The Danger of Painting in Broad Strokes

I was forwarded an article that upon finishing filled me with an immediate desire to respond to what I believe is a dangerous position. Instead, I took a deep breath, took a step back, and have sat on this for a little while, processing, praying, and weighing my words.

Here is a link to the article. If you read it, please also read my response…I know it’s a whole lot of reading.

The Christian Case Against the Orphanage

I am so deeply entrenched in this fight that my emotion tends to crowd out my sensibility sometimes and I didn’t want that to be the case in this instance. So, I am practicing my deep breathing and digging deep into my storehouse of objectivity. I don’t believe that this author meant to do any damage with this article but I am afraid that is exactly what will happen. In fact, he and I agree on many of the things that he said, but this can’t be a one size fits all solution and our response needs to reflect that as well. We have become a society of hypersensitive, surface level “social justice” seekers running after “justice” without having an understanding of what we are actually fighting for.

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Personally, we are currently fighting with everything we have to grow our family through adoption, and the plight of the orphan and institutionalization are, everyday, on the forefront of my mind. Not only are they who I love, but they are what I do…as Development Director for a children’s home in Guatemala my job is to advocate for them, and fund raise for their support, and my heart has been stolen and a passion born in their defense. I will not claim to be an expert but what I can share is my own personal experience and knowledge having been immersed in this world for the last 2 years.

So, when I hear phrases like,

“If we know people who are planning to support orphanages, we should convince them to support family services instead. Together, this is the one form of child abuse that we could eradicate in our lifetime.”

“There are better and worse orphanages, but there is no such thing as a good orphanage.”

“Orphanages do not exist because orphans exist. Rather orphans exist because orphanages exist.”

It terrifies me that justice seekers are going to jump on a bandwagon of support for notions that are idealistic in the immediate, and will leave organizations who are on the ground, fighting a daily battle for the children who have been placed in their care for devastatingly traumatic reasons, in a lurch, while we run off in search of better solutions, abandoning the work that needs to continue to be done today.


In a perfect world yes, a thousand times yes, family services are the better solution. I would love to see a world that embraced family care exclusively, a world that empowered poverty stricken families to care for their own before abuse, neglect, and abandonment stepped in. “Institutionalization” is not the best solution but in some places it is the only solution we have that is viable.

Part of the problem, for me, stems from our use of the word “orphanage.” The word “orphanage” is bandied about so easily with disregard and misunderstanding by most. In Western society we don’t understand well what residential family care, or a children’s home look like, the way we understand orphanages. These places are all caring for vulnerable children, but globally, there are very few “orphans” left as we used to define them. In fact, most of our donors and team would call us an orphanage. It’s the box of understanding that for so many years we have fit in. But, at our home, 80% of the children that we are caring for aren’t true orphans, they have family who may or may not be working towards reintegration. Nevertheless, we have a whole generation of vulnerable children, globally, who need us to step up and defend their cause.


Without an understanding of what it is going to take, in time and resources, to build family alternatives, the children are going to be the ones to pay the price of the transferred or withdrawn support that the author suggests. There are places in this world where family alternatives are not a reality, and to toss these sentiments about with the broad strokes of inclusion could cause great harm if “orphanages” cease to have the support of the church. Change does not happen overnight. For us, Guatemala is working towards a foster system. The courts are working hard on reunification. But, you cannot build a foster care system quickly in a society that is unstable at best, in a country that is drowning in poverty with families who can’t even take care of their own children, let alone someone else’s. So for us, what does that look like, whether you call us a children’s home or an orphanage, our work on behalf of the vulnerable lives that have been placed in our care doesn’t change.

Initially, the questions this article works towards at the end made me very angry, they could undermine everything that I spend my days working towards, but since they were asked, let me respond, at least in light of the children and families that I am blessed to represent.

But it is time to face up to the questions being asked of us. Are we being manipulated? Are we meeting the real needs of the children? Are the orphanages really profiteering ventures in disguise? How can we best channel our finances so that children really benefit?

Are we being manipulative?

Absolutely not. We value transparency in every aspect of our ministry. We are so careful to protect our children and the stories that belong to them and would never use them as a manipulation tool. Our children have suffered unimaginable trauma, our job is to protect them, not further exploit them.

Are we meeting the real needs of the children?

Our children are our top priority. Our family model is the cornerstone of what our children’s home was built off of 34 years ago and something that sets us apart from many other children’s homes. We are a place of safety and refuge for the children placed in our care.  Within each of our 9 family units, children have the security of three daily meals, a warm, safe bed at night and the continuing care of loving adults.  They get to experience, often for the very first time, what it means to live in a family. They are given the gift of an education, a vocation, and ultimately, of a life beyond the walls of our children’s home.

Our children are loved and treated as individuals, their pasts are tended to and treated with love and care through pastoral and psychological care. The ministry is providing the framework needed for each child to step out from their past trauma and find healing and a hope for the future. The smiles and laughs that ring out on our campus are proof that lives are being transformed through the love of Jesus.

Our Families United program is a pioneer ministry committed to reconciling and restoring broken families. Through years of experience, Casa Bernabe has found that many times children are taken from their homes because the families lack the emotional, social, and economic support needed to keep the family in tact. CB has put together a team of dedicated professionals, committed to working directly alongside each of the families of our children. Working with the Guatemalan government, through extensive visits, evaluations, and interviews, a plan is prepared that would once again unify the disintegrated home. The team provides follow-up and supervision once they are all re-united.

I have had the privilege to laugh with, pray over, and live life with so many of these children. My heart cries out for the reunifications that have failed, not once, not twice, but time after time when these children find their lives flipped upside down again. It breaks for the mamas that are trying so hard to get back on their feet but just can’t seem to make it. I have written the names of so many of them on my hand on their hard days, days that I couldn’t imagine having to endure, so that I will not forget even for a second, so that I can lift their burden continuously through prayer. It’s not fair. None of this is fair.

Yes. We need better solutions. Yes. Children belong with their families. But are we meeting the real needs of the children? We are doing everything in our power to do exactly that in the very best ways we know how.


Are we really a profiteering venture in disguise? How can you best channel your finances so that children really benefit?

I am glad you asked. No, we are not a profiteering venture in disguise. In fact, in recent days our general fund has been dwindling as our ministry grows. The fund that we use to meet our daily needs, to pay our house parents serving on the front lines and caring for our children, the fund we use to provide medical and psychological care for our children, is slowly shrinking in availability. And articles like this make me afraid of what will happen if this sentiment takes hold. As the church we have a biblical call to care for these children.

“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless.” Isaiah 1:17

We have an opportunity and an obligation to fulfill a commandment of God and to partner with Him in what He is doing in the far-flung corners of the world. So, if after reading these articles you are looking to partner with someone who is committed to caring for vulnerable children and their families, we would love to welcome you into our community. We really need you. (Learn more at or I would be happy to answer any questions you have.)

The system is broken, there is no doubt about it. Right now, today, we are the best option that the kids in our care in Guatemala have. They don’t have the option of foster care. Guatemala is working towards this solution but it is going to take time. Family reunification, if a possibility, is still a long way off for many of our kids. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to work with their families to ensure the best possible outcomes when reunification becomes a possibility. This means, that whatever you want to call us, whatever name you want to give to our ministry, for our kids, we are hope. We are safety. We are family. We are home, however temporary.

Will you stand with us as we fight to defend these children and their families?

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Ashley Cunningham