangeVolunteering.


As we drove away we could hear the sobbing of children fade off into the distance. Just moments ago their fingers were being pried away from the sides of the jeep as we tried to make our exit. Some children stood in silence with blank stares while others wept uncontrollably.  We sat in the back of the jeep in silence as we tried to process the scene that had just played out. One of my fellow volunteers broke the silence by simply saying “What have we done?”

What had we done? We had spent 6 weeks playing, teaching and caring for kids living in a children’s home in the Philippines. Every year millions of people travel around the world to volunteer, and orphanages are one of the most popular destinations. I had provided those kids with hours of English practice, hugs and laughter but in that moment as we drove away it finally hit me it wasn’t worth it, for those children I had caused more harm than good.

Six weeks earlier, when we arrived the scene was vastly different. As our jeep entered the gates the kids ran towards us, smiling, squealing and hugging us the moment we stepped out of the vehicle. Over the next few weeks I had an amazing time walking the kids to school, helping them with their homework while also planning for child rights training we would run with kids from local schools. From a young age I can recall hearing about the orphanages my church and school supported and listening to the stories of returned missions teams. I dreamed that I too could be one of those people going out to ‘change the world’, which was presented from the platform as being relatively simple, unambiguous and rewarding. And now here I was at 19 years old experiencing what I had once dreamt about. However achieving ones dream always comes at a cost, what I didn’t know yet was there was a cost to reaching this dream but I wouldn’t be the one to pay.

Slowly as the weeks progressed I began having more and more questions. It all began when a young boy started crying after he was caught stealing from my room. He was tired and ashamed and like most kids he wanted just his mum, he wanted to go home. The manager responded by saying that moving back home might be possible, which confused me as I thought that these children had no parents or were unable to stay with them due to abuse or abandonment. Why was this boy here if he wanted to and could potentially go home?

Questions like this kept nagging me during the whole trip. When each of us was given a topic to speak about at the training I was handling the ‘Right to Family and Alternative Care’. As I researched I found information regarding the damaging impacts residential care had on children. But these children in front of me were always happy, gave us long hugs and lived in nice buildings on a beautiful property. How could this place be harmful to children?

During the trip we had a home stay in a nearby village where the kids there ran from house to house freely greeting different aunts, grandparents and cousins. There were no guards at front gates, young children sat on their mother’s laps and there was always a watchful eye of a nearby relative making sure the children were safe and happy. Life was so vastly different between that experienced by the kids back in the children centre. I asked myself, ‘Where would I want to grow up’?

As the trip continued more things began to concern me, such as the sibling groups separated, the favouritism the volunteers unwittingly showed certain children or the constant questions the children asked about former volunteers who had come and gone, promising to send letters that never arrived.

After our dramatic departure I could no longer silence the nagging feeling inside me that being part of the revolving door of volunteers in these kids lives was not in their best interest. Yes, these kids, many of whom had experienced neglect and trauma, needed lots of attention and care, but they shouldn’t have received this love that they so desperately needed from me. For as I turned back one last time as the jeep left the property I knew that I would never see those kids again. These kids needed people who could provide them with long-term healthy attachments. Instead in a matter of days a new group of volunteers would arrive and these children, so desperate for love and attention, would once again embrace them and be devastated as another jeep full of people drove away. I had become one more person in an ongoing cycle of abandonment for those children.


In two communities in Northern Uganda, ACCI field workers Russell and Jenny Barton are helping ensure Uganda’s most vulnerable children can realise their right to an education.

With a focus on orphaned and vulnerable children (who may live in their family of origin, or in kinship or foster care), their scholarship program covers the costs of any school and examination fees, uniforms, textbooks and school lunches – all things which form barriers to education for impoverished families. This support not only gives children the opportunity to learn, and gain the tools that will help them create a brighter future for themselves; it also helps keep families together, by alleviating the pressure of supporting children through their schooling.

