What Children at Risk Need and How the Church Can Help Them Best

The latest research revealed by the US government indicates that more than 1 billion children, almost half of all the children in the world, are exposed to violence every year. What can the church do.

Author: Ruslan Maliuta, World Without Orphans

Introduction: Children must be Protected from the World’s Violence

UNICEF identifies four types of violence: physical, sexual, mental, and neglect or negligent treatment . There are many factors that negatively affect children, such as poverty, diseases, wars, natural disasters, and others. The number of conflicts globally is increasing, with the wars in Syria, Iraq and Eastern Ukraine being the most recent examples; and there are more refugees and internally displaced people now than ever before. In each of these situations children are the ones who suffer the most from the consequences of these tragic developments, especially in countries with struggling economies.

A striking example of how poverty can significantly increase the negative impact of a particular crisis is the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Western Africa. BBC News reports “at least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone who have lost one or both parents to Ebola this year face being shunned…. Children were discovered alone in the hospitals where their parents had died, or back in their communities where, if they were lucky, they were being fed by neighbors – but all other contact with them was being avoided.”

At the same time, violence against children is not only taking place in countries which go through some kind of a major challenge; it is putting children in danger regardless of where they live, what their social or economic status is, or if they are formally classified as children at risk. Even children who live in the most affluent communities of developed nations are being neglected, abused, and maltreated, often by the very people who are supposed to take care of them. And children can experience violence even before they are born: abortion is another form of violence against children that is accepted and widely practiced in far too many places.

Children become victims of violence at home, in school, on streets, or even at church, and then suffer life-long consequences of the trauma they have experienced. The impact of violence against children on overall social and economic development is difficult to estimate, yet the examples are compelling. “Exposure to childhood violence leads to graded increases in the four NCDs (non-communicable diseases) – cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, and diabetes – that accounted for 60% of the 53 million deaths globally in 2010” . Violence negatively impacts the whole child.

When these statistics considered, a case might be made that violence is the biggest risk for children in the world. A widespread assumption is that poverty tops the list of the factors that negatively impact children. Without a doubt it is a huge global challenge that is directly linked with and influences many other adversities children experience and all possible measures should be implemented to release children from poverty.

But I would argue that violence is increasingly becoming a major concern regarding children’s wellbeing that extends beyond poverty, especially as our awareness and understanding of this phenomenon grows. The World Bank indicates that 400 million children worldwide live in extreme poverty while children who experience violence, as was indicated above, are more than twice this number. In many ways it is easer to define and scale poverty than violence. And because the stressors that impoverished families face tend to increase incidence of abuse, many children experiencing violence are very likely to be poor. However, as demonstrated, violence is not confined by socio-economic status. For example the real prevalence of sexual abuse against children can only be roughly estimated as so few victims are willing or able to report it. Some experts believe that as many as 30% of all children, regardless of their socio-economical status, were sexually abused at some point of their life.

Violence against children is an immense global challenge but it is not inevitable and it is preventable. Children can and should be protected from violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation and this is something the Whole World is responsible to do. Recently UNICEF launched #ENDViolence against children campaign . Their work with governments and grassroots movements around the world to find solutions to this problem is commendable, yet I would argue that secular NGO efforts are incomplete.

In this paper I would like to explore two aspects that are often overlooked but that are essential for the success of the movement towards ending violence against children. The first is the crucial role of the permanent relationships with loving and caring adults in a child’s life. The second is the importance of the global Church as the means to transform the Whole World into a safe and caring place for children.

