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A 19th-Century Solution Can Aid Abused Children

<i> Lois G. Forer recently retired from the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. Another version of her article appeared in the Washington Monthly</i>

April sat in the witness chair clutching a Cabbage Patch doll. In clear, precise language, accurately relating dates, times and places, this 10-year-old girl described the acts of sexual abuse she suffered for two years at the hands of her stepfather. The incidents occurred in the presence of her mother.

When called to the witness stand, her grandfather mumbled incoherently. Her mother, who has an IQ of 72, was unable to say more than “yes” or “nope” or “I dunno” to questions. April has an IQ of 146. No one knew the identity of her natural father.

This trial was heartbreaking and distasteful; the aftermath frustrating and appalling. I convicted the stepfather of statutory rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and sentenced him to 19 to 38 years, the maximum the law allowed. He will probably remain in prison until April is 18. But what will become of her in the important remaining years of childhood and adolescence, if she lives with her retarded mother and drunken grandfather? She has no choice. The policy of both governmental and private agencies is to keep families together.

Tyrone was beaten so severely by his father that neighbors called the police. A hospital doctor testified that he saw several deep, bloody wounds on the 8-year-old boy and presented X-rays of healed fractures and a diagram of Tyrone’s body showing the locations of more than 70 scars from old and recent beatings.

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The father, Robert, testified that he was just “disciplining” a bad boy. Tyrone’s evil conduct was wetting his bed.

The prosecutor recommended family counseling and probation rather than prison. Whether Robert was in prison or not, Tyrone would have to live with his mother, who had testified that Robert was a good and loving husband and father and that Tyrone was incorrigible. Again, no agency would even attempt to find placement for Tyrone--the family should be kept together.

Tony, 9, has no scars. Neither of his parents was arrested. They came to court voluntarily in a custody battle. They were divorced when Tony was 4 years old.

The father tells Tony his mother is a whore, an evil woman. The mother tells Tony his father will kill him, his stepfather and his half-brother. Tony twitches and stammers. He has twice attempted suicide. He is failing in school although he is brighter than the average child.

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Neither parent would consent to his hospitalization and no psychiatrist would present an opinion that Tony’s mental health was endangered by remaining with his mother and stepfather. Without such evidence I could not order the institutionalization of Tony. The rights of the family would be violated.

I gave Tony a paper and pencil and asked him to write a story while he was waiting in the anteroom during my conference with his parents. Tony wrote: “Dear God, please help me.”

These are but a few of the thousands of abused, neglected and homeless children I have seen during 16 years on the trial bench in Philadelphia and when I was a practicing lawyer. These children are white, black, Latino. Some are brilliant, others mildly retarded. Some are indigent, others middle class. What they have in common is a desperate need for a safe, permanent home.

Unfortunately, this is not a local problem but a national epidemic. Thirty states reported an increase of more than 50% in child abuse between 1980 and 1985. The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse reports that in 1986 at least 1,300 children died from neglect or abuse. In 1986, 2.2 million cases of child abuse were reported nationally. California has about 25,500 abused, neglected and abandoned children in protective custody.

Deaths and abuses occur not because social workers are uncaring (although some are) and not because judges fail to treat child abuse as a serious crime (although some do), but because there are no places for these children to live. For at least 25 years, Americans have been captivated by two concepts that have become accepted public policy: deinstitutionalization and preservation of the family. Both are worthy goals pursued to unworthy extremes.

I suggest that it is time for us to demand that government provide permanent, well-run orphanages for the more than 2 million abused children who are de facto orphans. It will be costly. However, we now spend billions in futile efforts to prevent child abuse, to find adoptive and foster parents and to pay them for temporary, uncertain and largely unsupervised care of helpless children.

We are also paying for inadequate shelters for tens of thousands who spend childhoods in a limbo of uncertainty, waiting in vain for a home. There is a high statistical probability that many of these abused children will become delinquent teen-agers and criminal adults. The money we save on their early care will later be spent on “correctional institutions.”

Deinstitutionalization and preservation of the family were once appropriate responses to real evils. Many mental institutions had become warehouses offering little therapy and less chance of release. And so, between 1963 and 1980, nearly 400,000 people were released from mental institutions in the naive expectation that “community-based” care would provide adequately for them. But fewer than 800 of the planned 2,000 community treatment centers were established. The result has been an enormous increase in the number of street people and the arrest and imprisonment of former inmates who are unable to function in society, creating an overload on available resources.

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The principle of deinstitutionalization has been extended to the field of child care, where it is now given that institutions are bad and private homes good. We cling to the notion that institutions for children are Dickensian places of evil and cruelty. However, even in Victorian England there were good orphanages.

In 19th-Century America, almost every community had publicly supported orphanages that resembled what we now call group homes. Children lived there and attended local public schools until they reached adulthood. Many became leading citizens, prominent in industry, government and the arts. They looked back on orphanage days as happy, secure and fulfilling. In some orphanages children were abused; in others they were hired out to work like indentured serfs. But abuse and mismanagement are not peculiar to orphanages, nor are such conditions inevitable.

There is a middle ground between institutions and families--foster homes. But it is a solution that has never proved adequate. Although extensive and expensive public-relations programs to recruit foster parents have been in effect for years, they have not produced nearly enough foster families to meet the need. Few sensible people will agree to take care of a strange child 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for pay of less than $5,000, with no vacation or sick leave and no fringe benefits. In California, for example, foster families are paid $2,528 per year for infants to $4,944 for older teen-agers. From this sum they must feed, clothe and house the foster child.

After the public outcry about the death of little Matthew Eli Creekmore of Seattle, kicked to death by his father despite repeated intervention by state workers, more than 5,000 children were removed from abusive homes in Washington state. But authorities could find foster homes for only 3,800.

And there is no assurance that foster placement will provide even a modicum of care, security and permanence for the child. Public institutions are answerable to the public. They can be inspected regularly by public officials. Committees of private citizens can act as overseers and keep a careful eye on orphanage operations. It is difficult and expensive for social workers to inspect foster homes at frequent intervals. Consider the case of Joseph Huot, age 2, placed in the foster care of a man who had pleaded guilty seven years earlier to rape, aggravated assault and burglary. Joseph died of brain injuries two months after being placed there. The foster parents were arrested and charged with murder.

There is a working alternative to this deplorable situation. In 1964, Dr. Karl Menninger, the psychiatrist, established the first village for homeless and abused children. There are now 16 villages in Kansas and Indiana. No child needs to leave a village until he or she reaches adulthood. On one of my visits to a village, a wedding was taking place. A young man who had spent his adolescence there came back to his “home” to be married.

Most communities do not have a children’s village. Some cities have group homes, but not nearly enough to meet the need. Few are more than temporary shelters; in California, the average stay in placement in May, 1988, was about 20 months. Where do the children go when they leave? In Los Angeles alone, officials say they need to double the 3,900 licensed foster homes to keep up with demand.

Not all institutions are bad, not all families are good. Nor are all foster parents good or bad. There is really no way of knowing. Caring foster parents rarely make the headlines; those who abuse and kill do.

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When Elizabeth Steinberg of New York was beaten to death by the man who was supposedly her adoptive father and Matthew Eli Creekmore was kicked to death by his natural father, the deaths made headlines. Such cases tear the hearts of Americans. “How can such things happen in a civilized country?” people ask.

We can do better. Bring back the orphanage.


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