Throughout the Bible, God calls people to give special care to “the orphan” and “the fatherless.” Broadly speaking, this includes any child who lacks the care, provision and safety that can be found in family.
This is a mission that many in the U.S. have taken to heart. They’ve invested their time, talents and resources to bring immense good for children — both nearby and around the world. But they also understand that this work is far from over. Helping the most vulnerable children is an ongoing task, and individuals, churches, organizations and government can each play a vital role.
Thankfully, this is an issue that still unites Americans from across the political spectrum. The Congressional Adoption Caucus is the largest, most bipartisan caucus in Congress. Members of the House and Senate who may not agree on almost anything else frequently join forces to support children in foster care, to aid parents in crisis, and to encourage families to welcome children who need a temporary or permanent home.
Just recently, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez introduced the International Children with Disabilities Protection Act of 2022. While no one piece of legislation will fix all the hurt children face in our world, this bill would make a significant contribution, helping to strengthen the families and broader networks caring for children with disabilities worldwide.
Critically, this bill emphasizes the central place of family in caring for these precious children. In the face of great needs — including the large numbers of children with disabilities — it is tempting to resort to mass-scale solutions, including institutional care. But although factories and assembly lines are great at producing material goods, you simply can’t mass-produce the things that children need most.
That is why both Scripture and science unequivocally affirm that the best place a child can grow up is in a safe, loving family. As decades of research now show, the further we are from that ideal, the worse for a child. Without the nurturing and personal attention a healthy family provides, children wither — even when all their physical needs are met.
This is especially critical for children with disabilities. But even in this country, the parents of children with disabilities frequently struggle with the financial load, the physical and emotional costs, and other challenges.
Now put yourself in the shoes of parents of a child with disabilities in a country with much less opportunity, who are afflicted by grave poverty and have virtually no support. In these situations, you’ll likely struggle to find any medical care at all, to provide your child with basic education, and simply to keep them safe and fed.
This is precisely why children with disabilities are so overrepresented in institutional care. A 2014 study of Serbian orphanages found that 80% of the children in residential care facilities were disabled. This is the case in many parts of the world, where children with disabilities are frequently placed in horrific institutions, often because families feel unable to raise them.
Certainly, transforming this reality is no simple task. It involves everything from economic growth and opportunity to good public policy. At the deepest level, it also requires a shift in how we view disabilities.
If a disability is nothing more than an inconvenience or even a curse, then children with disabilities will always end up in the shadows. But that is not how God sees any human. Rather, the Bible teaches that every person is of inestimable worth, made in the image of God. And the areas of weakness that we all have are not merely special needs but also special opportunities. These places of dependence and vulnerability allow rich relationship and connections through care and service to blossom. Meanwhile, the most difficult things in our lives so often become a seedbed of strength, wisdom, compassion, and other gifts the world so badly needs.
We deprive ourselves and our communities when we fail to see the unparalleled gifts that children with disabilities offer — not despite the unique challenges they carry, but often because of them.
At the center of all this is family. Whatever our role in helping, we must keep before us the highest good of seeing boys and girls grow up in loving families. That means doing all we can to encourage and support mothers and fathers, so they can be confident they’ll have what it takes to raise their children without resorting to institutional care.
That’s not only good for these children and their families. It’s good for us all, enriching every community with the matchless gifts that children with disabilities can bring.
• Jedd Medefind is president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.
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