The family unit is at the core of African culture and society; decisions are family decisions and the emphasis is placed on the collective will rather than the individual. When a child becomes an orphan because of poverty, war, death, illness, or some other cause, relatives will often take in a child. However, the idea of taking in a child who is not from one’s own family or tribe is a newer concept. Ethiopia, home to 80 million people, has over 5 million orphans or vulnerable children. The government child welfare system in Ethiopia is still in its early stages of development – just beginning to offer family-based opportunities for orphan care rather than institutional care.

Bethany Christian Services (BCS) established a comprehensive program to help take children out of institutions and place them into family-based care through their “Foster-to-Adopt” program. The words “foster care” don’t exist in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, but this new concept is beginning to take root in Ethiopia. When BCS began the program, there was a concern that families willing to take in children would be difficult to find. Fortunately, families came forward and churches took up the call. Rather, the primary challenge was providing the legal framework for the system.

This lack of framework made it necessary to build essential relationships with key partners. BCS is collaborating with local non-profit organizations and faith-based communities to identify and recruit potential families and provide support for foster families. They partner with U.S. churches to provide the resources needed to support the program. In addition, BCS is working with the national and local governments to help Ethiopia establish the infrastructure needed to place children with families through a foster program that will lead to domestic adoption. The partnerships between local faith-based communities, local child welfare NGOs, local and national governments, and U.S. faith-based communities has been the bedrock of the success of the project.

In order to provide families with the support they need during the foster and adoption process, BCS established the Family Empowerment Program where case workers regularly visit families’ homes, offer small group and family fellowship opportunities, and provide large group gatherings and sports events for the children. Events are also organized to encourage the church in awareness and involvement of caring for orphans and vulnerable children. The building up of the community as a whole provides layers of care for families and the child.

Pastor Belete Hajelo of Hawassa, foster parent to one-year-old Beza, said, “as a result of this program, churches become aware of something that is entirely new to them as well as an orphan care ministry that they have not given emphasis to before…. Church members and pastors are also taking in children into their homes, which is quite new. They are positively influencing people in their neighborhoods and non-Christian community-based organizations. Churches are providing teachings focusing on the orphan and what the Christian’s response should be. Many churches are working on how to permanently make orphan care ministry a part of the children’s ministry.”

From the beginning stages of recruiting families, foster parents are prepared to take the child in permanently. A “marriage ceremony” is conducted every time a child is placed into a family to symbolize the union and permanency of that child’s place in the family. It is a celebration, with cake and the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, for the family, child, church, and community to express their love and commitment to the child. In a recent ceremony, one new foster parent said, “Praise God for everything. I’m happy beyond words. We visited the other kids in the orphanage and it brought tears to my eyes. It’s good that we started taking care of our children ourselves. God did this and glory to Him. Fenet is my child. It is a big responsibility and requires commitment. She is my responsibility from God.” Bethany’s Foster-to-Adopt program is a groundbreaking initiative and a model for others to duplicate. Ethiopia is leading the way and laying a foundation for other African countries to learn from in addressing and moving towards solving the greater orphan crisis.