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Why I don’t say my kids were “orphans”


A child I love became a legal orphan today. That is a fact and it brings me great pain. There is now no mother or father responsible for this child and they essentially belong to the state until the legal responsibility for this child is transferred to an adoptive parent. It is a moment that in an ideal world would never happen, although hopefully it is just a step on a path to great beauty in this child’s life.

The word “orphan” is tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it is romanticized or used to justify a rescue mentality towards children. Who doesn’t want to help an orphan? There are debates about how best to do orphan care and about the church’s response to the orphan crisis. But it all makes me a little uncomfortable when I hear that word applied to my children or to the adopted children of others.

Josh and me in Liberia September, 2007

Josh and me in Liberia
September, 2007

First of all, many adopted children were never actually “orphans”. Most had a living parent or two who intentionally made an adoption plan for their child. This was an act of love, not an act of abandonment. When we use a broad label like “orphan” to apply to any adopted child, we are minimizing the difficult decision these birthparents made and acting as though they never existed. Domestic infant adoption is not part of “orphan” care. On behalf of the loving, invested, intentional birthparents I know, it bothers me when I hear these two things discussed in the same context. If you want to do something to help actual orphans, domestic infant adoption isn’t the route you want to take. I am absolutely not saying that domestic infant adoption isn’t a beautiful and valid way to grow a family. I fully believe it is, it just doesn’t involve an orphan except in unusual circumstances. If a mother choose you to be the mother of her child, then it was a transferring of rights and not you stepping in to care for a child who otherwise would have been without parents. The birthmothers I know would have parented their children if there wouldn’t have been adoptive parents available. They were not choosing between adoption and abandonment, just trying to choose the best home possible for their child.

Foster children are also not “orphans”. Most have living parents and extended family members. Those parents may have many struggles, but also a deep love for their children. When you label these kids as orphans it becomes easy to distance yourself from the needs of a broken family or a difficult adult. Involving yourself in foster care is about trying to help a family heal. When that fails, there may become a need for another permanency option, but even then the biological family is often involved in the planning of that transition or they may request ongoing contact. While there may technically be a month or two where a child is an orphan as far as having no parent with a legal responsibility for them (because parental rights have been terminated), the state is still taking an active role in seeking permanency for those children. When you are parenting that child with the hope of adopting, that legal moment your child becomes an orphan will likely pass without the child ever even being aware as they transition from being your foster child to being a forever part of your family.

I don’t take issue with the thought that foster children are “21st century orphans.” To me, it is like saying email is the 21st century pony express. Obviously there are differences, but there is a kind of equivalency. In America we no longer have orphanages because we know that children belong in families whenever possible. The kind of compassion you would want to have for orphans is the kind of compassion you should have for foster children, although the circumstances are not exactly the same. (There are children who age out of foster care with no parents. This may be the most accurate use of the term “orphan” in our current American child welfare culture and this is also a relatively underserved group of people. When considering what you can do to care for those without parents, consider the needs of the older youth who may literally have no family and no chance of permanency on the horizon.)

It is also easy to idealize the orphans in other countries. Those pursuing international adoption may feel like an orphan should be grateful to finally have a home and family. The reality is that many children in orphanages are not actually orphans either. They may have living parents who do not feel capable of caring for them at this time. We were surprised during our international adoption journey to find that several kids we were told were available for adoption ended up returning to their families when the financial situation in their home changed. A child who is adopted from an orphanage may remember their family and resent being taken away from them for reasons they aren’t capable of understanding. And sadly, even when the paperwork states that a child is an orphan because both parents have died, that may not always be accurate. Parents desperate to have their children brought to America may say things that aren’t true if they believe that will help those children be adopted. While adoptive parents may get into international adoption believing they are helping an orphan, they may bring home a child who has cell phone numbers in his pocket for his parents and an address he is supposed to send money to when he gets settled.

Each of my adopted children had a season of being a legal orphan. Each of them has been declared by the government to have no parent capable of caring for them. So why don’t I claim that label for them? Why does it make me uncomfortable?

When we call a child an orphan it becomes easy to separate them from their families. We can focus on loving and serving them without looking at the context they came from. An orphan has no family, no one to keep in contact with, no one to miss, no place to go for answers about history. As much as my children were legally orphaned, that did nothing to negate the reality of their birth family. For better or worse, those people still matter and to say my kids were orphans would seem to deny their existence or the very real struggles they continue to face including now the loss of their children.