The Barton’s realise, however, that it’s not just being in school that counts but ensuring children can access quality education. That’s why their work also includes capacity training for teachers and schools, as well as assistance with building repairs and renovations. “It’s extremely difficult for children living in poverty to gain access to education, and in most cases the teachers aren't being paid and lack motivation to teach, [and may] have inadequate training,” Russell says. “We come alongside communities and try to empower and strengthen them – strengthening schools is a strategic part of that.” By strengthening local schools – rather than, for example, sending their scholarship students to more developed urban schools – the Barton’s are not only helping create a better learning experience for all students living in these areas; they’re also creating a sustainable response to the problems in Uganda’s education system.

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In Cambodia, Children in Families (CIF) exists to place vulnerable children in loving families. When a child cannot legitimately remain with their family of origin, it is vital there are family based alternatives available such as foster and kinship care, to ensure children can still realise their right to be raised in a family. In 2017, CIF supported 95 children in foster families, including 40 children with disabilities through their ABLE program.

In 2017, after years of advocating and eagerly waiting for domestic adoption to be made available to families in Cambodia, CIF finally saw 3 families within their programs legally adopt their long-term foster children. This was a monumental achievement for not only Children in Families, but for the countless children and families across Cambodia that will be impacted by this legislation change.

Chanty has been waiting to have a child to call her own for over 20 years. In early 2018, Chanty and her husband, Sinath, became another CIF family to adopt their foster children. They been fostering Dany and Sambat for the last six years, since the boys were three months old. Chanty and Sinath are the only parents the boys remember and adoption will provide them with a stronger sense of belonging and identity. Adoption also legitimises them as a family in the eyes of the wider community, which is so important in a society built around strong family ties and connections.


In Myanmar, the planting of a new church and the establishment of a children’s home often go hand in hand. To fill these children’s homes, orphanage directors visit remote communities to recruit children who many times are relinquished by their parents due to poverty or the promise of better education. In the worst cases, children are trafficked into institutions to illicit funds from well-meaning donors.

In response, ACCI Relief’s Kinnected Myanmar project works alongside orphanage directors and key donors to help them see that God designed for children to be raised in families and that the church can play a significant role in supporting families through hardship so that children can remain within their family unit. The project has hired and trained a technical social work unit of qualified and experienced social workers that facilitates the safe reintegration of children into their families.

The project currently works with 10 orphanage directors and 204 children. Since the project started in 2015, 4 residential care institutions have now closed and 16 children have been reintegrated into their families under full process, while 105 cases are currently in process.

Hani (12) and Thari (10) are two sisters who at a young age were taken into care by one of the homes in the Kinnected Myanmar project. When social workers first visited the home they found the 80 children were severely malnourished and neglected. Family tracing and assessment processes helped identify a number of Hani and Thari’s family members, including an older brother. While all three siblings had entered the home together, Hani and Thari’s brother had been sent to work in a tea shop owned by the orphanage director’s niece. Here he was banned from any contact with his family.

Bandith Nhep (KM-4).JPG

Social workers negotiated his release and reunited him with his sisters, and through family assessments determined that the best place for Hani, Thari and their brother was to live with their uncle and aunt. With support through the Kinnected Myanmar project the children were reunified with their aunt and uncle in 2017. Social workers continue to monitor the children to ensure they are safe, well looked after, attending school and happy.


Mother’s Day celebrations took on a special meaning for one little boy in Thailand this year. 

Five-year-old Zaw Win* had lived at Compasio’s Children’s Homes since he was 2 weeks old. As part of Compasio’s commitment to supporting the best interests of children without parental care, a loving foster family was found for Zaw Win*.

After the carers completed the training and assessment process, Zaw Win was placed into their long-term care in May and for the first time since he was 2 weeks old he had a mum and a dad.

