As you move forward on your adoption journey, it is important to understand that there are varying definitions of the word "orphan." Many of us think of orphans as those children who have lost both parents to death; however, often this term is used to describe children who have become orphans for reasons other than the death of parents. Many countries define an orphan more in the sense of the word "fatherless," meaning those who may have lost only one parent. In other parts of the world, the term orphan will be used to define children who may still have both of their parents living but whose parents no longer have legal or physical custody of the children. This can be for any number of reasons such as child abuse, neglect, abandonment, parental incarceration, or even times when parents experience economic hardship.
In times of extreme financial difficulties, parents will often place their children in government custody temporarily until their living situation improves. This practice is currently more common in Eastern Europe and South America. Only 50 years ago this practice was still quite common in the United States, and even more so during the Great Depression. Children whose parents are alive but are unwilling or unable to properly care for them are termed "social orphans." Therefore, in the cases when the term orphan can be quite ambiguous, child welfare professionals will often use terms such as "total orphan," "double orphan," "adoptable," or "waiting" to more clearly describe children who are in need of new families to raise them.
There are literally millions of orphans in the world, and many are available for adoption. It is difficult to ascertain accurate statistics about the number of total and adoptable orphans due to many complicated factors. There are many children who have grown up in orphanages and have never been visited by family members yet their birth parents may still legally have custody of them; hence, the children are not legally freed for adoption. The official government numbers of orphans in some countries are simply not accurate—and many of them have more orphans living on the streets than under the government's care in orphanages or foster homes. In addition, there are a many countries who simply do not allow international adoptions to take place.
According to UNICEF, there are well over 100 million orphans. UNICEF Press Release Document Children on the Brink, 2004
In the United States, the term orphan is rarely used, except to describe those children whose parents have both passed away or for use in official government documents. When describing the population of children in U.S. government care, the term "foster children" is used even when these children are living in group homes or institutions, rather than in traditional foster homes. There are approximately 500,000 children in the United States foster care system currently, and approximately 120,000 of these children are currently considered "waiting" children-again meaning those which have been determined to be available for adoption. All of these children need to be safe, nurtured and cared for while they are in foster care, but more importantly, they need permanent "forever" families of their own, no matter their age or special needs.
Statistics regarding the future prospects for children who emancipate from orphanages, the foster care system, or who grow up as street children are profoundly bleak; ironically, the statistics for American kids are almost identical to those for children around the world. Theft, prostitution, homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, and suicide affect the lives of the vast majority of those children who grow up as orphans and never find permanent, loving homes. In short, orphans by definition are children who for whatever reason have found themselves in need of permanent, safe, and loving families. And for such children, being taken in by a family through the "spirit of adoption" is their greatest need!
The best way to become familiar with the real needs of children for loving families is to hear from the children, birth parents, adoptive and foster parents themselves. Fortunately, with access to the web, this is easy to do. There are several web sites, both national and regional, which are dedicated to giving prospective adoptive parents access to photos, personal information, and even streaming videos of children available for adoption in the U.S. Foster Care System. Please take a minute to look at these sites. It is one thing to read about the plight of these children; it is another to see them and hear them tell in their own words of their desire to find a loving family. Here are a few of the sites.
One foster child said it best when he explained why he was sharing his story of growing up in foster care, "I want to be the seen of the unseen and the voice of the unheard." But now, their voices can be heard, simply by opening their page on the Internet.