The transformation of a child who is reintegrated into a family is always worthy of praise and thanksgiving. Yet few things are as noteworthy as the hundreds of children’s lives impacted by an adult or adults who decisively recognize that God puts the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6).
Meet Mick Pease. Mick is the Director of SFAC (Substitute Families for Abandoned Children), a UK-based Christian organization that advocates for improved services for orphaned and abandoned children, with an emphasis on alternative options to residential care. SFAC provides training for nonprofit and faith-based organizations, social workers, volunteers, and substitute families around the world. The very existence of SFAC is undergirded by the belief that since orphans and abandoned children are unarguably among the most vulnerable people in the world, God’s family must respond. According to God’s design, children are born into families, and His desire is for them to remain in families (as articulated in Faith to Action’s Guiding Principles).
Christians’ varied responses to orphans, however, are what set Mick on his journey more than fifteen years ago. Thanks to the opportunity to work in and observe residential care facilities for three years prior to attending university, Mick began to realize some of the inherent limitations of institutionalized care for children. Rather than allowing guilt and helplessness to form his response to orphaned children, Mick decided to become a licensed social worker. His studies in the UK included coursework in child protection, the principles of which Mick relied upon while carrying a heavy caseload of children as a social worker in the city of Leeds.
Mick’s life course changed when, in 1997, he and his wife, Brenda, moved to Brazil to work with a children’s organization. Despite his years of experience with foster and adoptive families in the UK, at that time he still had little knowledge of international child protection issues. Mick and Brenda suddenly found themselves in an orphanage of over a hundred children, many of whom had been removed from their parents by authorities. Mick began asking the orphanage tough questions: “Why aren’t these children in the care of families?” Responses invariably referred to international adoption as the only option for placing children in families, and to the orphanage as “God’s family.” Again, Mick asked, “Would you ever permit your own children or grandchildren to live in an orphanage?” In subsequent years of asking this question, he has yet to receive an affirmative response because, in Mick’s words, “We all intrinsically know that orphanages are not best for my children, but they somehow become the best option for other people’s children.”
As a result of these conversations and reflections, the remainder of Mick’s year in Brazil revolved around advocating for family care and children’s right to be in families. If placement in a safe, secure biological family was not available, then local foster care was encouraged. The course of his life’s calling was set, and in 2002, Mick and Brenda officially founded SFAC.
Mick admits that the journey of SFAC has not always been easy, as they deliberately advocate for family-based care. Initially, opposition came from those in residential care concerned with their personal agendas and job security. Mick observed that many of these obstacles were rooted in fear: fear of being disloyal to those who assumed orphanages are the best way to care for children, of losing donor support, of wading into a new world of government structures (or lack of structures) related to foster care, of finding enough good parents for children, and of securing alternative employment for orphanage care workers.
Acknowledging these fears, SFAC chooses to walk closely alongside organizations interested in transitioning to a family-based model of care by offering practical, on-site workshops, seminars, and consultations. Workshops range from one to four days and cover topics such as: an introduction to foster care, reintegration, child development, neuroscience, attachment theory, case load management, and how to assess foster families. Committed to making the transition feasible, SFAC tries to cover their own travel and consulting costs for organizations with limited training budgets, with the understanding that the host provides for their basic needs while in country.
As a growing body of research confirms the importance of family-based care, many of those with whom SFAC works are able to make strategic, informed decisions toward alternative family care models (for further information on alternative care, please see Faith to Action’s A Continuum of Care). SFAC also helps its partners understand foster care not as a new, Westernized idea, but rather as a concept of child care that has been espoused by communities around the world for centuries. Kinship care in the West Indies and throughout Africa, for example, has allowed many orphans to remain under the care of extended family members. However, the informality of these arrangements may expose children to other vulnerabilities, thus substantiating the need for appropriate training and support.
Among those organizations that have transitioned to family care models, SFAC has noted that not only individual families, but also entire communities benefit from increased awareness of educational opportunities, child development, and healthcare. When communities take responsibility for the children in their midst, children experience a heightened sense of safety, security, love, and attachment. Furthermore, Mick notes that the approach offers unique opportunities for churches to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed to entire communities.
The story of one man, one organization, and the hundreds of children whose lives have been transformed clearly points to a God who cares:
Sing to God, sing in praise of his name. . . .
Rejoice before him – his name is the Lord.
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families.