Compasio’s case worker explained that when she arrived at the home, the family was observed to be like any other family going about their daily life with the children playing ‘house’ together, whilst mum cooked dinner and dad was on the phone. When Zaw Win saw her he ran across to her with a big smile and bright eyes saying, “Do you know my mum came to my school today for Mother’s Day!”.  Zaw Win excitedly went on to tell her all about the celebration as his mum smiled as she listened in the background.

Zaw Win is just one of 18 children who are now in loving homes since Compasio joined the Kinnected program. In 2017, Compasio was able to find families for the remaining children in their care allowing them to close the last of their children’s homes. The focus of their work now is to strengthen and preserve vulnerable families and advocate globally for children’s rights to be raised in families.

In 2017, Compassio helped 52 families at risk of separation through their family preservation programs including emergency housing and food. A further 132 families benefited from projects aimed at strengthening families by providing them with access to day care, income generation opportunities, positive parenting training and much more.



There are tens of thousands of children in Cambodia living in orphanages however 77% of these children are not orphans but are placed into institutions for reasons of poverty. With little resource being directed to preserve vulnerable families, desperate parents often have no choice but to put their children in an orphanage in order to ensure that they receive adequate food, clothing and an education. This is in stark contrast to the Cambodian Government’s policy, which states that children should grow up in families where possible and residential care should be a last resort and a temporary option for children in recognition of the detrimental impacts residential care can have on children’s development.


Children In Families (CIF) was established in 2006, by individuals concerned about the overuse of institutions in caring for the needs of Cambodia’s children at risk. Children In Families recognise the rights of a child to grow up in a family and the responsibility for governments and service providers to ensure there are adequate family based services for children who legitimately need alternative care. CIF recognises that the love, nurturing and the security of a permanent family unit is fundamental to children holistic wellbeing and long-term outcomes.


CIF’s desire is to find permanent Cambodian families for children who cannot live with their biological parents, either temporarily or permanently, through kinship care, emergency foster care and long-term foster care programs. When a child is referred to CIF they work to determine if reintegration or family preservation with the child’s family is possible and support the family when it is. Where this is not possible then CIF finds either an extended family member or a foster care family for the child. Kinship and foster care families are supported by CIF with regards to children’s education, nutrition, medical care and other services where required.



Children with disabilities are at a much greater risk of being relinquished to institutional care and are much more vulnerable to the potential dangers and negative effects of institutional care. CIF’s ABLE program helps biological and foster families caring for children with disabilities gain access to both the resources and encouragement they need to continue to care for the child at home. ABLE staff are trained to provide therapeutic services to address challenges children may have in all areas of development and to help their families know how to help them as well. Through ABLE, children in CIF’s Kinship Care & Foster Care programs have access to special education, medical services and specialised equipment and support aids.



Children in Families programs:

• Decrease the overuse of institutional care and increase the availablity of family-based care services for vulnerable children

• Support and strengthen families and communities and prevent family separation

• Equip families to meet the needs of children with disabilities, and promote inclusion and participation in the community

• Raise awareness and provide education and training about family-based care and family preservation.


Case Study: Sam

Sam was received by Children In Families and placed into a foster family at the age of four. He had been rescued from a situation of abuse and severe neglect. When Children In Families stepped in to help, Sam was withdrawn and extremely isolated. He used no words to communicate, was very afraid of people, and was not yet toilet trained. He did not know how to engage in any kind of meaningful play, entertaining himself by sitting alone and running his hands through the dirt. The neighbours thought he was crazy and asked the CIF staff and Sam’s foster family how they thought they could help such a boy. They did not believe he was capable of learning and could not understand why this family would take him in.

Thankfully, Sam’s foster family believed in him, and their acceptance of Sam was the first step in his transformation. Their love and care began to break through Sam’s defensiveness and distrust of people. He began to trust and engage with his family members, though he still was very reserved with strangers and would often run to hide when other people were around.

