Four years ago last month, Newt Gingrich set the tone for his contentious House speakership and probably set the stage for his resignation when he dared to suggest that some welfare children would be better off in private orphanages. In making his off-the-cuff comments, he ignited a media and policy firestorm, the general tone of which was best captured by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who dubbed the idea “unbelievable and absurd.”
In early 1995, Gingrich quietly conceded the issue to his critics. He did not know how right he was.
Over the past four years, an untold number of American children have endured Third World living conditions and the sordid consequences of their parents’ horrific life choices. Four million cases of serious child abuse have been substantiated. More than a million children have cycled through the foster care system. A hundred thousand or more American kids who were in foster care in late 1994 remain there today--and will be there into the next millennium.
Over the past four years, tens of thousands of children have been repeatedly taken from their abusive and neglectful parents only to be abused again, sometimes with greater force, by the nation’s child welfare system, which thinks nothing of separating brothers and sisters through a dozen or more foster care placements. These children have become seasoned troopers in what family court judges have come to call the “plastic bag brigade"--children who repeatedly show up in court for yet another placement with only a plastic bag in which to carry their possessions. They will never understand what other Americans mean by one of the most basic of human advantages: “home,” a permanent place to call their own. Ill-prepared for a productive life outside the foster care system, many will be turned loose at age 18 to relive the lives of their parents.
Forget for a moment whether you like or hate Gingrich (he’s gone!) and consider the possibility that he may have been right on this one. The nation’s child welfare system is a part of the problem, and some children’s problems could be solved, albeit imperfectly, by liberating the private charitable sector to do what it once did: care for the little ones in our midst through children’s homes.
Over the past four years, we’ve learned much that we didn’t know in late 1994. No doubt some orphanages of yesteryear were pretty bad places. No doubt some children in children’s homes were harmed by the experience. But that could be said of families and with even greater force of foster care. Moreover, as my survey of 1,600 orphanage alumni in 1994 and 1995 found, that dismissal of the orphanage option four years ago was far too quick, related more to ingrained and outdated Dickensian images of orphanage life a century ago than to the reality of the experiences most of the children had in their children’s homes.
The orphanage alumni in the survey, all of whom are now middle-aged and older, have done very well as a group, exceeding by a substantial margin the educational and economic accomplishments of their counterparts in the general population. The alumni have a 39% higher college graduation rate than other Americans in their age group, far more income and substantially lower unemployment, poverty and incarceration rates. Moreover, the vast majority (upward of 85%) look back favorably on their orphanage experience and attribute much of their life’s successes to what they learned about life, morality and work in their youths at the homes. Less than 3% view their experience unfavorably. Few pined for adoption.
With all due respect to the policy combatants in 1994, the issue today no longer is whether orphanages will return; they never went completely away. Moreover, new children’s homes, whether in the form of residential charter schools (publicly and privately supported schools that include long-term homes for disadvantaged teens) or SOS Children’s Villages (an international organization that has two homes in Miami and Chicago and is planning one in Los Angeles) are emerging. The California Lutheran Church is one of a number of private groups across the country planning to establish homes. This past spring, Minnesota agreed to set up a dozen “residential academies.” The movement is quiet and slow but unstoppable, because the need is so great.
There is much left to be done, however, to speed up the reemergence of private children’s homes. First, we must correct popular misconceptions. People must realize that if the orphanages of the past were all hellholes, their alumni would not continue to gather yearly in the hundreds and thousands across this country for homecomings, 40 and 50 years after their homes closed. Also, we need to work hard to deregulate much residential child care in order that modern children’s homes can become more numerous and more cost-effective. We need to free up the creative energies of American philanthropists. The Hershey children’s home in Pennsylvania, which now has 1,100 children and an endowment of more than $4 billion, stands as the late Milton Hershey’s working monument to what good deeds, not political rhetoric, can do for and through the lives of children.
If anyone wants to see what private deeds can do, go to Hershey and be amazed. Or visit the SOS Children’s Village in Florida or Illinois. You will wish that more disadvantaged kids could have the same opportunity to make a break from their sordid circumstances and chart a brighter future in such places. Then ask others in your community, church, synagogue and civic groups: “How can we make this happen?”