The “O” Word

There is no need to put inverted commas around the word orphan, as if to remind us that most of those we think of as orphans really aren’t.  (It is just a bizarre coincidence that the movie of the same name is making the rounds.) There are certainly children who have only minimal family involvement, but for whom this involvement is psychologically sustaining if seen in its cultural and economic context. I am not dismissive of those relationships–the proposed “Families for Orphans” legislation does not seem to be, either. At least as I read it and understand it to date.

I can see that debate over the proposed Families for Orphans legislation is going to break along the ususal fault lines. I was concerned at the argument put forward by a writer on the Ethica website in the last day or so (see  http://www.ethicanet.org/fighting-for-%e2%80%9corphans%e2%80%9d#more-1440 ) in which there is an allegation that the legislation would impose US child welfare policy on other countries. (This link has been a little troublesome–click on the error message and it should bring you to the relevant post. If not, try ethicanet.org/ and then go to the featured post by Rachel.) But what I have argued hard for years is that issues related to children living without adequate care are human rights and children’s rights questions, albeit questions that must be understood with sufficient nuance and flexibility. What seems attractive about the potential of the legislation is that it could lead to far greater attention being devoted to facts and individually (and culturally) sensitive determinations.

I defy anyone to read the UNCRC and take from it a clear indication of the way forward on social orphans. The word orphan is indeed suggestive of a huge group of children–those who do not have loving parents or extended family. I am completely supportive of the argument that loving families with limited means and straightened circumstances should be supported and honored. I do not understand how (or why) we would extend that concept to children for whom that is simply not the case, whether in the US, Japan, China, India, Vietnam, or any other country we can think of.

There is a demonstrable psychological and physical toll that being an “orphan” takes. Each country should account to the best of its ability for actual outcomes of these children; Russia has done so to some extent and it is not a pretty picture. For those children who really have a committed “someone,” let’s add all the family assistance available. But where that is not the case, let’s not accept very imperfect substitutes for family. We all know that it is a very dangerous world for genuine social orphans, no matter what their cultural milieu.

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