According to a new report, 1.5 million children lost at least one primary caregiver to COVID-19 by the end of April 2021.

Children: The Hidden Pandemic 2021 — a joint report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States Agency for International Development, and World Without Orphans, in conjunction with other global child welfare experts — stated that, without immediate action, “the COVID-19 pandemic is destined to leave millions more children orphaned.”

In response to the findings, the Faith to Action Initiative, a child welfare nonprofit that provides resources to Christian churches and faith-based organizations, along with several of its coalition members, encouraged a shift away from orphanages and toward family-based care.

Now is the time to ​“prevent the COVID-19-associated death of caregivers by accelerating equitable access to vaccines,” the statement reads. In cases where a caregiver has died of COVID-19, the statement emphasized that children should not be consigned to orphanages or children’s homes but rather continue to live within family units. It also noted that extended families and faith communities have an opportunity to care for children who have lost a caregiver to the virus but will need additional resources to do so.

“Now is the time to invest in strengthening families and developing family care, not orphanages,” Karmen Friesen, principal coordinator for World Without Orphans, said in the statement. “And around the world, it is churches that are ideally placed to provide the wrap-around support that families in crisis urgently need.”

According to a 2017 estimate from UNICEF, there are at least 2.7 million children in orphanages and institutionalized care around the world. The actual number is likely far higher, UNICEF says, because many countries don’t include children living in privately run facilities in their tallies.

Child rights experts say that most children in orphanages aren’t actually parent-less: At least four out of five children in institutional care have one or both parents alive. Elli Oswald, executive director of Faith to Action Initiative, said that it’s “important to recognize that the term ‘orphan’ doesn’t mean what we think it means.” UNICEF defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

“These aren’t children who are wandering the streets all alone with flies on their eyes,” Oswald said. “These are children who are in families and in communities. They’re still extremely vulnerable, and their families need support. But if we don’t understand who these children are, it can mislead us and lead us to wrong solutions.”

Children are often placed in orphanages not because they’re orphans but because they’re disabled or ill, female, or even because poor parents were offered money to give up their children — a form of child trafficking.

Once they’re put in orphanages, children are susceptible to illness, abuse, and developmental delays. Studies show that orphanage placement increases the risk of serious infectious illness, as well as significant developmental delays that can affect cognitive, language, gross and fine motor, personal and social skills in young children.

The Faith to Action Initiative suggests that the best way to care for children who have lost a caregiver is not to send them to an orphanage, but instead to combine equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and income-strengthening, parenting support programs. Also known as cash and care programs, these services provide material and psychosocial support so that extended family, friends, church communities, or adoptive or foster homes can care for children.

This approach, which allows children to remain within a family structure and still access education and healthcare, has been shown to improve children’s health, nutrition, cognitive development, and in reducing risks of violence.

Oswald said that Christian churches and communities are “best placed” to provide this kind of life-changing care.

“The opposite of an orphan is a family, and the solution to orphaned children is family. My hope is to see Christians leading this effort in seeing children cared for in safe and loving families,” Oswald told Sojourners.

Jedd Medefind, president of Christian Alliance for Orphans, said that while COVID-19 has harmed families worldwide, it also “brings an immense challenge and an immense opportunity.”

“Scripture and social science consistently affirm that the very best place for a child to thrive is a safe, permanent, nurturing family,” Medefind said in the news release. “The local church in every nation has both the calling and the community capable of making a world of difference — restoring broken families, strengthening struggling families, and welcoming children into new families whenever needed.”

Gina Ciliberto

Gina Ciliberto is a writer who lives in Minneapolis, Minn. Follow her on Twitter @ginaciliberto.

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