Best practice in caring for orphaned and vulnerable children indicates the need for a continuum of care options for children currently living in—or at risk of being sent to—institutions. While a growing number of ministry leaders, practitioners, and researchers agree that children are best cared for within families, the question of what type of family placement setting looms large. One child may have living parents with whom they can reunite, while another may have no trace of a family. It is God’s inherent love for every child that compels so many to dedicate time and resources to orphans; and it is every child’s unique story as a child of God that further compels us to provide the best family care option for each.
When Tara Garcia was a young woman who initially traveled from the United States to Honduras to teach, her heart was broken by the many vulnerable children she met who were living in destitute residential facilities. Resolved to improve the conditions of struggling Honduran orphanages, Tara and her husband Jorge founded Identity Mission in 2015. As the Garcias grew in their understanding of how children had been separated from their families and placed in institutional care, God pressed upon their hearts an even deeper desire: to care for children without parental care by placing them back into families.
Honduran orphanages are not unlike those in other parts of the world: Among an estimated 170,000 children considered “orphaned” in Honduras, the majority do have living family members. Poverty is a primary reason that children are placed in Honduran orphanages, as families lack support and feel like they have no other choice. Abuse and natural disasters also contribute to the separation of children from their families. Once children are placed in orphanages, there is rarely any follow-up support that would pave the path for children to reunite with their families. Tara explains that government welfare offices in Honduras do not even own vehicles so they can do the critical investigative work of tracing children’s families to determine whether or not family reunification is possible.
In response to this context, in 2012 the Garcias began promoting family care and developing a foster care system that not only moves children from institutions into families, but also prevents institutionalization from happening in the first place. Identity Mission works in partnership with a Honduran government entity, DINAF (Dirección de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia), which was formed in 2014 to limit institutional care and place children in foster care. DINAF relies on nonprofit organizations like Identity Mission to recruit foster families and prepare children and families for family care. Specifically, Identity Mission interviews potential foster families and conducts a home study assessment, helps families gather their required documents, provides training and social events for foster families, matches a child to a family when DINAF calls with a child to be placed, and provides follow-up support to the children and families. Most recently, Identity Mission gathered 14 foster families for a day-long training on trauma led by a professional clinical psychologist. The children, meanwhile, participated in and enjoyed a full day of games, crafts, and yummy food.
Identity Mission’s strategy demonstrates how foster care is an integral component of the continuum of care in several ways. First, it prevents children from being placed in orphanages in the first place by providing homes for children separated from their families due to abuse and neglect. Identity Mission actively works to prepare foster families so they are able to take in children as a need arises, thus limiting the need for institutional care.
Second, foster families are able to provide temporary family care for children while they are waiting to be reintegrated into their biological families, or into a kinship care arrangement. To facilitate this process, Identity Mission recently hired a social worker to help trace children’s families and assess the possibility of reunification.
Third, foster care has the potential to provide an eventual pathway to adoption. While foster-to-adopt options depend on national policies, Identity Mission is hoping it will remain legal and viable in Honduras.
Finally, foster care provides Identity Mission with a platform for advocating for family care among orphanage directors throughout Honduras. Currently Identity Mission has a list of about 120 orphanages that they remain in contact with and invite to training events, so that organizations throughout Honduras learn the full scope of family care options for children who have been separated from families. From research, Identity Mission believes there to be at least 300 orphanages in Honduras, so there are many more opportunities for transforming care.
To help educate orphanage directors and others about the importance of family-based care, Tara and Jorge regularly utilize materials from the Faith to Action Initiative. Tara mentioned that she recently handed out four Spanish copies of Children, Orphanages and Families: A Summary of Research to Help Guide Faith-Based Action to local pastors and orphanage directors in one week alone. She also commented that she is eagerly anticipating the release of Faith to Action’s new Transitioning Care Guidance Manual and online Toolkit, which will equip people with extensive resources for transitioning from residential care to family care.
The impact of Identity Mission on Honduran families and children is significant, both because its mission is so deeply etched on the hearts of the Garcia family, and because it acknowledges the collective strength that comes from integrating its work with other options along the continuum of care. Identity Mission is not just about promoting foster care. At the very heart of the ministry is an earnest desire for all children to recognize their identity as sons and daughters of God, and to experience God’s love within a family.