Close Look Suggests Role of Orphanage a Complex One : Children: Politicians see an easy solution. But needs of today’s neglected youths are not amenable to a quick fix.


A soft-spoken teen-ager sat on the couch in the group home where he has lived for three years and described why sometimes, despite all the attention he receives from the staff, he cannot control his temper.

“I can be very nice one minute, and the next minute I can blow off the handle,” said Terrence, 16, who has lived in foster homes and residential care facilities since he was a toddler. “It happens when I think about my past. Why did it have to be me going to a group home? Why aren’t I going home every night to see my mama, like the other kids?”

Seven hundred miles away, at Atlanta’s Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, young residents had similar thoughts. Sure, said 8-year-old Lakeisha, she’d love some toys and dolls and pretty new clothes for Christmas. But what she really wanted was to be living back at home with her mother, brother and sister.

“Yeah, I like this place. It’s fine,” she said. “But I’d rather be home.”


Unfortunately, for Terrence and Lakeisha and tens of thousands of others like them across the country, home is not an option. Neglected, abused or abandoned by their parents, they are what experts call “social orphans,” and many live in the modern-day equivalent of old-fashioned orphanages.

Now, both the children and the institutions are being thrust into the spotlight as a result of the growing national debate over welfare reform. And a close look at the evidence suggests that the question of what role orphanages--and similar forms of group foster care--can or should play in dealing with the children of poverty is far more complicated than politicians of all stripes make it sound.

Certainly orphanages don’t seem promising as a device for making welfare cheaper. At an average annual cost of $36,000 per child, group homes are more costly than a year at an elite college. And experts are in agreement that under normal circumstances the best place for children is with their parents.

On the other hand, crack cocaine, random violence, street gangs, runaway fathers, teen-age mothers and other factors are pushing so many children into acutely dangerous situations that something akin to orphanages may be their only hope.


Expensive as they may be, in the long run group homes may prove cheaper than the alternatives.

Political conservatives started the argument by suggesting that orphanages could be the answer for children whose parents are cut off the dole by welfare reform and cannot support them. Incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) fanned the rhetorical flames by suggesting that if First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was appalled by the notion of bringing back orphanages, she should watch the 1938 Spencer Tracy-Mickey Rooney film “Boys Town.”

Indignant liberals declared that separating parents and children would be unconscionable in all but the most extreme situations. Policy experts added that institutional care is prohibitively expensive.

Johnnie Melton, who directs two group homes in Chicago, fiercely defends the institutions but says they are no place for a child with loving parents. “To remove a child from a family--no matter how poor--a child feels it has been punished. We’ve created more problems than we’ve solved,” she said. “There’s all this talk about family values and now they’re talking about splitting up families. It’s very contradictory.”

“I have calculated I’d have to take 10 families off welfare to fund one child in the lowest-cost institution,” said Gary Stangler, human services director of the American Public Welfare Assn. “We decided some years ago that what we really have to talk about is strengthening families. It’s so much cheaper.”

In the face of this counterattack, many conservatives have edged away from the orphanage idea. “I think the states aren’t going to go that route,” said Rep. James M. Talent (R-Mo.), who drafted several sections of the GOP plan for welfare reform, which lists the construction and operation of orphanages as one way states can use funds that would otherwise go to teen-age mothers. The GOP plan would deny teen-age mothers cash benefits in an attempt to discourage out-of-wedlock births.

“It’s a non-issue,” said Doug Besharov, a former child-welfare official and now a senior policy analyst at the conservative Enterprise Foundation research center. “For some kids it works. But it’s a perversion of a good idea to use it broadly.”

However, the number of children who meet the experts’ definition of those who might be helped by institutional care is rising at an alarming rate.


According to government studies and independent analysts, the number of children suffering from severe parental abuse and neglect has swollen by more than 50% nationwide since the late 1980s. According to the House Ways and Means Committee, there were 273,000 such children nationwide in 1986. Now there are between 480,000 and 490,000.

In Illinois, the “social orphan” population has more than doubled in size since 1990, to 45,000 today.

“I attribute those big figures to narcotics,” said the Rev. John P. Smyth, a priest who runs the Maryville Academy, a 98-acre institution outside Chicago. “We’ve always had the poor. We’ve always had dysfunctional families. But I’ve been here 32 years and I’ve never seen the neglect and violence and harm that parents today do to kids.”

