Do We as a Society Take Care of Children from Short-Term Foster Care or Orphanages?
August 8, 2004 5:39 PM   Subscribe

I've been thinking about orphans and I'd like more information—mostly first-hand anecdotal. But anything is fine. [more inside]

Context will help, I think, in making clear why I'm asking this question and what kind of info I'm looking for. I grew up in a small town that had at least three "children's homes"—all with religious affiliations. There were always kids that lived in the children's homes in school, but they were always somewhat apart from the rest of the us.

When I was about eight or so, my mom was friends with a woman that had two daughters about my age. I don't remember much about them. I liked them well enough, as I recall. A year or so later, on my bus to, um, sixth grade I think, I saw the two girls and learned from them that they were living in the children's home. They said that their mom was too poor to take care of them. This shocked me to my core.

Later, all the way through high school, there were always people that we knew were from the homes. Maybe at first we didn't know, but eventually it'd come up. None of these kids were ever popular in the least. Some were hated outcasts, but most, I think, we just sort of invisible.

I know that older kids are rarely adopted.

As an adult, the only person I've ever known who grew up in an orphanage was one 18 year-old kid who worked for me when I managed a retail store 16 years ago. This is the only person I've ever known who grew up an orphan.

When I was started thinking about this the other night, I got more and more disturbed and sad by my sense that these are forgotten kids that grow up to be forgotten people. This has really been bothering me. I'm well aware of the kids that grow up in different foster homes, and all the problems surrounding that system. But how come we don't hear about kids in orphanages? Is it that the majority of kids are in foster homes nowadays? Kids who grow up in orphanages and shorter-term foster homes—how much are the odds stacked against them? What are the stats? Why are there not more affirmative action type programs for people from these backgrounds being that it's hard to imagine (other than inner-city drugs/ghetto upbringings) childhoods that are more disadvantaged?
posted by Ethereal Bligh to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There is a Professor of Enterprise and Society in the Grad School of Management at UC, Irvine who was raised an orphan. He's written a book about the experience called The Home which looks quite interesting. A lot of his work has been on the subject of orphanages including a fairly recent movie [there is a good list of "additional writings" as part of that site there, including writings by other orphans. He has a book online called Rethinking Orphanages which I've been reading through as I've been typing this and it looks good as well. For other orphanage reading, this page gives a good history of where and when orphanages sprung up in this country and Canada. According to that page, orphanages have been mostly phased out in this country, at least state- or religious-run ones

In the 1950s and 1960s attitudes towards child care slowly started to change. Society believed that children do better in a family environment and gradually the closures of orphanages in the 1960-1975 period gave rise to foster care and group homes all over North America. The debate continues as people offer ideas on how to raise parentless or neglected children. Unclaimed children continue to face unanswered questions. Most were denied a known ancestry or family history and this seems to be the most destructive thing of all.

I always think of this story from Ftrain when I think of orphanages.
posted by jessamyn at 6:17 PM on August 8, 2004

My dad actually grew up an orphan, and spent time in a Catholic orphanage when he was a little kid. (This was way back in the 1920s--he turns 90 in a couple of months, and is thankfully still in tremendous health.)

He was also tremendously lucky--after a few years in the orphanage, he started shuttling around the extended family, who mainly lived on farms, had large families, and could pretty easily absorb having a close cousin stay with them for long periods. So I grew up very close to his extended family, which was great, but you've always been able to tell that he kind of grew up on the outside of things. He was actually a bachelor for a very long time before he met my mom, and while he's a great guy, and has been a great dad, he's always been very, very unassuming--hates making a scene, adamently refuses to confront anyone that could be construed as an "authority".

Part of that is clearly the "fear of God" that was drilled into him in the church orphanage--imagine growing up in a place like that, during the Depression--but part of it is also clearly a sense of "not belonging". I'm sure there are many, many successful stories of orphans who have done just fine, and many folks probably have the complete opposite reaction my dad did, and become more assertive rather than less. Nevertheless, I can't imagine how must harder it must be for kids who grew up without the larger extended family he had to support him...not to pity them, but to reiterate your own basic sympathies, EB.
posted by LairBob at 6:21 PM on August 8, 2004

Wow, you don't ask small questions, do you?

