Are There Orphanages In The United States?

You know, I have had this same question pop into my head every so often, when my mind would wander to my birth mom, who was born in 1939 and actually placed into The Immaculate Conception Orphanage of Lodi, NJ. I would wonder what the orphanage was like, what the children were like, what the Polish Nuns were like that ran it. Then my mind would switch to wondering if there were any orphanages today.

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My birth mom as a young girl.

Of course, the answer was right at my fingertips, literally. I typed the question into Google: Are There Orphanages in the United States? The first answer that came up was on another adoption website. The answer was to the question: Do Orphanages Still Exist in America?

There are no longer traditional orphanages like the one my birth mom Joanie was placed into or like the orphanage that the movie Annie depicted. Foster homes have taken the place of orphanages. Over the years, due to adoption policies and children protection regulations and laws, orphanages began to phase out. It became evident that the children’s health and hygiene were lacking, and the orphanages were overcrowded. Foster homes have laws to follow, to assist in preventing overcrowded homes. Foster care is a government-funded program. They get aid to assist in giving the children healthcare, clothes to wear, food to eat, and good hygiene practices. When I think about foster homes, and I think about orphanages, I think one could call a foster home an orphanage, and the foster children orphans. Or at least, I thought the word orphan and foster child were reversible. According to UNICEF’s definition though, an orphan is someone under the age of 18 who has lost one or both parents to death of any cause. I realize the words orphanage and orphans are words of the past. Just like everything else in life, words that are linked to the world of adoption have evolved. Foster homes are also not as institutionalized as orphanages. They do not have as many children who need forever homes.

Are There Orphanages in the United States or Internationally?

I have a friend that adopted children from Haiti, and she had a blog about her adoption experience, and she spoke often about the orphanage the three children were at that she adopted. The orphanage was what I envisioned in my mind when she first mentioned standing outside of it. The orphanage had ladies that were responsible for taking care of the children, and there were multiple children’s quarters and multiple buildings that made up the orphanage. The orphanage was not in the United States though.

So are there orphanages in the United States? Well, you won’t find an active orphanage in the United States, unless you consider a foster home an orphanage. One can find orphanages in many other countries. Asia has the largest number of orphans of all continents, a staggering 61 million as of 2015. There are many families that choose to adopt overseas, and many times those children overseas are in orphanages. I can tell you based on research I have done that orphanages in the United States had some of the same problems orphanages overseas face today. Overcrowding, lack of healthcare, and lack of personal attention and love for the orphans. There is a movement that has been going on for years now to put an end to government-run orphanages. In Russia, there once were over 100,000 orphanages, and is now down to about 7,000. The hope is to have zero in Russia by 2023.

Are There Orphanages in the United States? Where Did The Orphanages Go?

This movement is following in the footsteps of the United States back in the early 1900s when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Roosevelt understood that orphans needed to be cared for differently, better than many were treated in orphanages. Theodore Roosevelt is one of the main influencers of the foster care system. It took many years in the United States to have orphanages become a talking piece in history class, but it did happen. Now the United States has the foster care system, which is constantly changing and evolving, trying to meet the needs of children who need forever homes. Children in foster care all have needs, some similar to one another, and some unique to individuals. One need is constant throughout every single child though. The need for love and permanency.

Are There Orphanages in the United States: My Birth Mom’s Experience

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Credit: The Immaculate Conception Orphanage Facebook page. This is the Immaculate Conception Orphanage of Lodi, NJ.

The year was 2013 when I discovered my birth mom was in an orphanage after she was born. Her 76-year-old brother relayed the information to me. After I talked to my birth uncle, I researched The Immaculate Conception Orphanage of Lodi, NJ. At that moment in my life, I held my breath as the internet researched my request. I slowly exhaled as a Facebook group came up for this orphanage. It is no longer an orphanage, but this group was comprised of individuals that once belonged to that orphanage. This group had people ages 50 and older. I got to glimpse at what made up a United States orphanage. I started off by messaging the group with a post stating my birth mom had belonged to the orphanage. Within the day, I had received messages asking for her name, and then one gave me the name of a nun who used to work at the orphanage, and who may be able to help me discover who my birth mom was as a child. I called the nun, and we spoke. She told me she would look through the archives and see if she could find any paperwork or file on my birth mom. A week later, that nun kept her word. She called me back, and to hers and my disappointment, she had been unable to find any paperwork on my birth mom. She did tell me though that if my birth mom was a child in the orphanage, she was well taken care of, and she was loved by the nuns.  This painted a picture of a place that was well-run, where the children who were there had clean clothes, were fed well, and were loved. I do realize I am not referring to the children in this orphanage as orphans, and that is because I know for a fact, based on the UNICEF definition of an orphan, my birth mom was not an orphan. Both of her parents were still alive. Her mom had fallen in love with another man, and my uncle had been raised by their father and grandmother. When my birth mom was born, her mom wanted to be with the other man, not my birth mom’s father. So, because my uncle was already being raised by his dad and grandmother, to have another little child to raise was too much for his grandmother. So, my birth mom was sent to an orphanage.

