Uhm, Do we really have to talk about this, today, here, right now?
Do I really need to answer that? Yes. It's epidemic.
But what can we do about it now, like you said, it's a problem everywhere!
Are you kidding me? You started it, you can turn it around.
Hold on, it just sort of happened, and now it's beyond our control.
Don't be defeatist. Every person who's aware can make the world a little better.
What am I talking about? Orphanage tourism. Didn't know it's a thing? It's a thing (a thing we created.) And people, and churches, ask us for it all the time (scary, like an addictive drug.) When you go to a country to serve others, most people have expectations of directly interacting with the people in need of that country. It surprises people when we explain that often the best use of your time is to equip and train the individuals who are hard at work with their own people everyday. Honoring and supporting local doctors, social workers, community leaders, teachers, caregivers, and permanent staff is more beneficial and multiplicative, than direct interaction with beneficiaries and vulnerable children, and it carries a much smaller risk of direct harm.
Wait a minute, "harm?" - Is that not exaggerating just the teeniest bit?
Not at all.
I am certainly endeavoring to try.
So let's look at some facts, because we can't get mad at facts; they just are what they are. And the pieces will help us to see the big picture. Several articles in recent years have cited ineffective volunteerism, emotional distress (abandonment), increased exposure to child predators, and exploitation/manipulation by the very institutions meant to protect them as real and significant harms to children in residential care. Real as in reality.
Awareness and intention in our policies help us to eliminate or minimize the risk of these, and other potential harms, in our children's homes. Anyone who has visited with us in Honduras already knows that despite the constant influx of volunteers in other programs, direct interaction with the vulnerable children in our care is generally prohibited.
Our advice to anyone considering visiting or volunteering with a children's home: First, do your homework. A visit to a children’s home is an endorsement of its practices. Is this home committed to holistic child care? If not, do not reinforce the status quo. Second, do no harm. What purpose does your visit serve? Volunteer activities should be limited to supporting permanent staff or providing specialized care for a specific, previously identified need. If direct activities with children has been approved by administrative staff, all activities should be continuously supervised by the staff, should be task-oriented, time-limited, and neutral (no preference for an individual child should be shown at any time.) “Hanging out” or “playing” with children does not meet these qualifiers.
To close, in her article in the Telegraph, Orphanage Tourism: help or hindrance?, Monica Pitrelli gives a fantastic list of DO's and DON'Ts. We share a few of them here:
DO: bring special skills. Medical specialists, teachers and human rights educators are often needed.
DO: donate goods in kind. Ask the organization about their needs.
DO: consider helping community-based programs, which support families and enable the children to live at home.
DON’T: go to any orphanage that actively solicits tourists.
DON’T: work with the children directly. Instead, assist the permanent staff; this keeps the locals in charge and minimizes attachment issues.
DON’T: volunteer at any organization that doesn’t ask for a CV, references and police reports in advance. The more that is demanded, the greater chance that the children are being protected.
DON’T: post photos of children online. The orphanage is the children’s home, and their privacy should be respected.
And those are the "big bads" that get write ups in articles. Here are a few other reasons that we don't bring visitors in to our children's homes. Put your parenting cap on, and imagine that instead of choosing who, where, and when visitors might come by -- they just do, total strangers, into your personal living space, interrupting your daily routine, snatching kids away for "fun time" when you just finished telling John that he couldn't go out to play because he hadn't done his homework. Your authority is completely exposed as limited and easily undermined.
Now what about the after-effects? An impotent caregiver has little chance of success at generating a relationship built on trust because there is no accountability in the relationship because there is constant third-party interference. All the children in our care have ever known is broken relationships, and now we are no exception. If we fail to break the pattern of dysfunctional relationship, when this child enters adulthood and assimilates into society, he still won't have mastered the most fundamental of all life skills - that of trusting a trust-worthy human being (other than himself.)
So bottom line, what I am saying, most adamantly, is that we should never harm the progress of a caregiver who works hard, every day, to demonstrate that trust and accountability can be positive, safe, and beneficial. Authority, as well as attachment, must be the daily tools of the caregiver, and we can't go snatching them out of their hands. We work very hard to protect that, and to keep well-intentioned volunteers from destroying that which is so hard to build. So, we're just asking for your cooperation and support, by doing the hardest thing of all -- as a volunteer, show restraint. Talk yourself off of the Facebook photos, trading emails, having that "favorite," giving that gift, saying "I love you." The best way to love these vulnerable children is to let those who can love them best every day love them, without you for competition.
Whoa, that's hard to swallow. Is that really true?
It is. You trust me right? We hold each other accountable.
I've never seen what you're talking about, but I believe you.
I've lived it. Orphanage tourism. I just called it feel-good frenzy back then.
I'm so sorry. How do you deal with it now?
I'm responsible for myself now. Learning to trust other people when all my instincts tell me I can't, is hard. But I'm learning now what no one taught me then.
I'm here for you. And I'm here for them. I know I can show restraint -- I just didn't know that my gift to vulnerable children of the world was to be guarded for their sake.
No one knows what they don't know.
But now I know.
Now you know.