(RNS) — Many of us advocating for orphaned and vulnerable children sound like broken records. We keep saying the same message — namely, that all children deserve a family, and those without a family deserve to be a first priority. Few in the church would argue against this since Jesus himself constantly talked about caring for the poor, orphaned and vulnerable. And yet the structure of our world continues to push their needs to the side.
On May 12, the United States, Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal will co-host the second Global COVID-19 Summit. (The first summit was held in September 2021.) The goal of the upcoming summit is to “redouble our collective efforts to end the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future health threats.”
The priorities seem well and good, as the agenda includes discussions about increasing vaccination rates and improving health care around the globe. These are important topics, but there is one glaring omission from the agenda — children.
This unfortunate oversight is especially dire in light of the fact that an estimated 5.2 million children had lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID-19 as of October 2021, leaving the stability and well-being of the children and the remaining family members severely compromised.
Somewhere in between “end(ing) the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic” and “prepar(ing) for future health threats” lie millions of vulnerable children and families who need more than a vaccine and a plan to combat future pandemics, as good as both of those goals are. What these children and families need right now is support.
The reality is that, for children, the loss of a caregiver has compounding impacts on them and their families. It puts children at greater risk of being separated from other family members, mental health problems, a lack of proper schooling, lower self-esteem, an increase in sexually risk behaviors and an increase in suicide and violence.
Additionally, one report concluded that “the children most likely to lose a parent or other caregiver to COVID-19 are most likely to have faced significant previous adversities that hinder their ability to successfully adapt to new experiences of adversity or trauma.”
Let’s not forget about the remaining family members. They often take on the added responsibility of caring for their young relatives as they struggle themselves with the loss of a loved one and possibly the loss of income as well.
There is no scenario where I see Jesus leaving these children and families on the side of the road, and this ought to be the posture of his church today as well. So when the most vulnerable don’t quite make it onto the global agenda, here’s how the church can respond:
First, begin at home.
Those of us who work in the foster care and family strengthening space talk a lot about kinship care — that is, caring for extended members of the family and making sure they are provided for physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. What we’ve learned in our line of work is that our response to the millions of children who have lost caregivers to COVID-19 must start at home. It’s noble to want to help the orphaned and vulnerable children of the world, but many of us have an opportunity to do just that in our communities. We can start in our own backyards by stepping up to help where COVID-19-associated loss has created a need.
Second, who you support matters. Supporting those working locally, nationally and globally can look different, but the best aid is always through the individuals and organizations that are working to keep families strong and united. Many assume that a child who has lost a parent needs an orphanage or a foster family to take them in, but most of these children do have other family members who just need a helping hand to care for their young relatives.
You can donate to or volunteer with organizations that are meeting the needs of vulnerable children and families impacted by COVID-19. By supporting organizations like these, so many children will get to grow up with their own families. A list of credible organizations can be found here.
Third, the church needs to use its voice. Advocacy is a critical element in helping those who are pushed to the margins. Oftentimes, children bear the burden of trauma in a family and generally suffer in silence. As we stand alongside the children who are hurting, we stand alongside Christ. We may feel like we’re repeating ourselves, but with more voices comes more influence. Reach out to your local, state and national leaders as they consider laws and funding to let them know that children who have lost a caregiver due to COVID-19 ought to be a priority.
I long for the day when orphaned and vulnerable children will be a top priority for our governments. Until that day, as the church, we must continually beat that drum to fight for justice for these children and their families who have suffered great loss and trauma. Let’s not leave them off our agenda of care and compassion.
(Dr. Albert L. Reyes is president and CEO of Buckner International. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)