The Heart of the Matter: Why Children Are at Risk?
There are many reasons why children are at-risk and I would suggest one that seems to be the key to understanding addressing risk and reducing it. What puts a child at risk of violence or other negative factors more than anything else and anywhere in the world is the absence or lack of stable, safe, and nurturing relationships with loving and caring adults. In God’s design, family should provide such an environment for each child, not just to protect her or him from danger but also to assist in fulfilling the God-given potential of each one . God’s concept of family includes a father and a mother, but not just these two; it is supposed to be a wonderful multi-generational network of people who embrace a child in a web of loving and caring relationships, which last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works for far too many children in this world. What matters is not only the presence of parents or caregivers, but their willingness and capacity to act in their children’s best interests. Let’s consider just some of the disturbing situations and statistics. According to UNICEF, there are 162 million orphans in the world; children who have lost one or both parents due to any cause. Many more children are being raised by a single parent either as a result of divorce or being born to an unwed mother. Between 5 and 20 million children grow up in institutions, and estimated 100 million children live on the streets. The number of children of caregivers who have migrated to other nations and are separated from their children is constantly increasing. In many countries, growing economic pressure, cultural traditions or other factors, such as workaholism, result in more children having absentee fathers, when children become de facto fatherless even if their parents are alive, haven’t divorced, or gone to work in another country. Even worse, more often than not, parents and relatives become the very people who neglect, maltreat, and abuse children. All these circumstances shatter the hopes of hundreds of millions children who deserve healthy, holistic development.

One can argue that even loving and caring parents or caregivers may not be able to help their children in the context of severe poverty, in the midst of war, or after a major natural disaster. While this is true to a degree, existence of such relationships in the life of a child significantly increases her chances of survival and successful development.

Let’s take a look at two cases of children impacted by the crisis in Eastern Ukraine to illustrate this point. When the pro-Russian separatists shot down the Malaysian plane in August 2014, parts of the aircraft as well as some bodies of its passengers fell on the grounds of an orphanage in the city of Torez. Many children were playing outside when it happened and although, fortunately, none of them was hurt physically, it’s hard to overestimate the emotional trauma they’ve experienced by becoming firsthand witnesses of such a horrible tragedy. Sometime later armed men showed up at the orphanage and at gunpoint ordered the director to collect the children and put them on buses so that they could be transported to Russia. It took a lot of effort on behalf of Ukrainian government and some NGOs to bring the children back to their home country. We can only guess what these children were thinking and how they were feeling in the course of all these events. There was no one to explain to them what was happening and no one to provide them with individual attention and care at a time when they needed it most. Although their basic needs for shelter, food and relative safety were met, they had to face this crisis with no support from familiar, loving adults.

In contrast to the orphans’ experience, not too far from Torez there is the city of Mariupol, the home of the Isaev family. Several years ago Evgeny and Svetlana became the first Ukrainians to take into their home an HIV-positive child. Eventually they’ve adopted six more children with this condition and become a model for many other families in Ukraine and beyond. The first time they had to evacuate from their city was in May when the separatists occupied it and they could hear shooting taking place a mere few hundred feet away from their house. After the Ukrainian army liberated the city, the Isaevs returned home and thought that their life would be normal again. But in August the regular Russian army invaded Ukraine and the aggressors’ tanks came as close as 15 miles to the city. Evgeny and Svetlana had to wake up the children in the middle of the night, put together some belongings, and flee to Kyiv. They became refugees for the second time in less than three months. As hard as their situation was, the thought of giving away the children they’ve taken into their family has never crossed their mind. In spite of all the difficulties, they are there for their children, loving them and caring for them as much as they can. Although very often we can’t prevent crises like this from happening, the presence of loving and caring adults in the life of a child would make a world of a difference as they do all they can to protect their child, help her cope with the situation, and ensure her well- being.

The vitality of this kind of relationships is confirmed when we look at the life of a person from Biblical perspective. While safety, development, and realization of one’s potential certainly are important aspects, it is the relationship with the Creator or absence of it that determines overall success of a person’s life. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” The personal relationship with Jesus Christ is foundational and determinative not only for our eternal life but for bringing true meaning and accomplishment to our pilgrimage here on Earth.

