Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J., Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Previously he was an assistant professor of psychiatry in Georgetown University's School of Medicine. Most recently, he was the associate director for protection of minors for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. He was also recently the chief psychologist and the director of counseling services, as well as faculty and staff psychologist, at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He has been executive director at several major treatment centers for clergy and religious in the United States-Saint John Vianney Center and Guest House, Inc.
“An easy way to think about it is, every 6 seconds, one child is either orphaned or loses a caregiver due to COVID-19. So, by the time you basically count to 6, another child has had a parent die.” Dr. Susan Hillis, co-author of the latest CDC study on pandemic orphans published in the Lancet, sounds this urgent alarm. Faith communities—in partnership with NGOs and governments worldwide—have important roles to play in addressing the critical challenges of COVID-19 orphans. Lessons from our research, which explores faith engagement in global development and child protection in religious communities, can help faith as well as other communities to define and act on practical measures to support children and young people orphaned by the pandemic.
The challenge today has striking similarities to the crisis of children orphaned and victimized during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic three decades ago. As part of the complex religious response to HIV/AIDS, faith-inspired organizations helped to support vulnerable children and families, a role they were able to play as institutions that are often highly trusted and deeply embedded in local communities. Today, religious communities and organizations can similarly leverage their positions as trusted community partners to help guide local responses to children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood. With recent research in the Lancet estimating that at least 5.2 million children worldwide had been orphaned by the pandemic by the end of October 2021, the local knowledge and resources of faith communities can be an important asset in addressing this troubling problem—a problem that will only grow as the pandemic progresses. It is critical to grasp that these data were minimum estimates; the true numbers of orphans are much larger, with new estimates ranging around 7 million.
As religious communities continue to make important and complex contributions to caring for vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, a critical need is the immediate and long-term challenges of children who have lost caregivers in the COVID-19 emergencies. A primary challenge is that kinship, foster care, and child support systems in many countries, including the United States, are poorly equipped to respond to the new demands of children orphaned by the pandemic. Research also shows that orphans are particularly likely to suffer from physical violence and other harm, including sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, and sexual trafficking. Hunger and lack of access to education, especially with school closures during the pandemic, are other urgent challenges for this vulnerable population.
Faith communities in each country and society will favor different responses to these realties. A frequent faith-inspired tendency is to look to orphanages as part of the solution. We believe strongly that institutional placements or orphanages cannot be the answer. Much evidence shows that children growing up in institutional care have an increased risk of long-term mental health problems, cognitive deficits, and sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. By far the best responses are family-centered and community-based, where possible, so the child can remain in their current cultural context. Recent news reports about the horrors of institutionalized faith-run children’s homes in Europe, Canada, and the United States should inform and direct us toward safe and nurturing family-focused and communal approaches. Ongoing faith-inspired initiatives that center on family-based care—such as Faith to Action and Arigatou International—could help to guide a path forward for children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood.
The CDC report describes approaches that are family-based, some of them effective even when they must be virtual. Especially with the rise of COVID-19 variants, it would be unwise to rely solely on in-person support. Innovative and effective programs center on providing immediate cash to families of orphans, and many provide virtual parenting training and skills building for this special population. A recent study suggests that similar, virtual cash-in-hand programs offered in the United States for COVID-19 relief could reduce poverty and assist in improving child welfare. Faith communities have been and can be key arbiters supporting such programs, acting as messengers of vital information, assisting in identifying those in need, and providing pastoral outreach to those affected by the tragedy.
Pastoral outreach to those in need is also best seen in context, informed by country or community studies. Pertinent case studies illustrate the different approaches to and challenges of caring for children at risk in varied contexts, even within the same country or faith tradition. While the needs on the ground are highly complicated and sophisticated, research on child protection in faith communities can provide instructive lessons on how to approach COVID-19 orphanhood. Much as centering the voices of survivors is an important factor in healing the trauma of child sexual abuse, centering the needs of orphans and their families can be a productive strategy for religious communities working with children orphaned by the pandemic. Purposeful, interfaith alliances can also be helpful in coordinating response efforts across religious traditions.
The Lancet article and CDC report underscore the need for a “coalition of care,” a priority which is well aligned with the religiously linked commitment to the common good. In the near term, faith communities can work with family or community-based caregivers, enhance and support virtual and evidence-based programs, and help to coordinate both child safety and child welfare. They can also usher in a new wave of relevance and collaboration for impact, by partnering with the child protection sector to ensure that in every surge of COVID-19, there are emergency foster families who have been vaccinated, trained, and supported to care for children in need of emergency care. Faith advocacy in support of widespread uptake of COVID-19 vaccination will also be important to prevent further increases in pandemic-linked orphanhood, and religious communities can continue work to promote vaccine acceptance, ensure that vulnerable people are vaccinated, and advocate for more equitable vaccination strategies. These vital needs are both pastorally consistent within most faith traditions and central to the psychological grieving and healing processes that are part of losing parents or caregivers.
During just the few minutes you have read this article, at least 15 children have become orphans to COVID-19. Religious communities have the prophetic vision and local resources to support this vulnerable and growing population during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.