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Suffer the children to survive and thrive

December 19, 2009|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus in a stable, Christians view the nativity scene with nostalgia. But any passer-by in Bethlehem would have seen it as one more poor child entering life under mean circumstances.

Jesus of Nazareth was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Still, he was rich in his parentage, unlike many children born in the United States. Today, one in three Americans are born out of wedlock, many of them clueless about the identity of their fathers.

They are virtual orphans, condemned to grow into adulthood without the commitment and guidance of two loving parents.

To be sure their prospects are better than those of true foundlings deprived of care because of the death of both parents from preventable diseases, violence, famine, accident and natural tragedies.

The worldwide population of orphaned children is estimated to total 106 million in the New Year. Already, more than 65 million Asian children are without parents, followed by 34 million in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Agency for International Development.

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The crisis in child welfare is not confined to poor nations. Even in 2003, long before the current recession, as many as 40 percent of the residents in New York City's homeless shelters were children, according to The New York Times. For most of them their good fortune is that they are there in the company of at least one parent.

Most church congregations in the United States help to support needy children in other countries. Here in America orphanages (like reform schools, asylums and settlement houses) are largely relics of the past, reflecting our nation's disenchantment with institutionalizing the needy.

Foster homes are, at best, imperfect substitutes. Foster children tend to be bumped from one family to another, seldom claimed by adoption. Childless couples prefer perfect little babies, and will invest a small fortune in artificial fertilization to produce a child who looks like them. If that fails, they will consider a further investment to adopt a Russian or Romanian newborn rather than give a home to an American child past infancy.

In the years since Charles Dickens portrayed the wretched treatment of poor children in Victorian England, that nation has become prosperous. Yet one in three children still lives in poverty. Barnardo's, that nation's premier child-care agency, acknowledges "children born into poverty have the cards in life stacked against them."

They are more likely to be socially excluded or homeless, fall prey to addictions, suffer long-standing illnesses, and become victims of crime and accidents.

Wealthy Victorians excused their indifference to children on their Darwinian faith in survival of the fittest. In the years since, we have learned that we must "suffer the little children" to ensure that they not only survive but thrive in life.

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