For children who have living biological parents but who have been orphaned, there is also a connotation of abandonment. As true as that may be, that is not the aspect of my children’s identity that I focus on or that I feel anyone else needs to focus on. Bastard is also a word that could be used to describe many children who need our love and care, but we inherently understand the connotations that word carries and would never use it to describe people we love. While we may feel the word orphan doesn’t carry that same weight, I’m not sure how it feels to the children who hear it applied to them. We work hard to help our children see they were loved and wanted, but using the word orphan feels like undoing that foundation we work to create.

As my children get older, I want to give them the freedom to claim the labels they choose. If being orphaned is part of the story they want to tell about how God had a plan for them, I love and support that. If this orphaning is the journey of their redemption, I’m thankful to be part of it. I do not intend to try and prescribe for my kids how they communicate their own adoption stories, but I also want to use language during these formative days that underscores the love that has been around them from God, from us, from temporary caregivers, and even from struggling birthparents.

The orphan crisis is a real thing. Orphan care is an actual need. The Bible truly does call us to care for orphans and the fatherless. Adoption can be part of that call, but the terminology thrown around feels much more personal and potentially hurtful when it is applied to your children. Once my kids were given my last name, their days of being an orphan were over and the calling in my life to care about orphans continued. Adoption is a beautiful onetime act that gives a child permanency, but the work of loving those who are the most vulnerable doesn’t end there.


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  1. Hey Maralee,
    I love your thoughts on not labeling kids. I think you’re right on about the term orphan, more often then not I think the term should be “it’s complicated” I can see how appealing international adoption can be when you don’t have feelings of guilt about taking someone’s child from them because you never knew the birth parents or seen their loss. Someone once told me if you’ve ever struggled with compassion for birth parents go to a termination of parental rights court hearing. It is probably the most broken hearted you will ever be for any individual person. Lately I’ve been struggling with adoption from foster care because I really want birth parents to do it and adopting feels like giving up on them.

  2. As a child from the system, I have to note that your personal experience in such matters, regarding the plan for putting a child up for adoption, is exceedingly subjective. I can very astutely and objectively note, both from experience and from research papers, as well as my own research into the matter, that the amount of parents that ‘give up a child for love’ is less than 10%. Most just aren’t ready, or were never fit to be a parent. There’s no love lost, and at most the child is an object of which someone or something needs to take responsibility that they themselves do not wish or have the capacity to foster. I do, however, appreciate your points on not labelling children, but I must say that many foster homes are temporary, and children will be passed around much like equipment. The foster parents themselves, through no fault of their own, get tired and they have every right to be so, but they are not ‘family’ homes in many cases, just foster homes, or homes to which a child will be placed. By the time children have moved from group homes orphanages to foster homes or larger children’s centres, they are already quite lacking in trust. They will be unable or unwilling to get close to anyone, and it is not very often that any of the children will be able to overcome these issues of trust. Whether it be the system or the people, most children by this point will have lost all faith in both and simply be living without a goal. Some of them find one, like myself, others turn to the social acceptance of gangs and others still quietly go to sleep for the last time.
    I think that, even before addressing the international concerns regarding orphaned children, the ones here at home could use some more assistance.
    I must also say, that if there ever was a God, we have most certainly killed him as a people, and there is certainly no plan but pain for many hundreds of thousands of children. I think it is not the aspects of religion, though some religions can help, but of all people that can do something to help. Communal child care would not only benefit orphaned children, but new mothers as well; allowing all the children to grow up and learn at a similar rate while also being appreciated and socializing with adults and children from all over the community. The assistance to the working mothers of this generation would also increase the likelihood that many women will equal and surpass men in many careers, and not forsake the caring and development of their own children. As well, communal child care would reduce taxes for publicly funded daycares and similar, and it would be run by community leaders and families that wish for a safe, healthy and positive learning environment for all children. Just something to think about.
    A small overview of the system; group homes are just a general receiving and sending area for children they can have between 5 and 50 children in at a given time, foster homes are more temporary, and much smaller in size than group homes generally housing around 2-5 children, retention/detention centres house up to a thousand, depending on where you are, adoption, as you’re familiar with, is the transfer of, what we’ll call, ownership of the child from the system to an individual or individuals, and then there’s simply ejection from the system once the child has hit the age limit, or been announced as a run-away, or missing, for more than a year. A majority of the kids are actually runaways. Others are kids that got the bad end of the stick in a situation with others from the group home or the staff, they’re labelled a run away and the police search for a day or two and then just ignore it. Although, a day or two is really more effort than they’ll actually put in.
    I’d give a more detailed account, but that’s kind of off topic for the reply I’m sending.
    Anyway, cheers.

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