A new model for orphan care that is growing in popularity across the African continent is called the village model. This approach seeks to reduce the negative effects of institutional care by having one consistent caregiver care for 8-12 children of varying ages in a home like environment. Typically a number of huts or small homes are built on a compound with the “mother” and the children each having their own. The school, clinic, and main offices are nearby so a stronger community feel is produced within the context of these smaller homes.
The model is a good one and one we believe certainly reduces some of the negative effects of the traditional institutional care. However we believe it is detrimental to believe this model is good enough to provide for children as a long term solution. We do not believe the “family” created is able to give the children all that a real family could. Here are some issues we have with the Village Model.
1. The women who are hired to be the mother’s in the home have a conflict between caring for their own children and the children they have been hired to care for. Some models force the women to leave their biological children behind with family members. We believe it is hypocritical to break apart a family in order to try and create a new one. Other models allow the women to take their biological children into the home with them. With this you can have a real issue with the mother favoring her biological children. She has not made a sacrificial decision to care for these orphans; she is being hired to do it. While I would imagine many of these mothers love these children I do not believe doing a job is going to produce the same kind of nurture that caring for one’s child would.
2. The ratio of caregiver to children is not what it would typically be in a home. The best of these models has a ratio of 1:8 and the worst 1:12. It is very difficult to give that many children the love and attention they deserve or that they would receive in a traditional family.
3. There is very little male influence. Nearly always a widow is hired to lead the home so the children are not given a father figure. The importance of a father figure is a whole other topic for another day but we believe that fathers are important and that, when possible, children should have the chance to have them. Unlike a single mother household these children rarely leave the compound so they are not given the opportunity to even form relationships with uncles, grandfathers, or male family friends.
4. The children are not exposed to the world. Usually the clinic and school are on the same compound so children can go their entire lives without leaving that environment. In a typical family a child has gone to market with their mother, ridden the bus with their father, and bargained for household supplies with an older brother. Children in this environment are never given the opportunity to learn these life skills that they will need to lead healthy and productive lives.
5. It is hard to oversee the women in the homes. In a traditional orphanage the children and workers are grouped together in the same living environment so an abusive or neglectful worker will be easier to identify and deal with. In the village model the only people there to witness abuse are the children themselves and they are much less likely to speak out.
6. Infants are often not included in this model. Typically infants are given the more traditional orphanage care and then placed in the village model when they are around two years of age. Please see this post where we discuss the dangers of institutional care. In their early years the infants are not given a consistent care giver to attach to or given as stimulating an environment as a family could. Developmental psychologists agree that the first two years of life are crucial for our development as healthy human beings. Instead these models provide the children less consistent care when they are infants, setting them up for possible future mental health issues.
7. When they age out they have no family to return to. The best of these models pay for university and help place the children in a job but where do these children go for Christmas dinner? In traditional African society family ties are everything- they are how you get jobs and promotions and who you rely on when you hit a rough patch. Without this, these children are already at a real disadvantage before they even set out in life.
So while we think this model is better than traditional orphanage care we do not believe it should ever replace a family. If a child has the opportunity to be re-unified with biological family members or adopted into a new family they absolutely should. No matter how great the village model is a real family will always be able to provide better for a child. Village models that prevent children from being adopted because they believe they can provide as good or better care than a family are greatly mistaken. We believe this is a dangerous way to approach orphan care and is doing great harm to children. Children belong in families!
This is not meant to be critical, but we truly believe that as Christians caring for orphans and widows, we should do so to the best of our ability. That yes, there are millions of orphans and other vulnerable children that we are called to serve. However, we must examine where funds are to be directed and how to best serve these children and families with relevant and culturally appropriate models.