Sam had been with his foster family for over a year before the ABLE program began providing services in February 2013. Sam was one of the first children to be evaluated and provided with regular visits. ABLE’s physiotherapist and Community Rehabilitation Team staff member provided instruction and resources to the family to help Sam work on his communication and play skills, and their regular visits helped Sam to become more comfortable with interacting with people outside his family as well.

Now Sam is excited and comes running to participate when he sees the ABLE staff arriving at his home for a visit. He is engaging much more with his foster family and with neighbours. He is continually learning new words and enjoys playing with toys along with other children. Sam is now six years old and, thanks to the love of his foster family and the intervention of the ABLE program, he is able to go to school. Even his foster family had hardly dared to hope that he would be ready for this significant step.



Sepheo was established in 2013 to help children and youth living and begging on the streets of Maseru, Lesotho’s capital. Through building relationships with the children and researching their family situations Sepheo gained an understanding of the causes of child and youth homelessness, which included a lack of supervision at home, poor coping skills, family issues or difficulty coping in mainstream schools. They also found that when a child decides to run away and live on the street rarely do relatives persuade them to return. As a result living on the streets quickly becomes a permanent arrangement, due to a lack of appropriate intervention. The longer children are on the streets the harder it is to convince them to leave as they become more comfortable and pick up negative behaviours. Programs providing services to these children (in particular on-street feeding and clothing) often increase the number of children as it incentivises life on the streets over remaining with or returning to their families. Sepheo realised that the best way to improve these children’s long term outcomes was to help them reintegrate back into family life; either with their parents or extended relatives, and receive support to enable them to thrive in that family environment.

Sepheo have a weekly presence on the streets and are often the first point of call for new children arriving on the streets. With networks all across the country, Sepheo trace relatives and, together with the child and government, identify the best home environment for them within their immediate or extended family. Lesotho’s family and community structures are incredibly strong, and finding a child with no relatives willing to stay with is extremely rare.

Sepheo plan the child’s reintegration back into their family, assess whether they can return to their former school and help the child and family navigate the transition. The children and their families are monitored and supported on an ongoing basis to ensure they are emotionally and physically stabilised and do not return to the streets.

When Sepheo reintegrates a child, they often find that they cannot return to mainstream school and as a result are at higher risk of returning to the streets. Sepheo School, a bridging education program, has been established to address the specific issues faced by street children, and is an effective solution as it provides an incentive for children to return back to their families. It has also proven to be an important element in making kinship care a viable option for children as extended relatives are also far more willing to look after a child whose educational needs are taken care of at no cost to them. With the stability, encouragement and support they receive at the school all the children who are currently attending Sepheo School have remained off the street and are living in families. Because of Sepheo’s interventions, the population of children on the street has decreased dramatically. Since late 2013 Sepheo has helped 54 children and youth leave the streets of Maseru.


Sepheo aims to see a significant decrease in children and youth living on the street of Maseru by:

  • Assisting children (< 18) reintegrate back into their families and by providing them with the opportunity to complete primary school and further study or vocational training.

  • Helping every willing youth (18-25) leave the streets and pursue their choice of study or vocation.

  • Supporting parents and caregivers increase their effectiveness and willingness to raise and care for their children.

 Case Study: Thabo

Thabo* was 15 years old when Sepheo staff started to see him on the streets. He was anti-social, usually alone, and always high from sniffing glue. For more than a year Sepheo staff reached out to him, sat and talked with him and tried to understand what was happening in his life. For a full year they got nowhere. Even the information he gave Sepheo about his family, previous village and school proved incorrect. They persisted in loving him whenever they saw him and finally broke through in early 2015. For the first time they found him sober, and were able to offer him an opportunity that would change his life. If he agreed to let Sepheo Staff find him a home to stay in, they would allow him to join Sepheo School for free and finish his primary education. He agreed immediately, and told them how to find his sick mother in a nearby village.