The Guiding Principle: Give Me a Real Person with a Name Who Cares for Me
The situation of children at risk is a very complex one and demands a complex response. Without attempting to provide an overgeneralized and oversimplified solution, I do think that the issue of having safe, stable and nurturing relationships with loving and caring adults is one that is not given the attention it deserves in our quest to help children at risk. The guiding principle of focusing efforts on helping children at risk should be either providing a child with these kinds of relationships with adults or strengthening relationships with existing caregivers as much as possible. Before exploring this principle further, let me first share the story of one of these children.

His mother became pregnant when she wasn’t married. In modern time, she would be under a lot of pressure to have an abortion. In her context, the shame was much more overwhelming. The baby was at significant risk of growing up as a fatherless child, because his mother’s fiancé wasn’t responsible for his conception. But the man didn’t give up on the baby and adopted him. He was born in a stable but was never abandoned, unlike many children today who are left behind in well-equipped birth hospitals. The most powerful authority in the country threatened his life, but he survived because his parents were willing to become refugees in order to save his life. His mother was there for him during the most difficult time of his life. As you probably guessed by now, his name was Jesus and the people who provided safe, stable, and nurturing relationships for him were Joseph and Mary.

As we are trying to develop solutions to deal with the multitude of challenges children in the whole world face, there are several questions, which should underpin all our efforts:

  • Does this child have an adult or adults in his life who love and care for him and are able and willing to provide a safe, stable, and nurturing environment?
  • What we can do to help parents or caregivers provide better care for their children?
  • If there is no such person in the life of a child how can we help find at least one who will take on that responsibility?

All these questions appear to be very specific to an individual child’s situation and a far cry from answering the need for profound, systemic changes that must take place on global, national, and community levels to increase the well being of families and children. If that’s what we think and if we are not addressing these questions while trying to develop and implement systemic changes, we will fall short of serving the best interests of children in a better case scenario or create counterproductive interventions in the worst. Systems change slowly and in the meantime, children are harmed.

There is no better example of this fact than the institutional system of care that was developed to help children deprived of parental care. At some point it almost became common sense that the best way to respond to this problem was to place a child in an institution and then make sure that the conditions in this institution are good and meet the child’s needs for safety, food, clothes, accommodation, and education. The system seemed efficient and some people even began to think that the institutions could do a better job raising children than families. It took a number of studies over the years and an unknown number of broken lives to realize that something is not working.

It has become evident that even the best of institutions cannot replace a family for a child and many of them have become places for all kinds of abuse. Not every family is better than an institution, but any family that is willing and capable of loving and caring for a child is better than the best institution we are capable of inventing. This compelling need for family-based care makes it especially difficult to see how much resource the global Christian community invests in the development and maintenance of the least effective and most costly system of care for orphans and vulnerable children, instead of directing it towards strengthening families.

There are many other examples of how the systems that were invented or accepted as normative are either failing or not leading to a long-term success. Governments, NGOs, and churches alike make this mistake. Subsidies for single mothers cause many of them not to register their marriages and eventually make their children fatherless. Professionalization of children’s ministry prompts parents to outsource the responsibility for spiritual development of their children to church programs, etc.

Thus, another essential question we need to ask is the following: How are our (whether we represent a governmental agency, NGO, or church) beliefs, programs, solutions, and activities helping children to have safe, stable and nurturing relationships with loving and caring adults? Or how might they be undermining this goal?

There are a number of positive examples of the systematic changes undertaken by governments and civil society that utilizes the principle of strengthening children’s relationships with loving and caring adults, too. A paradigm shift from institutional toward family-based care for orphans and vulnerable children is among them. Many governments have adopted the goal of developing a child welfare system that supports families and more NGOs and churches are focusing their efforts both on strengthening families, and finding and supporting loving and caring homes for children who need them.

Another specific example of a systematic effort to prevent and reduce violence against children that takes into consideration this guiding principle is THRIVES, a multi-sector technical package of complementary interventions recently developed by the US Government’s Center for Disease Control. The strategies in this package include training in parenting; household economic strengthening; reduced violence through protective policies; improved services; values and norms that protect children; education and life skills; and surveillance and evaluation.