I have read over articles that state how children in orphanages don’t always receive the attention they should, and the love they so desperately need. They more often than not suffer trauma. Why you may ask? Trauma can be due to many reasons. Some orphans have lost a loved one, which is why they are in the orphanage, while others suffer trauma in the orphanage itself. Trauma in the orphanage can be caused by a high turnover of caregivers, and the children never gain a sense of permanence when it comes to those whose job it is to care for them while they are in the orphanage. Some orphans experience trauma due to lack of permanency when potential adoptive families come to visit them, to see if they are the child/children they will choose to be their forever family. Imagine having different families from different backgrounds come to visit you, and hang out with you. They center all of their attention on you, and you may know why, or if you are a toddler, maybe you have no clue, but they are just happy adults are paying attention to you. My friend, who adopted three siblings from Haiti, she talks in her blog about how excited her three children she adopted were when they would visit. Her children had a happy ending. They came to live with her in the end. Some children in orphanages overseas are not so lucky. Potential parents and families come to see them, but then for a multitude of reasons end up not adopting them. Sometimes they choose another child, or other children in the same orphanage to adopt. The latter can lead to children having those feelings of abandonment all over again. First, their biological families, and now, a possible forever family.

I recall learning about the orphanage where my birth mom stayed. I spoke with those who had endured time there. They told me tales of getting dressed up in dresses and their hair done all nice, and how they would all stand in a line as potential adoptive families would come by. They would choose a child for the day to take them out. Sort of like test driving a car. Then, the families would return the child to Immaculate Conception, and sometimes they would come back to adopt them, and other times, those families would never return, or return to test drive another vehicle. This was back in the 1940s. The United States does not entertain orphanages anymore. Other countries do have orphanages, and some of their practices may be similar.

As I close my eyes and envision my birth mother as a 5-year-old in a huge orphanage, I envision a little girl who is taken care of, bathed, dressed and fed, but she feels empty inside. The orphanage had so many children, she was one of hundreds, and the love she needed, well, and there just weren’t enough employees. Her father, my grandfather, would come and take her out for a weekend with my uncle, who remained in the home. She would go for a weekend and he would drop her back off at the Immaculate Conception Orphanage, as her brother sat in the car, waving goodbye. He went back with their father, and she went back inside the walls of a place she would never call home.

As of 2018, there were 400,000 foster children in the United States of America. If someone asked me if I thought orphanages may be a better way to house the thousands of orphans in the United States, I would have to say no. Yes, they are huge buildings with many rooms, and they can hire workers around the clock as full-time occupations. Yet, the need for consistency in parenting, and the need for only a couple people to come to know as their caregivers instead of hundreds, that need is epic, constant, and needs to be met. I understand 400,000 is a gut wrenching number of foster children, and in the United States! I understand foster care needs to be improved, and there is a need for more qualified foster care families. I just honestly think orphanages are a concept of the past, and communities and states need to continue to pull together to modify and improve foster care.

When I think of orphanages, and then I think of our current foster care system, I think about the school systems in the United States, and how in many of the states, class size is always being discussed. Smaller class sizes are more than not thought to be the better option. More one-on-one attention between teachers and students, less distractions, and more teachable moments. I think this thought process can be applied to orphanages versus foster care homes we have today in the United States. Whereas orphanages held hundreds, sometimes thousands of orphans, foster care homes hold a minimal amount, usually under 10 children. I believe that less children usually caters to more one-on-one attention which many foster children need, and it means, in many cases, a foster child may have more personal space than if orphanages still existed in the United States. An orphan usually shared a room with 15-20 children. There were beds in rows. Not a very warm and fuzzy feeling. Everyone has an opinion when it comes to foster care, and this article is just a small insight into orphanages of the past, and foster homes of today and the future.