Sepheo came to understand that Thabo’s father died when he was young, and that the relationship between mother and son had deteriorated over many years as he had become wilder and angrier, abusing drugs and alcohol and stealing from other villagers. All the while his mother had become sicker and more unable to handle his difficult behaviour.

He was, in her words, “out of control”, coming and going from home whenever he pleased.

She was so relieved when Sepheo offered her son a place at school. She hoped that with support her child could change, and was excited to hear about the discipline, love and character training her son would receive in addition to catching up academically. She would also benefit from parenting coaching as Sepheo remained in constant contact during her son’s transition home. On her son’s side, Thabo agreed to sleep at home every night, a requirement for all children enrolled in Sepheo School.

Thabo has been at Sepheo School now for 8 months, and has changed dramatically. Recently, Sepheo staff were walking through his village looking for relatives of another child and were stopped by 3 different villagers telling of his incredible transformation. They reported that he is no longer the child leading other children astray, but is now positively leading other children in the village to do what is right.

*name changed




Whilst Sri Lanka has made significant economic gains since the end of the civil war, the country and its people still face significant challenges including poverty, poor quality education and inequality. Children from disadvantaged families often struggle with mainstream educational system because of their ‘class’ difference, no birth certificate, behavioural problems or lack of parental interest. These children are at particular risk of being separated from their families and placed into residential care.


HelpKids aims to uphold the rights of vulnerable children in Sri Lanka by keeping children in families and providing them access to education.

The HelpKids centre provides early education and tuition classes to children from vulnerable families. Their mission is to focus on the whole child by providing a secure, nurturing, and educational environment for children.

HelpKids provide early education at their Montessori (preschool) for disadvantaged children aged 2-5 years. The Past Pupils Program aims to encourage the children to complete their schooling until grade 12. They support them to achieve this by providing additional tuition classes and maintaining good relationships with their whole family. Each child in the HelpKids program receives assistance with their education, nutritious food, and medical care when necessary.

HelpKids also works to strengthen and preserve the families of these children as they believe that it is by working with the family and making the family unit function as a whole that will most benefit the children long term. HelpKids staff build strong relationships with parents and support, educate and encourage families as they face the challenges of poverty. Children need a loving, caring and secure home, it is HelpKids aim not to provide it, but to ensure and facilitate it.


HelpKids aims to:

  • Decrease the risk of family separation and the institutionalisation of children

  • Strengthen and preserve families by providing family case management and community based services

  • Improve the educational outcomes of vulnerable children by providing access to early education and tuition classes

  • Strengthen community based child protection mechanisms through womens and children’s clubs and training for community leaders

 Case Study: Hesanya

Hesanya is 5 years old. She came to The HelpKids Centre a little over a year and a half ago with her mother who is a single mum. Hesanya was enrolled into the Nursery Class in the Montessori School and into the day care program which allowed her mother to work five days a week. Hesanya loved playing and learning. She was like a little sponge absorbing everything around her not wanting to miss out on any little details.

This year in December she will graduate from the HelpKids Kindergarten class into grade 1. Her mother commented about how at her interview in a local public school for grade 1, the principal commented on how cheerful, bright and clever Hesanya was compared to the other children being enrolled. She said that she has seen Hesanya bloom into a loving and caring child and has seen how happy and content she is even though she doesn’t have everything that others her age may have.

Being a single mother, her responsibility to be provider and carer has been met with many challenges and struggles. But the HelpKids centre has been able to come along side her and offer her support in providing quality early education, and a safe environment for Hesanya so that her mother is able to work. The emotional support the centre has offered her has helped her to talk about her daily struggles and see that there is hope for a better future for her and her children.




Mother’s Heart was established in response to the absence of crisis pregnancy services in Cambodia, which resulted in women who faced a crisis pregnancy and who are without support networks with limited options other than unsafe abortion or abandoning their newborn babies.

Women in Cambodia face crisis pregnancies for many different reasons including abandonment, rape, incest and trafficking. Whatever the circumstances, unplanned pregnancies are often a source of shame not only for women but also for their families. 

