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Trusting God’s Design of Family

I first moved to Thailand in 2009, because as a follower of Christ and a social worker, I felt deeply burdened to engage trafficking and child exploitation internationally. I joined a grassroots organization working along the Thailand-Myanmar border where thousands of Burmese people have fled due to violence and oppression in their own country.

Women and children were highly vulnerable and children from the slums were often begging or collecting recyclables from the rubbish bins. Because they often lacked legal identity, they were easy targets for exploitation. Through our drop-in center for children on the streets, we were a trusted resource and I became accustomed to the dark side of their realities. Among the most disturbing were the stories of children sold to traffickers or abandoned at orphanages by their own parents.

Although I knew orphanages were not the best option for children in the U.S., there was something about being in a foreign country notorious for sex tourism which made it seem like these children might be better off in long-term residential care than with families who didn’t seem to love their own children. It wasn’t until one of our regulars invited us over for dinner that my thinking began to change.

A team member and I were warmly welcomed into a tiny shack composed of scrap metal and wood. The only light came from candles lining the walls. We sat on the floor around a full spread of homemade Burmese dishes and I spent the entire evening in awe of what I observed.  Every space was used as efficiently as possible with clothes tightly folded in cabinets and sleeping mats tucked carefully away.

The most eye-opening observation though was the love and attachment I observed between the children and their mother. Throughout the evening, it was obvious that in the midst of their lack of material wealth, they were each other’s most prized possessions. That night led to weekly dinners with more families and what we learned is that these families cared deeply for their children, but their financial desperation often led them to make decisions which they believed were in their children’s best interests.

Traffickers did not tell parents that their children might end up in the sex industry or exploited for donations at a corrupt orphanage. Instead they tricked families by offering education programs, food security and a life far better than what the family could afford. Parents who left their children at orphanages often believed that would ensure their children a better life. They had no way of knowing the research about the harmful affects of institutionalization.

We know this is not unique to Thailand because global estimates show that there are eight million children living in orphanages, of which 80-90% have at least one living parent who could care for them if given the right support (U.S. Department of State, 2018).

Our main focus for the last 8 years has been strengthening families’ resilience to provide strong protection for their own children. We come alongside the most vulnerable families utilizing the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework, educating parents about external threats and helping them understand that they are a vital part of their children’s lives.

We also recruit and equip loving families for children who lack a safe family of their own.

Trusting God’s design of family is often difficult to do in light of extreme poverty. However, as reported in the recent release of the 2018 Trafficking in Persons report, children separated from their families are at increased vulnerability and experience greater levels of trauma throughout their life course.

As believers and social workers, we can trust that God is not making mistakes by allowing children to be born into poverty and we can challenge this social injustice by empowering families to stay together.

Ashlee Heiligman is a social worker who has worked in international child protection for the last ten years. She serves as the Executive Director of Global Child Advocates, a nonprofit which has been protecting women and children from abuse and trafficking in Thailand since 2008. Ashlee and Global Child Advocates have been members of NACSW since 2017.


U.S. Department of State (2018). Trafficking in persons report: Child institutionalization and human trafficking. Retrieved June 28, 2018: https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2018/282575.htm#3

8 thoughts on “Trusting God’s Design of Family

  1. This is so heartwarming and encouraging to read, Ashlee! God is using your Gospel shaped heart and social work values and skills to make a difference in this dark world. Yes to preserving families in order to fight sex trafficking, child exploitation, and abuse of all kinds. May God protect and bless you and everyone in this ministry.

    1. <Ashley is out of the country, but asked me to forward this comment on her behalf> Thank you so much for your encouragement and support, Kim! I am grateful that you agree that families can be the best protection for their children if given the right kind of support. I am actually in Thailand now visiting our teams and I am always so inspired to see all that God is doing to impact children and families despite the struggles and obstacles they are facing. God is good.

    1. <Ashley is out of the country, but asked me to forward this comment on her behalf> Thank you Kevin. I have truly enjoyed reading your posts on this blog as well!

  2. Beautiful example of social work working for social justice and seeing strength in the culture of those served. Thanks for sharing!

    1. <Ashley is out of the country, but asked me to forward this comment on her behalf> Thank you very much Terri. I am so grateful that our field is so closely aligned with the heart of Jesus. Social justice is woven throughout our scriptures and as social workers we get to represent the heart of Christ to vulnerable and marginalized populations. I am also grateful to be a part of this network of NACSW where this connection is celebrated.

  3. It was really hard for Ashlee's father and I to send Ashlee off with our blessings in 2009. She had a calling that we did not understand. She had been to Mae Sot before. She had seen the vulnerable street children and the young girls being used as commodities by tourist and even relief volunteers when she went to help after the Cyclone Nargis in 2008. We visited her in 2010 and we began to understand. Since that time we have prayed for this work and for the children and families in Mae Sot and Myanmar. We are amazed at what the Lord has accomplished through the work of staff and volunteers. They are a very dedicated group of people.

    1. Thanks for your message, Cindy. In your place, I am sure I would have had similar struggles if I had been in your place. I appreciate your faithfulness, and Ashlee's, to see this calling through, and join you in celebrating all the good that has come from Ashlee's commitment to this call!

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