I cannot begin to give you a complete answer but can suggest a few small pieces. The social services system in the U.S. has largely abandoned the idea of orphanages, at least in name. Now they're called group homes, which are collective, staffed foster homes (as opposed to family foster homes, which are, I suspect, what most picture picture when they think of a "foster home"). Some house only 6 or 8 kids, some house hundreds at a time. As in the past, kids are placed for a variety of reasons, not just by being orphaned (ex. abuse, neglect, voluntary surrender, parents' unavailability while in prison or rehab, etc.) While orphanages do still exist, a child today is far more likely to be placed in a foster home or with a relative; for those who are deemed "adoptable," newer laws have greatly streamlined the process to move them into permanent homes as swiftly as possible. Basically, the mainstream social services thinking is that what's best for children is to get into a permanent home as quickly as possible, so either there's going to be a lot of effort to reunify the birth family if that's an option, or else find a relative to assume custody, or else get the child on a bullet train towards adoption. That's the goal, anyway. Of course the reality is that it rarely work out so smoothly for any of the available options. But warehousing kids indefinitely in institutions where no one has a personal/familial bond with them is generally considered the least desireable alternative, regardless of what name you want to call it.

By the way, when Newt Gringrich at one point in the mid '90s suggested that the best "welfare reform" would be to reinstitute the orphanage system there was a brief period of debate in the media. A good newspaper database should be able to turn up articles from that period that would surely have more perspective to share.

In America, on any given day, there are over 500,000 children and youth in foster care. From babies to teenagers, foster care provides those young people with a safe, secure and stable home. Between 1986 and 1996, the number of children in foster care jumped 90%, while the number of foster families fell by 3%.

Each year more than 20,000 - 25,000 youth reach their 18th birthday and age out of foster care."

(That page also links to many of the programs providing support services to foster children and former foster children.)
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:08 PM on August 8, 2004

By the way, if you feel moved to do something personal to affect the care of children in foster care, CASA is a program I cannot recommend enough. It's definitely micro level, but it's a chance to genuinely intervene in the f**cked up conditions in which many kids must live because the social services agencies are just stretched too appallingly thin to serve as effective watchdogs. In the case of CASA, the children being helped are those who'd already entered the system as victims and then in a well-intentioned attempt at protection they may end up being in circumstances where they are vulnerable to brand new kinds of victimization--this time without even whatever support system had been available for them back at home.

Also, if by "older children" you meant 8 year olds, then yes you're right about that: they're much harder to get adopted by the time they've reached such a ripe old age. Same for kids who are non-white, want to stay together with other brothers or sisters, or have physical or mental disabilities.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:38 PM on August 8, 2004

Link for CASA:
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:52 PM on August 8, 2004

Concerning foster care: In Seattle, we have a small paper by and about kids in foster care. It is produced by The Mockingbird Society and you can read the current issue here.(pdf) I've learned a lot about the system--what it's like seeking healthcare, the strains on foster parents, how holidays like Christmas are handled very differently depending on the group home, what kids think should be changed, etc.
posted by lobakgo at 8:11 AM on August 9, 2004

my great-grandfather was not an orphan, but cook county kept treating him (and one of his younger siblings) like one. we all grew up hearing the story of how he and his sister walked back to chicago from the orphanage in wisconsin.

this, of course, was 100 years ago, but one of the essential tensions between orphanages and foster homes remain: the goal of foster care is (for the most part) giving the kids a home until the family unit can be restored; and the goal of orphanages is raising children until a new family unit for them can be found. there is a school of thought (sorry, i couldn't find web links, but it's something that came up often while i was working in the juvenile courts) which condemns how the modern foster care system has replaced the old orphanage system because children who truly need a clean break from the family from which they were removed do not get it under foster care (which often includes visits with the parents from whom the children have bern removed).
posted by crush-onastick at 4:36 PM on August 9, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:17 AM on August 11, 2004

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