This shame often results in rejection by immediate and extended family and leaves women isolated, unable to return home, and without financial and emotional support during their pregnancy.

Mother’s Heart was the first crisis pregnancy program established in Cambodia to help empower these women with choices and to prevent child abandonment and the resulting institutionalisation of infants. The women that access Mother’s Heart services do not have the support of a partner or family and often have faced instances of exploitation, sexual assault, gender-based violence or mental illness.


  • Counselling

  • Emergency temporary accommodation

  • Access to general health care

  • Antenatal and post natal medical support

  • Parenting training

  • Referrals to appropriate vocational training and job options

  • Child care services for clients

  • Formula for babies once their mothers return to work

Mothers Heart advocates for family-based care for every child. If a mother cannot take care of the child then Mother’s Heart facilitates kinship care or foster care through Kinnected’s family-based care project Children in Families.

 Case Study: Konika

Like many young rural women, Konika arrived in Phnom Penh at the age of thirteen to work as a domestic servant in the home of a distant relative. Like many Cambodian girls from poor families, Konika was expected to help with the family income so that her siblings could have a chance at education. Whist in Phnom Penh however, Konika was sexually assaulted by a relative.

For Konika this was equivalent to personal failure. Unmarried and now deemed ‘impure’ she felt that she had lost her social status and value. This scenario is a common entry point into the sex industry.

Konika ran away and began work in Phnom Penh’s red light area. Fellow sex workers helped her out by getting her started on yama, a euphoric methamphetamine that makes you more productive and helps you cope with unpleasant clients and long hours. It is also chronically addictive, suppresses appetite and withdrawal induces severe depression.

Konika’s life became a pursuit of money to feed her habit and support her boyfriend.

In and out of NGOs, different work places, and women’s shelters, Konika could cling to nothing strong enough to help her fight addiction and all that goes with life in sex work.

It was when she found out she was four months pregnant that she began to seriously consider change as now she had someone to live for. Konika found a shelter, returned to work, and connected with Mother’s Heart where she received counselling and support services.

As soon as Konika saw her baby, she was changed. A tiny, utterly dependent baby provided the way for Konika to trust, accept love and open up to Mother’s Heart staff. She came to see how others had tried to help her and that she was receiving true unconditional support.

Drug use had impaired Konika’s memory and comprehension. Mother’s Heart found an NGO who graciously offered a trial period of vocational training in the hope that Konika could understand instructions and complete tasks. She was successful. She passed her trial period and is now in full time training.

Konika has been transformed. So sullen and unresponsive to begin with she is now an engaging young woman who gets along well with others, cares for herself and diligently cares for the baby who allowed her to discover the power of hope.


The plight of vulnerable children in the developing world is challenging and moving and stirs many good-hearted people to seek opportunities to volunteer within programs that assist children such as orphanages and shelters. Without careful consideration and awareness of the broader issues, our good intentions could contribute to the exploitation and vulnerability of the children we seek to help. For this reason Kinnected calls for an end to orphanage tourism and volunteering and advocates for ethical alternatives.


It is critical that children form a strong attachment with a primary caregiver for their cognitive, social and emotional development. Children in orphanages have been separated from their parents and often experience attachment disorders, which cause them to develop unnaturally close bonds with people they have just met.

When volunteers take the role of caregivers in an orphanage the children quickly form these bonds. Each time a volunteer leaves, this bond is broken and the child once again experiences rejection.  This is extremely detrimental to children and therefore only long-term staff should assume caregiver roles for children in orphanages.


Many orphanages rely on donations from visitors and volunteers. They often keep the children undernourished and in poor conditions to illicit donations from tourists who feel sorry for the children. There are cases of orphanages recruiting and trafficking children to fill their orphanages for fundraising purposes. This is a system that exploits children and is unfortunately perpetuated by volunteers who are genuinely trying to help.