With regard to the first strategy, the document states the following: “Interventions that support the development of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships between parents or caregivers and their children are a key evidence-based strategy for violence prevention for two reasons. First they can prevent violence towards children and, second, they may also prevent the early development of violent behavior in children. Emerging evidence suggests that by stemming the early development of violent behavior, such relationships can also reduce violence in adolescence and early adulthood, including, potentially, partner and self-directed violence” .

In sum, I’d like to stress that various programs and agencies are very important and in many ways indispensable. But all these efforts will only result in long-term sustainable improvement in the lives of individual children when we create systems that ultimately allow us to know the names of people who are their Josephs and Marys. It can’t be simply a program, a project, or an institution.

It should be a real person with a name, and the more of them the better. We can never hurt a child with one more person in her life who truly loves her and is committed to what is best for this child. But if we are ever to see this principle realized on the global scale, there is, in my opinion, only one institution that is capable of both spearheading and implementing this movement – it is the Church, the Body of Christ.
The Secret Weapon: Awaking the Sleeping Giant.
Even a brief environmental scan reveals that in the present time the Whole World seems to be more concerned about the issue of children at risk than ever before. Governments declare their commitment to protect children’s rights and improve their wellbeing, countless NGOs are involved in providing services for children, UNICEF has become an influential player in global politics, and we are gathered here for such a purpose.

Without a doubt the Christian community globally makes a significant contribution in this area of work. Local churches are traditionally active in helping the needy; faith-based organizations such as Compassion, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision and others reach millions of children; networks and movements like Viva, 4/14 Window, Global Children’s Forum, and World Without Orphans further mobilize Christian community for children-related causes. The problem is not that the church is not doing much, but that the Body of Christ is capable of so much more. The global Church is uniquely positioned to spearhead the movement toward transforming the world into a better place for children but falls short of realizing its potential.

I wonder which answer would get the most responses if a poll was taken around the world: “What is the most prominent agency caring for children who live in adversity globally or in your country?” Would it be UNICEF? Save the Children? A government? My hope is that the day will come when most people around the world when responding to a question like that would say without thinking twice: “The Christian Church.” There are good reasons for this aspiration so let’s look at some of them.

First of all, what I mean by the Church is a global body of believers who identify themselves as the followers of Jesus and adhere to key foundational beliefs of the Christian faith. The Bible describes the Church as the Body of Christ, transcending denominations, organizations, countries, people groups etc. For those who call themselves Christians and mean it, this is our main identity: the family of God.

The Church is uniquely positioned in the Whole World for the task of changing it into a better place for children. It has a clear mandate from the Word of God to champion the cause of those who need help and serve them . The Bible is very specific on what family life should look like, how children are to be treated, and what a high priority caring for vulnerable groups of society, especially children, is.

The motivation does not just come in a way of command; it is a result of an internal transformation that a person experiences by turning to God and becoming a part of His family though Christ. As one adoptive parent put it, “God adopted us at profound cost to himself… so adopting an orphan, even when very difficult, is just a small retelling of the gospel”

The Church has a supernatural power that comes from the Holy Spirit who lives in the Body of Christ. The people who truly embrace their new identity as the children of God can rely not just on their intellect, strength, and collective capacity but humbly trust God to release His supernatural power in and through their lives. This gives much more solid reason to hope for real transformation both on micro (personal life) and macro (community and society) levels.

This also points, from my perspective, to a major problem with the whole concept of secular social work as it has developed globally. Taking its origin from the teachings of the Bible, the idea of helping the needy had been cut off from its roots and its source of power, and has become a field of good intentions that constantly fails to deliver. The Church has both the concept and actual capacity to do what it takes, not necessarily in terms of material resources but in the ability to achieve the intended outcome of holistic transformation of a person and/or community.

