What is a "Social Orphan"?


We often hear that there are anywhere from 143,000,000 to 165,000,000 orphans living in our world. This number is astonishing. What do these numbers represent? These numbers are developed from attempting to account for children that have one or more parent absent and the child is often living with relatives, foster parents, in orphanages or on the streets. It is unclear as to whether the “social orphan” is included in this number. I would venture to say that if the child is in an institution they are accounted for; however, the “social orphan” is one that is difficult to quantify and has not been properly protected under the laws of many states or international conventions (Convention on the Rights of the Child, Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption).

The social orphan is the most common child in an orphanage. This child has parents living that cannot or will not take care of the child, but the parent’s rights to the child are still intact and have not been terminated. Often these parents are working long hours in remote areas, are not able to afford/feed their children, or have drug/alcohol related issues that are preventing them from parenting. I am consistently asked about adopting specific children living in an orphanage and often I know that the child is likely to be a social orphan. A social orphan is not adoptable in most situations. The child will likely not be adoptable because the following:

  1. Biological parents will not voluntarily terminate their rights to the child (even if they did, it is possible the child would not qualify for international adoption according to US Federal Immigration laws);
  2. The state does not have a mechanism to terminate parental rights in a situation where parents are not caring for a child;
  3. The state does not exercise their legal process to terminate parental rights where the parents are not caring for a child;
  4. While certain state agencies may be favorable to terminating parental rights in situations in which parents are not caring for a child, courts/judges may not favor such an action which requires their adjudication;
  5. Lack of resources to pursue legal action to terminate parents’ rights; and
  6. United State Citizenship and Immigration services and Federal Immigration laws may not allow for parents to terminate their parental rights for the purpose of adoption thus a social orphan may not qualify for the orphan visa (meaning the child cannot come into the US after the adoption).

From anecdotal analysis and experience, many social orphans are left in an orphanage their entire lives. I would estimate that 80-90% of children living in orphanages in Latin America are social orphans and not adoptable. Eastern Europe has social orphans but has been more successful in terminating parental rights and seeking adoption for many children. Most of Africa is completely overwhelmed with their orphan crisis and lacks resources to resolve this crisis in any way. Prospective adoptive parents are continually baffled by the enormous number of orphans and inability to adopt these orphans in an efficient manner. These children are worthy of a family that can care for them.

Action needed:

  • NGOs, foundations, missions, and governments need to help account for orphans (including social orphans) in countries. Know the problem and then seek resolution: provide resources, education and training for preventative measures and post abandonment resolutions.
  • Education in US and foreign countries on the need for protection of orphans, including social orphans.
  • Resources on how to legally pursue reunification with family, termination of parents rights, domestic adoption or international adoption.
  • Change in US laws to allow for international adoption of two parent social orphans in non-Hague countries (which is currently prohibited if parents attempt to consent to an adoption in this scenario).

Social orphans may have one of the worst opportunities for a future. They are an orphan without family care, often living with substandard nutrition, medical care and education and yet they never have the opportunity for a family through domestic or international adoption. Their options: family reunification, domestic adoption, international adoption but often their reality is life in an orphanage or on the streets with little to no help. The even starker reality is their future is filled with death by preventable diseases, suicide, prostitution and crime.

What can you do?

  • Contact your Congressman/women and find out what they are doing to help? How are they involved? Are they following the U.S. State Department and their efforts? What is the State Department doing when a country closes to international adoption and has hundreds of thousands of orphans?
  • What non-profits can you work with to assist these orphans?
  • Educate yourself. Did you know that UNICEF is not favorable to international adoption? Did you know UNICEF receives billions of dollars from US citizens, companies and government which supports an underlying anti-international adoption agenda?
  • Say something! Complain, talk about it and get involved.

While international adoption is not the only option for these children, it is one of the options. All efforts for reunification, domestic adoption and international adoption are necessary.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar

For more information about MLJ Adoptions’ international adoption programs, please click here.

MLJ Adoptions is a Non-Profit, Hague-Accredited adoption service provider located in Indianapolis, Indiana, working in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Isles. We are passionate about serving children in need.