By Nicole Wilke

Sofia* was just five years old when her mom left her home unsupervised for the first time. Her dad had left the family and had no contact. Her mom was forced to work long hours at a factory. Until recently, Sofia and her two-year-old sister, Marta*, had spent the hours away from their mom with an elderly neighbor. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement, but they were safe and she let them come for free. When their childcare provider passed away, there were no affordable childcare options, so Sofia’s mother felt she had no choice but to leave her girls home alone. She set out bread for lunch and told Sofia to get help at the neighborhood store, or tienda, in case of emergency.

For the next six months, the situation was relatively stable. One day, Sofia wanted to make a better lunch for her sister, so she made a fire for cooking. She knew how to make a fire and had done so before, but she didn’t know to watch Marta carefully. Marta tripped near the fire and ended up with severe burns on her arm.

Following her mother’s instructions, Sofia ran to the tienda to seek help. The tienda owner called for medical attention. Marta’s burns were treated and she was expected to make an excellent recovery due to her young age. The medical professionals were concerned about the situation and made a child protection report. Sofia and Marta were later removed from the home and placed in a children’s home several hours away, in the closest city. Their mother was heartbroken. She couldn’t afford to travel regularly to see them.

They remained at the children’s home for five years, languishing in the child welfare system. Eventually, their case was put in front of a judge who determined they could be reintegrated with their mother. However, they hardly knew her anymore. She had remarried and had a baby. The girls had only met their stepfather once.

Although the names and details have been adjusted to protect confidentiality, this story is true, and there are countless others just like it. Many children end up in the child welfare system unnecessarily, when far simpler solutions would suffice.

Can we imagine a different story for Sofia and Marta? Imagine if this family had been offered affordable childcare. Imagine if the mother was able to have a different type of job that allowed her to be more available to her children. Imagine dozens of other solutions that would have allowed the girls to remain with their mother, who wanted to care for them.

Here’s a different story:

Daniel* lost his beloved wife in childbirth. He was heartbroken and left to parent three children alone. His children were nine, three, and newborn at the time. He had no way to care for them as he worked six days per week in the local mine and life insurance didn’t exist in his nation. He had to work.

Distraught, Daniel took his children to the local orphanage to be cared for. He knew they would offer food and education and that it was better than he could do. Thankfully, the orphanage was transitioning their care model to family care and they were committed to keeping this family together. The family was assigned a caseworker, Timothy*, who spent time with the family to learn more about their strengths, hopes, desires, and needs. Timothy worked with the family to identify key supporters in their lives, like extended family, teachers, church members, and neighbors. They all gathered for a family group conference, to discuss how they could support the family- together. They arrived at some unorthodox but effective solutions:

  • During the week, the children would stay with their grandmother in the nearby town. There was a school there, and the oldest child could attend.
  • They didn’t have money for tuition but the school was willing to offer a scholarship.
  • The church agreed to take up a quarterly offering for formula and diapers for the baby.
  • A local farmer drove from the family village to the local town a few times per week to sell produce. He agreed to take the children with him to their grandmother on Monday mornings, and back to the village on Friday afternoons. They were able to spend weekends with their father to maintain the relationship.

It was an imperfect situation, but very functional. And the children knew they belonged. [Watch this video to learn more about family group conferences.]

Scripture and science both suggest that children need nurturing, safe, secure families to reach their full potential. Most parents, if given the opportunity and adequate assistance, want to parent their children. Imagine again, that Sofia and Marta’s mother had access to the support given to Daniel. Would their story be different?

We can all be a part of reimaging a world where parents who are struggling don’t have to be separated from their children. By working to support an entire family, we can be part of a story of redemption and wholeness, not only for the child, but for everyone involved and the generations to come.

*All names have been changed for the protection and privacy of the individuals represented.

Nicole Wilke serves as Director of the Center on Applied Research for Vulnerable Children and Families at the Christian Alliance for Orphans. The focus of this work is to connect the best available evidence to frontline practice in the care of children and families at risk, covering topics from deinstitutionalization to trauma-informed care to child protection. Her interest in this work began in her family of origin, which has adopted and fostered many children. Prior to this role, Nicole worked in a variety of settings with children who have experienced complex trauma, including post-adoptive therapy, juvenile detention, therapeutic residential treatment, and foster care, as well as in cross-cultural ministry. She has earned degrees in Psychology, Family Studies, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Permanency and Adoption Competency, and has published in research journals including The Lancet and Child Abuse & Neglect. She currently lives with her husband and children in Peru, where they work to see vulnerable children raised in families.