The Church has a true global presence and vast human and material resources. According to estimates, there are between 2.18 and 2.27 billion Christians in the world, representing about a quarter to a third of the whole population, and more than 5 million local churches . Although distributed unevenly, Christian believers and congregations are present throughout the world, many of them in places where there is basically no infrastructure or any other institution at work on behalf of children.

The Church is already making a significant contribution to the global effort to help the vulnerable through various activities of local churches, faith-based groups, collaborative initiatives, etc. More than once, both in the past and in present time, Christian initiatives were pioneer efforts in responding to crisis, providing specific services, developing best practices, and paving the way for the government and secular NGOs. One example of this is the response to the problem of street children in Eastern Europe and specifically in Ukraine during the last decade of the 20th century and early 2000s. Christian groups were the first ones to begin to care for the children on the streets and developed programs that eventually helped several countries in the region to virtually eliminate this problem.

These and other examples allow us to assume that the Church might be a group that is best suited to spearhead the response to the issues of children at risk. This is especially true if we accept the notion of the ultimate importance for a child to have safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with loving and caring adults. The Church does need to be actively involved in all other components of caring for vulnerable children and families such as rescue and relief, economic development, educational opportunities etc., but while a lot of the above can be relatively effectively done by government, the private sector, and secular organizations, it seems to me that the Church is best positioned to make the most difference when it comes to such issues as strengthening families, supporting parenting, finding new families for children who need them, providing mentors, and as the family of God, offering love and nurture to the children among and near them.

If the Church will strategically focus on these goals, effectively mobilize its potential, and build its capacity, at the same time working in collaboration as much as possible with other key players, it can be a game changer, and result in significant improvement in the state of children and families globally.

Conclusion: Taking the Initiative and Assuming Responsibility
For the Church to take the lead and make the maximum impact in responding to the growing crisis of children at risk in its many manifestations, a number of strategies need to be developed and adopted on global, national, and local levels. The Church needs to strategically focus on advocacy, policy and system development, and best practices with resource mobilization to impact the situation with children at risk both globally and locally. These strategies deserve more in-depth discussion, yet but I would like to simply outline some key areas to consider.

The Church needs to regain the position of being the primary advocate for children in adversity. In order for this to happen the Church’s position on key related issues, including desirable outcomes, has to be clarified and clearly stated. Because the Body of Christ consists of many different groups, a strategic collaboration is required between key denominations and agencies on all levels. Essentially the global Church needs an equivalent of the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, not to compete with the UN’s document but to complement it with a clear Biblical foundation and guidance for the global Christian community as it relates to serving children of the Whole World. But this process is much more that just coming up with a document that everyone would agree upon.

As Shiferaw Michaels states in his paper: “Incremental changes and improvements on “practices, behavior or attitude ” cannot bring solutions to the issues involved with children at risk. They call for “significant, quantum improvements” that call for paradigm shifts.” The Church needs to identify paradigm shifts that have to take place and make them a significant priority.

One example of a needed paradigm shift comes from the area of orphan care. The Church has to take the lead in promoting a family-based approach to helping orphans and vulnerable children, especially given the Biblical foundation for family, adoption, and caring for the fatherless. Unfortunately, in a number of countries the Christian community is far behind the government and NGOs both in recognizing the need for family-based approach and in aligning its programs and activities accordingly. But there are also positive cases when the Christian Church nationally has taken a stand on these issues and was able to significantly influence the situation with children at risk in their nation.

In Ukraine in 2012 the national Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which represents 90% of believers in the country on the range from Orthodox to Catholic to Evangelicals, came up with a joint statement on Protecting and Caring for the Orphans and Vulnerable Children, Preventing Abandonment of Children, and Ensuring the Right of the Child to be Raised in Family . This is just one aspect of a major paradigm shift that took place in the country during the last decade regarding this issue.