When orphanages open their doors to well meaning volunteers, they also make a way for predators to gain access to the children. Predators are known for seeking opportunities to volunteer and work within orphanages to access children. Whilst good screening can reduce the risk, it is not always possible to identify a child abuser and therefore volunteering does expose children to risk.


Children in residential care have undergone multiple traumas, including being separated from their families. They need the assistance of trained, qualified and committed staff who are equipped to deal with their special needs. Most volunteers do not come with these skills or the local language to use these skills. They can therefore inadvertently compound the children’s trauma out of a lack of awareness of how to appropriately deal with their behaviour.


In most of our own countries our government’s child protection systems would not allow us to visit any kind of shelter or residential care home and most of us wouldn’t consider asking. It would be considered a violation of the child’s right to privacy and a risk to the children.

In developing countries, children have the same rights but often child protection laws are weak or unregulated exposing children to risk. In the absence of strong local laws we should apply the same standards we would expect for our own children to children everywhere.

Making Assumptions

It is easy to make assumptions when we hear of children living in orphanages in developing countries: They must be orphans if they’re living in an orphanage, or their families have abandoned them, or at least an orphanage provides a better environment for them to grow up in when you consider the extreme poverty they’ve come from.

However, the problem with assumptions is that they generally don’t see the whole picture. Assumptions ‘suppose’ something to be the case, without actual proof. This can affect the way we deal with issues, creating new problems without solving the old ones.

Despite our assumptions, orphanages are not filled with orphans or children without adequate parental care. Up to 80% of children living in orphanages globally have families. Due to issues such as extreme poverty where little or no support is available to assist families in crisis, desperate families will place children in orphanages to ensure their children receive food, education and clothing.

And so orphanages create a ‘pull factor’ which encourages family separation. Most of these parents love their children and do not wish to abandon or be separated from them, but there are no other options. But society has given these families limited choices. Our assumptions have given these families no choice but to separate.


Lesson 1

by Matthew Jarlett, Harvest Bible College

Sugar cane is an alien species to Australia, imported here to exploit a perceived lucrative economic opportunity.  However, the tiny native Grey-Backed Cane Beetle almost put an end to that dream as it decimated the new plantations. The proposed solution? The American Cane Toad. Despite biosecurity concerns which initially limited its introduction in 1935, only one year later the possible wealth to be had proved irresistible, the flood gates were opened and the toads spread rapidly. They are now considered an exemplar invasive pest. They have devastated the biodiversity of North East Australia, and continue to spread west with no plausible eradication plan in sight.

There’s much we can learn from this sad story. But this article applies these lessons specifically to institutional care in developing nations, a.k.a. orphanages.

Orphanages had a long history in Europe prior to western colonialism, but were a foreign concept in non-western nations. Traditionally, non-western cultures are what’s known as collectivist cultures, i.e. they have a significantly higher view of family and community than individualist western cultures. So much so that the idea of isolating a child from its extended family and community as a solution to poverty would never have even entered their mind.

So where did orphanages in the developing world come from? Westerners imported them. Generally they did so as a sincere expression of compassion in response to the poverty (or at least perceived poverty) they witnessed. Orphanages seemed like a “normal” and rational solution. However, like sugar cane, in most cases this poverty wasn’t native either. Rather, it was the direct result of colonialisation which set out to exploit the lucrative economic opportunities of the developing world. In so doing, it wreaked havoc on the health, cultural, economic, and social fabric of these nations leaving many natives in a state of poverty or vulnerability to it.

 Unfortunately, orphanages, rather than solving these problems, only exacerbated them. Orphanages isolated the children from extended family and community, removing the latter groups’ ability to provide care. This often caused irreparable damage to all parties given their identity and self confidence are grounded in these relationships and functions.  They also significantly impaired the children’s mental, social and educational development. This meant that even as adults, they could not contribute to the community as well as they would have. Nor could they pass on traditional skills to future generations, thus entrenching cycles of poverty.  This was simply never anticipated by the well-meaning-folk who imported the orphanages.

