McKenzie on Child Welfare
* Richard McKenzie’s article on child welfare (“Gingrich Was Right About Orphanages,” Commentary, Dec. 24) is invaluable to children in child welfare systems. I just completed my master’s research at the University of Chicago on the history of child welfare, and the only problem with McKenzie’s piece (other than soiling the idea of private philanthropy by attaching it to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans) is that it doesn’t say enough about the importance of freedom in child welfare work.
In the late 1800s, children in need were served by a dizzying array of specialized options. The “market” provided children’s homes for orphans and for parented children, for Catholics, Jews, Protestants and many other denominations, for Lithuanians, Poles, Italians and countless other national origins. All of this, with virtually no government influence. The few homes operated by the state were infamous for their deplorable conditions.
Then, as governments are known to do, the state began taking over, and children have been suffering ever since.
Having worked in the L.A. County child welfare system some years, I agree with McKenzie that the sense of stability and belonging that comes from a permanent home is vital to a healthy upbringing, even if that “home” is institutional.
However, I was puzzled by the statement that “we need to work hard to deregulate much residential child care” in order to encourage the proliferation of such homes. The danger is that without careful regulation and well-established standards, such homes operated by private groups can easily fall prey to the profit motive and become simply warehouses for unwanted children.
Institutional homes can be a very valuable component of a successful child welfare system, to serve those children whose homes cannot be rehabilitated and for whom adoption is not an option. Foster homes and group homes are licensed and supervised, but are suitable only for short-term placements. Residential treatment facilities for dysfunctional youth are well-regulated, but are too expensive to use for custodial care.
NORMAN W. NIELSEN