Foster care, the living arrangement for the majority of “social orphans,” is much less expensive. But each year more and more children are placed in group homes because their problems are too severe to be dealt with in conventional foster homes.

That is why in 1989, sociologist Joyce Ladner, now the interim president of Howard University, proposed “an institution that many had hoped would never be needed again: the orphanage,” as an alternative to a child-welfare system that she called “woefully out of touch with the sorry realities that confront many children.”

Today, many group homes occupy the space of former orphanages, but there the similarity ends.

For one thing, adult-to-child ratios are far smaller than in the orphanages of the past and services, such as psychiatric treatment, are plentiful.

Most of those who live in group homes are victims of parents who are substance abusers. Many have suffered multiple forms of physical and sexual abuse. As a result, most distrust adults, many are accustomed to stealing to meet their needs and almost all require round-the-clock supervision.


Although many of these children long to be with their parents--or perhaps more accurately, with the people they wish their parents really were--institutional care is far better than the situations they leave behind.

Terrence, for instance, worries about his younger brothers who stayed home with their mother and are now growing up surrounded by drugs and gangs. (Because Terrence and the other children quoted in this story are legally wards of the state, only first names or pseudonyms can be used.)

“They’re going to fall into it. You step out of the house and someone is selling drugs or trying to get you to sell stuff for them,” said Terrence, whose group home is located in a middle-class Chicago residential neighborhood. “Here I have a better outlook of what I need to do to become somebody.”

He is not alone.

In the Chicago suburb of Des Plains, Jennifer, 12, lives in the Maryville Academy, a facility that for decades looked a lot like the orphanages of old but today is a model of the modern approach to residential child care.

A year ago, Jennifer was watching a television program on incest and realized that she had to talk to someone about her own life. “My dad abused me and my brother for a long time--longer than I can remember,” she said recently. A gangly girl whose easy smile disappeared when she spoke of her family, Jennifer recalled the turning point: “After what (TV talk show host) Oprah (Winfrey) said, I decided to tell my best friend.”

The Maryville Academy, Jennifer said, is far better than living with her alcoholic, abusive parents. The foster situation she was in for several months after leaving home did not give her the regular therapy sessions or the other support that she receives now.

“Done for the right reasons and by the right people,” said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, “it may be an act of charity and mercy for some children to put them in institutions.”

Some experts contend that some states’ child-welfare systems put too high a priority on keeping children with their biological parents--sometimes to the detriment of children.

“If you look at outcome data to see if the children are more or less abused, do better or worse in school, you can find very little data to show that working hard to keep the kids with their parents helps,” said James Q. Wilson, a UCLA professor of management and public policy.

Nevertheless, Wilson said, the word orphanage is so loaded that it reverberates “like a hand grenade at a dinner party.”

Traditional orphanages, where dozens of children slept in one room, were established in the United States in the late 19th Century as an alternative to so-called poorhouses, where abandoned children were warehoused with adults. But in time, orphanages also proved unsatisfactory. And by the end of the 1970s, traditional orphanages had become all but extinct.

“They were not appropriate places for children to develop mentally,” said Barbara Bloom, whose job in the late 1960s and 1970s was to close down orphanages in New York state. “The evidence was so blatant (that) we assumed we’d never revisit the issues.”

Boys Town, for instance, no longer looks anything like the images in the movie Gingrich cited. For two decades it has been a campus of group homes where children receive individual care.

Following Boys Town’s lead, in the mid-1970s, the Maryville Academy replaced its huge 30-bed dormitories and massive cafeteria with a cluster of group homes. Nine boys or girls are matched up with house parents, who live round-the-clock with the children. The house parents are aided in raising the children by staff and mental health specialists.

Such intensive staffing is necessary because three-quarters of the girls and half of the boys have been sexually abused. Most have been physically abused and neglected as well.

The key to helping such children emerge from their emotional trauma is creating an environment where they can learn to form bonds with individual adults, whom they can gradually learn to trust and depend on for security and affection, according to Smyth and child-welfare experts around the country.

The girls who live with Christina Diaz, one of the surrogate parents at the Maryville Academy, do not hesitate when asked what she means to them.

“She’s a mother,” several preteen girls answered as they sat around a long dining room table doing homework, writing Christmas lists and passing notes about boys.

“It teaches us what a family is,” Dawn, an eighth-grader, said about the household where she lives with eight other girls and Diaz. “I didn’t know what a family is. Having a family is great.”

