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Author J.K. Rowling, founder and president of the international non-governmental organization Lumos.

Author J.K. Rowling, founder and president of the international non-governmental organization Lumos.

It’s a weird world. I just read that Harry Potter — an orphan — is joining us to defeat evil.

I’m not talking about the Dark Lord Voldemort here. Or children’s fantasy books. I’m talking about real-life evil: the abuse and neglect of untold numbers of children in orphanages.

Here’s how I learned that Harry Potter is on our side. In yesterday’s issue of The Guardian, Potter creator J.K. Rowling let out a roar of rage, telling the world that institutionalization leaves “millions of children separated from their families for reasons of poverty, disability and discrimination.”

By taking this stance, Rowling has allied herself with a cause that’s dear to my heart, and one that Coptic Orphans has long struggled to bring to the world’s attention: keeping kids with their families, and out of orphanages.

It was so powerful to see Rowling — author of the best-selling book series in history — use her trillion watts of star power to shine a light on crimes against children. In “Isn’t It time We Left Orphanages to Fairy Tales,” Rowling writes:

“The shocking truth is that the vast majority of these children have parents that could care for them. They are not orphans. Most are placed in institutions by families who are too poor to provide for them, or because of a lack of local education and health facilities, especially for children with special needs. The minority who do not have parents, or for whom staying at home is not in their best interests, are often placed in institutions because there is no alternative.”

These are harsh facts, and one wonders whether certain moments in Rowling’s books — dark and horrific scenes of imprisonment — are reflections of things she’s observed. In her Guardian piece, she writes of being brutally affected by coming across “a black-and-white photograph in a newspaper.”

“It showed a small boy, locked in a caged bed in a residential institution. His hands clutched what appeared to be chicken wire containing him, and his expression was agonised … I forced myself to turn back to the picture and read the article. It told of a nightmarish institution where children as young as six were caged most of the day and night.”

This horrible scene reminds me of some of the things I’ve witnessed in Egypt, and as I read Rowling’s words I could feel her heart break, as mine has, so many times. What’s inspiring. though, is how Rowling has channeled her emotions first into words, then into action.

Pop quiz: How many of Rowling’s characters lost one or both parents? Answer: 8, including Harry himself. Making history’s most famous boy wizard an orphan was a powerful message, crafted from her words.

Now the action: Rowling has come out swinging for this cause. Not only did she write the Guardian call to action, she founded Lumos – the charity dedicated to closing child institutions and so-called orphanages.

Part of Lumos’ work, she writes, is to “shed light on the lives of those millions of children separated from their families for reasons of poverty, disability and discrimination.” She argues that Lumos is desperately needed in today’s world. Why?

“There is now a wealth of scientific proof that institutions cause children measurable and sometimes irreparable harm. Institutionalised children are far less likely to be educated and to be physically or mentally well. Malnutrition is all too common. They are many more times likely to be abused or trafficked. The effects on infants are particularly chronic, with many failing to thrive, or dying.

The impact of not having the love and attention of a dedicated carer is profound. It can cause stunting, developmental delays and psychological trauma. I have seen babies who have learned not to cry because nobody comes. I have met children so desperate for affection that they will crawl into any stranger’s lap.

Damage is done very early, and it is lasting. Cut off from society, institutionalised children return to the world with their chances of a happy, healthy life greatly impaired, often unable to find employment, excluded from the community and more likely to enter into a lifetime of poverty and dependency.”

Reading these words transported me to Ashraf Khalil’s article for TIME“Egypt’s Orphans Struggle Long After Childhood Ends,” which casts light on the abuse of kids trapped on the dark side of Egypt’s social services.

Khalil highlights a particularly horrific incident recorded in a video purportedly showing the head of Dar Mecca Al Mokarama Orphanage beating kids as they cry and scream. Other reporters in Egypt alleged sexual abuse elsewhere, at the Rescue Childhood Association.

Khalil notes that being an orphan in Egypt “is akin to being in a lower caste of people. Orphans are widely labeled as ‘children of sin’ and assumed to be the illegitimate and abandoned products of extramarital sex. This label follows them throughout life, making it difficult for orphans to attend public schools…” Is it any wonder, then, that social services for orphans in Egypt are so terribly flawed?

As I read Khalil’s piece and watched the video of the children being beaten, I was upset and angry beyond words. My frustration was compounded by the fact that his article, though critical to raising the world’s awareness, examined no alternatives to orphanages.

Rowling, however, does offer alternatives. She writes:

“Where there is investment in inclusive education and health, where vulnerable families receive support for poverty, employment and social and medical problems; where there are fostering, adoption or other family-based care alternatives for children who cannot be with their parents; and where the culture of institutionalisation is replaced by one that prioritises keeping families together, children can thrive within their own families and communities.”

In setting forth this range of solutions, Rowlings does the most crucial thing each of us can do in this unjust world: Lift up alternatives. It’s not enough to just criticize institutions, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, from the stressed-out, underpaid social workers, to some noble attempts to care for kids in a group setting.

Something more must be done. An alternative must exist, and it does: family-based care. Coptic Orphans has more than a little experience with family-based care, since we’re now celebrating our 25th anniversary. The core of the idea, much as Rowling conveys it, is keeping families together.

Here’s the Coptic Orphans model in a nutshell: If the loss of a parent traps a family in extreme poverty, as is too often the case in Egypt, the next step should be a search for all available resources that could keep the child with his or her mother and close relatives. What do the mother and child need? Food, medical care, housing, education? The latest research shows that most of these needs can be better met within the family.

As with any model, this one isn’t going to work in every single case. But most of the time, it’s the best way to preserve the child’s emotional stability and ability to succeed in life.

I know family-based care works because I’ve seen it work. By the grace of God, Coptic Orphans is blessed to work with over 400 loving Church servants who regularly visit the homes of each of the nearly 10,000 orphans in our program. They develop a personal relationship with each child, treating them with respect and attentiveness. These servants assess each child’s needs — including how they can be more connected their family and their Coptic values and faith — and do their best to provide for them. Education — including individual tutoring and accelerated literacy courses — is the key tool used to help orphans break the cycle of poverty.

Based on my decades of first-hand observation, the family-based model is most suited for the goal we all share: seeing the child as a whole person, and bringing out his or her unique, God-given talents and love. It’s simply easier to nurture a healthy, well-rounded child within his or her own family unit.

As we work to keep families together, it’s encouraging to have Harry Potter on our side. He and J.K. Rowling command the world stage. I’m grateful that they’ve gone beyond fantasy to tackle the horrific real-world suffering of millions of children. And I hope that Lumos’ excellent call to action video becomes the Kony2012 of this movement.

As I pray for a halt to the abuses in Egypt’s orphanages, Rowling’s piece reminds me to pray equally that alternative models of care become available to all children. Scaling up the family-based model to serve children worldwide would be a challenge. But it’s one we have to tackle.

If you’d like to learn more about Coptic Orphans’ family-based model, which matches individual sponsors with fatherless children, please visit our page. If you’d like to help us promote awareness of the family-based model in your church, please send an email to