Children Belong With Their Parents (Part 2)
About 3 years ago, I began training the staff of Emmaus House, as well as others who work with children in Haiti, on trauma informed care. I saw a great need for understanding trauma, its effects on the brain, and teaching practical ways to help these children. As usual, I learned more from the participants than they did from me.
I asked the group what I thought was a rhetorical question during my first training: “Is it better for children to grow up in a family or in an orphanage?”
I was stunned by their answer, “An orphanage, because there is more opportunity there.”
The discussion that ensued was remarkable. They were not talking about relationship, they were talking about survival. The idea that an institution with daily food, education, and safety could better replace the love and belonging of a family was stated with the idea of survival in mind.
Without education, a person in Haiti (with its nearly 60% unemployment rate) is not likely to be employed, and therefore not likely to eat, much less be able to live independently. Opportunity trumps relationship in a country like Haiti. Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs would agree. Physical needs such as food, shelter and safety need to be met before one can consider the need for love and belonging. As a result, although the group acknowledged the stark differences between their own securely attached children and those raised in institutions, they could not help but believe that these young people were still better off without their families as long as they were receiving education and daily food. And to be frank, I didn’t think it was something a middle-aged woman like myself, who has never known what it’s like to be truly hungry let alone her children, could ever comprehend.
We spent a great deal of my training that visit discussing this further. They explained to me how paralyzing it is to truly fear for your life and that of your child due to a lack of opportunity. I explained that if a baby doesn’t emotionally attach with their primary caregiver, they will never learn to trust. When they don’t learn to trust, they develop self-protective behaviors that inhibit their ability to have nurturing relationships for the rest of their lives. We talked about how this affects their relationship with God and their ability to trust Him, their ability to hold a job, have a functional marriage, or raise securely attached children of their own. We all learned a great deal that day.
Study after study has been done to evaluate the effects of institutionalization on children. Across the time and continents, the consensus is the same. Children who are institutionalized have higher instances of mental health disorders, lower IQ levels, suffer from broken relationships as adults, they experience low levels of intimacy, trust, and ability to attach to others in healthy ways. As Johnny Carr states in his book, Orphan Justice, “Man made orphanages for children, but God made the family for children.” (pp. 63) He goes on to say, “He never intended for the growth, nurturing, and development of childhood to happen in an institution.”(pp. 64)
As early as 1951, the World Health Organization showed “the necessity of giving up orphanages as a model of children’s upbringing.” Orphanages in America became completely extinct in the 1960’s. The reformers pushing for this change argued that it would be better for children to be placed in homes, where they could receive personalized care and individual attention, rather than in institutions. Thankfully, Haiti is now moving in the direction of a foster care system in lieu of the orphanage system. Although there are a slew of complications that go along with implementing this effectively in Haiti, it is a step in the right direction and Emmaus House wants to support this idea.
We recently admitted a young man into our program who has aged out of the orphanage he was living in. Like many orphanage residents throughout Haiti, his mother is alive, cares for him, and wants what is best for him. However, 10 years ago she was widowed, distressed, and unable to financially provide for him as well as her 2 other children. So she did what so many desperate mothers trying to survive in impoverished countries do. She took him to an orphanage where she believed he would have food, education, and be safe. An orphanage seemed to be her only option. It has now been 10 years since that day and she has since married a good man, but they don’t make enough money to support anyone else. As we are working to learn from past mistakes, we all knew that the best place for this young man would be with his mom, but there would be a lot of details to work out. Emmaus House was once again in unchartered waters. So we all sat down to create a plan; our board, American staff and our staff on the ground in Haiti. The money spent to care for him at Emmaus House could be used to help him live with his mom, but what should that practically look like? It was complicated and there were a lot of questions to answer and pitfalls to be avoided, but we all agreed this was the best route.
The time came to sit down with him and his mother to discuss the idea. We anticipated resistance from both of them as the idea of these children living with parents has unfortunately become so unconventional. As we sat down with both of them and Gerome explained our plan was for him to move home instead of into Emmaus House, my heart was heavy as I saw them seemingly afraid of these unchartered waters. We spent several more meetings explaining, and getting their input, and soon his mother began to be excited about her son living in her home. He has now been living with his mom for the last month and everything seems to be going well. I’m not sure this young man fully understands yet why this is a better situation, but it is the beginning of a bigger change.
One of our young ladies is now 23 but not finished with university. Her aunt loves her and they have a genuine bond, but she cannot afford to care for her. This young lady has lived at Emmaus House for 5 years, worked our program, and is now mature enough that she could live with her aunt and thrive, something not possible a year ago. With the continuous support of Emmaus House, she plans to move in with her aunt in January. Again, these are unchartered waters we are navigating, and it is complicated, but we firmly believe that when possible, children should be with their family.
Caring for children who have lost so much and doing it well is always complicated. There is no “one size fits all” answer to caring for families in poverty and we at Emmaus House hardly claim to have all the answers as we are still learning. One must take into consideration the culture of Haiti, the unique family situation and needs of each child and so much more. On so many levels, it is a great effort to even attempt to do this work well. An orphanage would be easier for sure. Build a facility. Hire staff. Feed kids. Send them to school. It seems fairly simple in the short run. In the long run, we know that children cannot learn about real trust and attachment without a loving and nurturing primary caregiver. And it’s never too late to learn. We have to believe it’s never too late in our ministry, too!
There is a reason that we structured a family-based model when we started Emmaus House. We could see the damage being done by the well-intentioned institutionalization of children. Was it better than life on the streets? Yes. Was every one of our kids saved from a fate much worse than an institution? Yes. But we wanted more. We wanted to do better. We HAD to do better. These were some pretty incredible young people and they deserved the best we could give.
Our staff have come a long way since that first training three years ago. Now, our staff just assumes that if it is possible to have a child or youth with their parents, we will all be working in that direction. We have all had to change our mindset as we make mistakes and learn from them along the way.
In the words of Maya Angelo, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”