Dawn, who was abused by her parents and then bounced around to various foster homes before she landed in the Maryville Academy five years ago, said she is not leaving until she goes to college.

“It teaches us a lot about how to live, and that’s one of the things kids need,” she said. “There’s also a lot of loving and caring, and that’s the other thing kids need.”

This is where the orphanages of old failed.

“I think we fell short on the psychological end,” Smyth said. “We didn’t know any better. But now we do.”

At the United Methodist Children’s Home in Decatur, Ga., administrator Beverly O. Cochran boasts that in 26 years, he has never turned a child away. But the needs that send young people to the 100-acre campus near Emory University have changed--and consequently, so has the 123-year-old institution, which was first established to care for the children of those killed in the Civil War.

In an attempt to keep siblings together, for example, a co-ed cottage now houses brothers and sisters. An independent-living cluster allows some 18-year-olds to try out autonomy while under supervision. Four townhouse apartments provide interim shelter for homeless families, even offering storage of furniture.

Except for official functions, the large communal dining room goes unused. Instead, in a further attempt to simulate traditional family life, meals are prepared and eaten in individual cottages, each of which houses eight to 15 children.

Once a week, residents of all the cottages meet to voice grievances and share successes.

All the coziness in the world cannot entirely mask the fact that these are troubled children living in an institutional setting. Children who fail to respond to a four-tiered system of privileges and punishments are placed in lockup--the children’s equivalent of solitary confinement--though for no longer than a day.

Saturday morning cottage cleanups are followed by careful inspections, with rewards and reprimands handed out in equal measure. And every Wednesday, psychiatrists come to call--hardly the routine at the surrounding houses in the comfortable residential neighborhood.

In terms of size and funding, the Methodist home is on a par with the best such institutions nationwide. It spends $36,000 a year for each of the 65 to 70 boys and girls ages 6 to 18 who live at the facility, one of three Methodist-sponsored homes in Georgia.

But with the growing demand for care outside the home, “we’re looking at two issues here,” Cochran said. “One, what is best for the children? And two, how are you going to pay for it?”

Across town, in Atlanta’s predominantly African American Adamsville district, the question of money weighs even more heavily at the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, which must make do on a considerably leaner budget.

There, the 85 to 90 boys and girls are all wards of the county or state, which provides per diem expenses of $25.89 for each child. Additional funds come from charitable contributions, primarily United Way. But the small allotment puts the institution at the low end of the economic spectrum among group homes.

Still, the 5- to 18-year-olds, who live here for average stays of 18 months to three years, appear robust and well cared for. Most are African American, and virtually all come from abusive homes. Along with large quantities of hugs from the staff, all children receive some form of psychotherapy. The hearty repasts in the big dining room are so legendary that neighborhood children sometimes show up at mealtime, asking if they can live at the home too.

The home is named for an African American maid who scrubbed floors at the Atlanta train station after the Civil War. As foundlings began to appear on benches during Reconstruction, Steele took them into her own home. Her will provided the funds for what began as a traditional orphanage--dozens of parentless children and a few starchly attired matrons.

Now, despite the bare-bones budget, great care is taken to provide a homey environment in what is unquestionably a crowded facility. As many as 20 children reside in each of the low brick cottages dotting the facility’s 17 pine-filled acres. Cared for by house parents who rotate in four-day shifts, the children live clustered by age and sex.

Filled with such items as stuffed animals for the youngest children and rock music posters for teen-agers, the neat little houses are pink and green and smell of disinfectant. Cleanliness and order are top priorities, and even the youngest residents must participate in a carefully structured task system.

No one escapes the chores. “Unless you are ill, you get up and you work,” said Olivette Allison, the home’s 70-year-old administrator.

The four bunks in each bedroom are made up each day with near-military precision. The children are expected to maintain equally high standards of personal hygiene.

“We make sure that everyone is neatly groomed and bathed every day, because when you smell good, you act good,” Allison said. “We believe in beautiful manners and self-control and self-respect.”

An ample woman who stretched her arms out expansively as she described her facility’s mission, Allison came to the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home nearly 60 years ago when her family came apart during the Great Depression. She said she has worked with 10,000 children in the course of her career.

The institution, she argued, is a crucial component of the social welfare system. “You’ve got to have a neutral setting that is built on warmth, love, God and respect.”