What’s worse, is that all of these affected areas are now recognised as core ingredients required for empowering communities to overcome poverty.  This, in conjunction with acknowledged human rights issues, has led to the global consensus that children should only ever be put in institutional care as an absolute last resort, and even then, only on a temporary basis (Cf. UN’s Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children esp. section II. B Alternative care).

The lesson here is that like the Cane Toad, orphanages are a foreign solution to a problem caused by foreign interference. And like the toad, despite good intentions the damage they caused has been severe.

Undoubtedly this article has made some readers uncomfortable, perhaps even angry. This is understandable, and a response will be made to this issue in the follow up article below.

Lesson 2

by Matthew Jarlett, Harvest Bible College

In Lesson 1 we compared the importation of Cane Toads with that of orphanages in the developing world. In this article I wish to develop this idea even further.

I remember my first visit to Queensland as a young boy. One of the locals had set up a tourist attraction where kids like me could not only come and see the infamous toads up close, we could even race them! Mine came last, but I had lots of fun anyway.  

The truth is though, all the locals hated the toads. Even the attraction owner wished they have never come, but reasoned, “While they’re not going anywhere I might as well make a buck.”

As outrageous as it sounds, the same is all too often true of orphanages in developing nations. The locals know that institutional care actually contributes to the problems it purport to solve, yet they are good business. Local owners are able to lure children away from poor families and use their sad faces as to generate a profit. It has gotten to the point that there are now many examples of exploitation which mirror the modus operandi of organised begging. That is, children are forced to perform, e.g. respond with big smiles and hugs to volunteers, in order to attract more volunteers and donors. The funds this generates are then used for the exclusive benefit of those running the institutions instead of providing support so that the children could go back to living with family (cf. esp. points 2 & 3).

So why do we persist with institutional care? The most common objections to seeking alternatives are 1) the children would then have nowhere to go, and 2) even if they did find someone to take them it wouldn’t be safe. Neither of which are on the whole true. In most cases, the children in orphanages are actually not even orphans - their parents are still alive! In Cambodia for example, a recent statistic suggests that 74% of children in orphanages are not orphans, they’re just from poor families. For the minority of those whose parents have either passed away or are genuinely unfit to look after their children, most of these have relatives who could take care of them. We call this foster care or adoption and think it’s our idea, but as I laid out in Lesson 1, with the high view of family and community that these cultures have, this is exactly the methodology they were using prior to colonialisation, minus all the red tape and academic jargon.

Undoubtedly some readers may be uncomfortable, perhaps even angered, by this comparison of orphanages with Cane Toads. This is understandable. Well-meaning Christians have invested much time, finance, love and care into these programs, and may have even created lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with some of these children.

While this may be true, it is not considering the full picture. Therefore is not good enough in and of itself to justify our persistence with orphanages. The question that must be asked is, “Do those results outweigh what would have been possible for the child, their family and their community if they had been raised in a normal family?” All the statistics say that such cases would be extremely rare.

Fortunately, unlike the toads there is a plausible solution to this mess - deinstitutionalisation. Because of the generations of disruption and poverty these nations have endured, it’s true that these adoption and foster relationships often need some additional support.  However, what may surprise you is that the cost of such support in most cases is actually less than what it would be to support the child in an institution, yet the benefits are incomparable.

It’s time that we looked past the good intentions of institutional care and assessed whether it really achieves what we actually want, that is life and life to the full for the children, their family and community.

Matthew Jarlett from Harvest Bible College is featured on our blog this week, taking an in depth look at the history of orphanages in developing countries and how good intentions can often hurt those they're trying to help. It can be an uncomfortable and difficult issue, because many of us have visited, volunteered and supported orphanages and care strongly about helping vulnerable children. Yet it's an issue that must be unpacked if we're to help without hurting.