The Orphanage: Boon or Burden? by Kyler Hood

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Thursday, May 27, 2010

In 1996, when Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, proposed creating orphanages in order to provide care for children from broken homes, Hillary Clinton dismissed the idea as, “Absurd and unbelievable.” Indeed, even now, people shudder at the Dickensian word, the grey walls, the barbed wire fences, the slop in a tin bowl, the red hair, the matching outfits, and the wish that that one little word, “orphan” could be brushed away  with the soot from the chimney. But, the problem remains. In modern times, the United States remedies the problem of children in need of a stable home environment with the concept of “permanency planning” as established by the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. Unfortunately, permanency planning’s underlying goal of family reunification does not work for all or even most of today’s children in need; more access to permanent residential facilities and/or therapeutic schools is necessary.

 The first orphanage in the United States was created, “in 1729 by Ursuline nuns, to care for children orphaned by an Indian massacre at Natchez, Mississippi” (Weisman, 44). Afterwards, the establishment of orphanages increased steadily during wartime (especially the Civil War) and with the onset of the epidemics of the time. Orphanages were often understaffed with little oversight, sometimes orphans were even housed with inmates, so the horrific stories of abuse and neglect in orphanages became a reality. With the dawn of Progressivism, orphanages were abolished and the foster care system was implemented.

 Unfortunately, the children that end up in the foster care system nowadays face a different set of problems then they did when orphanages were first established. Karen Hood, an active foster-adopt-parent and court appointed special advocate explains the situation, “Foster care—the broken homes that we see—is almost always the result of drugs.” Drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine are more prevalent than they were in the past. Babies are addled with drugs at an early age, even in the mother’s womb. The result is the so-called “‘children of rage’…Some of them take antidepressants and drugs to control hyperactivity. In addition to behavior and attachment disorders… (some children also have or develop) neurobiological problems” (Weisman, 44). Children with these multi-faceted difficulties do not fit nicely into a foster family placement, (i.e. the no problem category according to current policy), and/or the temporary respite, no family category (i.e. problem category). As a result, some children bounce from one foster family to another in the hopes of uniting with a family ultimately to be released into the world with no family to speak of at the age of 18. To effectively deal with children in need, children will need more access to residential facilities because for some that is the best option (i.e. so they are not a threat to themselves or the people they live with). 

Ultimately, family reunification is emphasized because it is the cheapest means to deal with children from broken homes. The researcher Mary-Lou Weisman reports:

 In New York state, for example, where all forms of child care are especially costly, regular foster care costs about $39 a day per child. “Therapeutic” foster care, for which parents are trained and paid extra to deal with difficult children, costs $92. Stays in group homes cost $130 a day per child, residential treatment costs $135, and a day in a psychiatric hospital costs $800 (51).

These costs, however, don’t reflect money spent on prisons, and costs for due process because outside the army (a key draw for many children passing though child protective services because of its institutional structure), which many children with neurobiological problems are ineligible for anyway, so the children most often end up in the prison system. And in these economic times, the numbers don’t look good:

In fiscal year 2008, nearly one in every 18 state general fund dollars was spent on corrections, according to NCSL fiscal data. The annual cost to state general funds was nearly $40 billion. The Public Safety Performance Project collected prison population projections from the states in 2008 and reported that, if nothing changed, prison expenditures would rise by a cumulative $27.5 billion by 2011 (Lawrence, 15). 

“Permanency planning” should no longer be the sole criterion for children in the foster care system. The best interests of each child should be considered in light of their individual situations. More children will likely be bounced around the foster care system, but child mobility must be limited as much as possible. Policy makers must therefore decide upon some appropriate threshold at which children will be placed in a permanent residential facility. The emotional trauma of these children, the corresponding societal fallout, and the potential success created by more access to residential facilities is neither absurd nor unbelievable, but very real. It’s time lawmakers did something about it.

Works Cited

Gates, David. “History of the Orphanage.” Newsweek 12 Dec. 1994: 33. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2010.

Lawrence, Alison. “CRIME COSTS.” State Legislatures 35.3 (2009): 15. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2010.   <http://>.

“Newt’s Also Right on Orphanages.” Human Events 50.48 (1996): 6. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2010.

“Phone Interview with Karen Hood.” Interview by Kyler Hood. 26 May 2010. Print.

Weisman, Mary-Louis. “When Parents Are Not in the Best Interest of the Child.” Atlantic Monthly 274.1 (1994): 42-63. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2010.

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