WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : FAMILY MATTERS : Alumni Offer Mixed Views on Whether Orphanages Are a Good Alternative to Welfare
Stanley F. Richards, a street kid from a broken home, went to the orphanage with a chip on his shoulder, but he got over it.
He served in World War II, picked up a college education and became one of the founders of PIP Printing.
Although as a boy he seemed well on his way to a life on the wrong side of the law, “things worked out fairly well in that respect,” says the Marina del Rey resident, 73, with a chuckle.
Richards flourished during his six years at Vista Del Mar in Cheviot Hills, also known as the Jewish Orphan’s Home of Southern California. Yet Richards is critical of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s proposed changes in the welfare system, which would fund orphanages instead of providing child-support payments for impoverished mothers.
Richards’ reasoning boils down to this: “It’s not fair . . . You can’t end up cutting off help where it’s needed.”
The welfare proposals outlined by GOP leaders in their “contract with America” are nothing if not controversial. Just try finding consensus among alumni of what were once the Westside’s two major orphanages--Vista Del Mar and Hollygrove, a secular orphanage in Hollywood originally called the Los Angeles Orphans Home. Both have long since been converted to treatment centers for abused children.
“I’d have to hear the specifics, but I can’t imagine it would be any worse (than the current situation),” said David N. Marder, 51, a Fairfax district insurance agent and broker, who spent much of the 1950s at Vista Del Mar after his family broke up.
“Too many people are having too many (children) they can’t take care of,” he said, referring to such social problems as rising numbers of welfare recipients and single mothers.
Under the GOP’s proposal, federal money now going to many young welfare mothers would be returned to the states instead, in the form of block grants. These funds could then be used for programs aimed at reducing out- of- wedlock pregnancies, promoting adoption, or establishing and operating orphanages and group homes for unwed mothers.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton recently dismissed the idea of “putting children into orphanages because their mothers couldn’t find jobs” as “unbelievable and absurd,” and Clinton Administration officials have attacked the proposal as a cruel hoax.
Oscar Gutierrez, 39, who lived at Hollygrove for two years in the late 1960s, said: “I think we have problems and there’s need to reform.
“But taking kids away from their mothers on a permanent basis, I probably would not go for that. . . . I was taken away from my mother when I was 13, and it caused lots of psychological problems, so I’m definitely against it from the parent’s point of view.”
But some alumni of local orphanages come down on the other side of the question, among them Phyllis Matzkin, who was at Vista Del Mar from 1938 to 1942.
“I’m no great fan (of Gingrich) . . . but listening to Newt, I agreed with him wholeheartedly,” said Matzkin, 70, of Huntington Beach, who recently retired after 30 years as a medical office manager. “These welfare moms, they can’t be ‘at-home’ moms,” she said. “That’s the reason these kids are out on the streets and get into the kind of trouble they do.”
Looking back, she said, she was lucky to grow up at the orphanage, even though it was not easy for her. Things were even worse for her younger brother, who bounced from one unhappy foster home to another, she said.
Their mother had died and their father was hospitalized with tuberculosis. She constantly fought with a cold and distant housemother at the orphanage, but she remembers happy moments too.
“I used to sneak out of the house at night with a dear friend who lived next door, at 4 a.m., and roam the streets, stealing flowers from people’s gardens and watching the sunrise,” she said. “Or we’d sneak out to the drugstore and sit on the curb and smoke cigarettes.”
Drastic measures may be needed to break the cycle of welfare, said Nancy Astin, 51, who spent her teen years at Vista after both her parents died.
“If a child is just going to have a child to get welfare, something should be done,” she said, “because welfare is only supposed to help for a while, and they’d be on welfare for the rest of their lives.”
At Vista in her day, Astin says, boys and girls lived on different sides of two-story cottages. To this day, said Astin, a driver’s license specialist for the Department of Motor Vehicles in Santa Monica, “I would do anything for anybody I knew from there. They were like brothers or sisters.
“The girls always did the cooking and the boys did the dishes,” she said. “I’d come down in the morning with curlers on and get teased. . . . We had a lot of fun.”
Still, despite the field trips, shows and athletics, she said, “there was not the love you’d get in an actual home, like the right foster home or your own home where you could sit next to your mother or father and have them put their arm around you.
“And you couldn’t con your mom or dad out of an extra couple of dollars. The counselors wouldn’t put up with that.”
Today, she said, a return to the old orphanage system might be good for some children, “better . . . than foster homes they put them in where they’re abused.”
The current controversy over orphanages was rekindled last week when Gingrich taped an introduction for a Dec. 29 cable-TV airing of the 1938 movie “Boys Town.” He praised the film for showing an “alternative to the modern welfare state.”
But like the original Boys Town in Nebraska, Vista and Hollygrove have ceased to be old-fashioned orphanages with 100 or more residents spending much of their childhoods together in dorm-style buildings.
Child welfare experts turned against the idea of large-scale orphanages in the 1950s, finding fault with the impersonal care and overcrowded conditions of many such institutions.
Former residents also complained about the regimentation of group living and the intense peer pressure to conform.
Instead, orphans and children of broken homes who have nowhere else to go are now referred to adoption services, foster care or group homes; former orphanages-- Vista and Hollygrove among them-- serve children who have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
Generally, these children are sent to such institutions by court order. They receive intense supervision and individual and family therapy in an effort to restore their trust in adults.
“They come in and lash out a lot in anger and defiance,” said Sarah Breding, director of social work at Hollygrove. “They get a lot (of) structure and tolerance.”
Stays are generally no longer than a few years, followed by a return home whenever possible, or placement in foster care or group homes.
Donald N. Edwards, 50, of Colton, knows both eras, as a resident of Hollygrove from age 4 to 10, and later as a house parent at a modern institution for more troubled youngsters.
He did well enough at Hollygrove, he said, while his mother, a wartime aircraft worker and later a secretary, and his father, who was in the Army, struggled with separation and divorce.
“For some of us, it was a very tragic and traumatic experience,” he recalls. “But other than the first few weeks or so of adjustment, by and large I became one of the little dictators out there.”
Despite the fresh air and sunshine at the home’s three-acre site in the heart of Hollywood, and the active support of movie colony figures including Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Hopalong Cassidy, “we all wanted to go home,” he said.
Edwards says he has mixed feelings about the welfare proposals in the “contract with America.” As a Republican, he said, he is disturbed by the harsh tone of some party members’ statements on the subject.
“To arbitrarily denote orphanages as the proper place to put these unsettled children smacks of cold fish in the bed, if you know what I mean--Mafioso tactics,” he said. “On the other hand, for some of the children, it’s going to be the best thing since Disneyland.”
Hollygrove’s Sarah Breding said she sees no replacement for a child’s natural parents, with an important proviso: “if they can get their act together.”
“It doesn’t make sense at all to think that if the mother is poor or underage, (it is right) to take the kid away,” she said. “That could be a really great mom. We’d really create a disturbed society if we did that.”
Added Jerry Zaslow, executive director of Vista Del Mar: “It’s scary to me that people are paying so much attention to this. It’s the epitome of the simple fix to a complex problem.”