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The Plight of Waiting Children


In the context of institutional care, the term waiting children is self-explanatory; children who are waiting for a family. But the stories behind the term are each unique and anything but simple.

Children who enter care do so for myriad reasons. In the case of China, for example, many babies who are born with special needs are abandoned in baskets on the streets because their parents lack the resources to care for them. It doesn’t always mean they weren’t loved. Sometimes their parents are hiding around the corner waiting for someone to find their child so they know they will be safe. Other times, babies spend hours or even days in blistering heat or freezing weather before they are found, and they require medical attention right away.

In countries like Burundi or South Africa, stigma and misunderstanding around conditions such as HIV, lead to parents surrendering children who test positive. The effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are also commonly misunderstood and a reason why children around the world are labeled incorrigible, leading families to break down and children to enter care. And in indigenous communities, such as in the hills of Western Colombia, the lack of access to medical care impedes families from feeling equipped to raise children with mere speech or vision impairments.

Sadly, instances of child abuse, neglect, or sexual violence are also frequent amongst children entering care. They may have been living with a parent who could not meet their basic needs, endangered them, was incarcerated, or died. What all these reasons have in common is that none are the child’s fault.

Upon entering care, children under the age of 6 with no or mild special needs, are more easily placed with families after less than 2 years in care. Children older than 6 or those with moderate to severe special needs and sibling groups, are considered difficult to place. It’s these children who become waiting children, often spending years, if not their entire childhoods, in care.

At this point in their stories, waiting children have suffered the loss of their first family and anything familiar to them. They no longer have their own space or their favorite toy or homecooked meal. Nothing feels their own. Caregivers introduce the idea of adoption and they begin to fill their hearts with hope. For many, a family becomes their greatest wish. They wait day after day for their forever family to find them. They develop friendships with other children in care, many of whom get adopted while they continue to wait their turn. They are surrounded by others but lonely, and long for the deep love of family.

As time goes by, waiting children begin to wonder what’s wrong with them that makes them less adoptable. Why does no one want them? A common fear is that they will age out. Waiting children know that the older they are, the dimmer their chances to be adopted, until eventually, they are out of time, forced to face a world for which they’re not equipped. For sibling groups, another fear sets in: Will I lose my siblings? Many institutions around the world break up sibling groups to increase their chance of placement. This compounds their trauma—siblings are the only people who share their experience and the only familiar thing left in their world—but there are more families willing to adopt one or two kids than three or four. With no control over their fate, waiting children continue to wait, praying for a family, praying to stay together, and praying to be loved. In time, many lose hope. For some, a family never comes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Through advocacy efforts and adoption education, these children’s stories can be shared and hearts can be opened to them. Advocacy means conveying that checkboxes on a special needs list represent kids and every blank box means a child stays behind, in need of love and care. It means conveying the courage and resilience that waiting children have shown in their young lives, and the potential this speaks to if they had access to therapy, medical care, and a nurturing family. It means finding families who are equipped to meet the needs of waiting children and giving them the tools they need to thrive. It means never giving up on kids who never chose to enter care and redefining their stories so that they are no longer marked by years of trauma but healing, love, and hope.


This piece was written for All God's Children International and originally appeared on their blog.