Another example of a paradigm shift that should take place is on the issue of abortion. The Church is known globally for fighting against abortions but unfortunately does not as often see the need for supporting struggling families after children are born. What would happen if the Christian community would not only criticize the practice of abortion, but also mobilize its resources to offer tangible support for any woman that agrees to keep the child, or find a family for any child whose mother or biological family is not willing or able to raise her? In this way, the church would support children’s healthy relationships with caring and nurturing adults, whether biological or adoptive. The Church should be more celebrated for what it is for, not what it is against.

Policy and System Development
By embracing an active position, the Christian community can positively influence the child welfare system in its country. Generally speaking, there are three types of countries in this regard: those with a very developed child welfare system, the ones that are actively developing one, and the countries where the system is primitive, not functioning, or virtually non-existent. Usually this correlates with the economic development of a particular country. In cases of developed countries, the Church is often facing a challenge of the child welfare system having developed with some elements that are not in keeping with Christian teaching, resulting, for example, in children being placed in adoptive families that may not be considered suitable or healthy.

Once again, the way to deal with it is to be a prophetic voice that calls for systems that operate in children’s best interests while also offering tangible solutions to the country’s most pressing social challenges. For example, in the UK the Evangelical Alliance launched a campaign, Home for Good, to find adoptive parents for all foster children in the country’s child welfare system as well as to encourage Christian families to become foster parents. As a result of the campaign, in Southampton alone 70 churchgoers applied to be foster parents . In the countries where the system is still being developed the Church has a unique opportunity to help shape it to reflect Biblical values and principles.

In Ukraine the Alliance for Ukraine without Orphans, along with the Committee of Social Ministry of the National Council of Churches and Religious Organization, participated in the development of the National Strategy on Preventing of the Social Orphanhood. And in places where the system is not present or malfunctioning, local churches must do their best to fulfill many of its functions. Sometimes they will be the only ones to do so, especially in poorer countries in Africa and Asia.

Best Practices, Mobilization, and Resources
As I already noted earlier, there are examples where the Christian community led the way in developing solutions that eventually were adapted by the government and secular NGOs. The Church needs to go beyond advocacy and system development, as important as they are, and identify, develop, and multiply best practices when it comes to different areas of serving children at risk. While advocacy and system development usually take place on global and national levels, implementation is always local. Advocacy without solid best practice and active mobilization of all necessary resources is utterly insufficient. The global and local Christian community should be, as they already are in some cases in the US, Ukraine, UK and other countries, both the think tanks and laboratories of best practice in the area of serving children at risk.

I would like to offer a few words as to what the Church can do in places where churches are few or absent or where the church exists in hostile environments. There are still some things that can be done to impact the well-being of children at risk. And the best part is that these practices are also completely applicable to the situations where Christians are fully present and welcomed.

First, Christians should pray for children at risk, their families in the communities and countries where they live and around the world. Prayer is essential for any and all of the church’s work to be effective. Secondly, the Church can advocate for the children in their local settings and also at the global and regional levels, to influence policies that in turn may transform the situations in their respective countries. Thirdly, the Christian community can offer tangible and effective solutions to help these countries and communities where the church is small, nearly non-existent or persecuted.

For example, in China, UK-based charity Care for Children spent 17 years working to help the government develop a foster care system that by now resulted in over 250,000 placements . Being committed Christians and also top-level professionals in their field, they didn’t come to China to “evangelize” yet the government of China has seen the success of the approach and openly recognized the crucial role Christian community plays in achieving this, especially because the majority of foster parents turned to be Christians from the house church movement! What an example of living witness and testimony to the power of Christ to transform the lives of families.

During recent decades the Whole World in general and the church in particular have certainly made some progress in both identifying the global challenge of children at risk and responding to it. Yet much more needs to be done. We live in a unique point of history with some unprecedented opportunities for the global church in the areas of communication, mobilization, networking, and alignment of active ministry. Millions of children around the world are suffering and waiting to experience true love and care. We, as the Body of Christ, have never been in a better place to meet this need. It is time to think deeply and act effectively, both globally and locally.

This article was presented at the Children at Risk Consultation in Quito, Ecuador in November 2014