Do orphanages still exist in America today? The answer is no. Traditional orphanages as portrayed in novels and movies no longer exist in America, and it wasn’t because the need to care for parentless and/or poverty-stricken children disappeared. However, to understand what became of the children and the orphanages that housed them, one must understand the original intent of orphanages at their formation and what replaced them at their closing.
The earliest forms of orphanages in the US were created in the early 1700s and became more organized establishments in the 1800s. They were established to care not only for children whose parents were killed in Indian raids or died in epidemics, but also children from families who were unable to care for them due to poverty or addiction. As a result of the population boom, influx of immigrants, and widespread poverty, orphanages often were overcrowded, understaffed, and lacked resources for proper care. While orphanages were better for the children than the streets, they still could not provide what every child needed and deserved—a family environment in which they could grow and thrive.
“In the mid-1800s, a reformer named Charles Brace founded the Children’s Aide Society to address the issue of these overcrowded institutions. The Society was founded on the belief that children would do better placed in families than living on the streets or in crowded American orphanages. Brace’s solution was to create an Orphan Train, a program which placed homeless children on the railways and sent them out west, where they could be chosen by families who had been pre-approved by local committees.” These situations did not always turn out to be loving homes, but rather homes that needed workers to help maintain the home and work in the fields (essentially child labor).
Around the 1900s, the progressive movement began to have a big influence on social thought in America. As a result, reformers started rethinking the orphanage system and created the earliest form of the child welfare system. President Theodore Roosevelt championed the change by forming a conference of leading experts of the day in the field of child care at the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Largely due to their vision for child welfare in the US, the reformers moved for Congress to form the Unites States Children’s Bureau. “The orphan trains stopped in 1930 due to a decreased need for farm labor in the Midwest, and the reformed thinking that the government should help preserve struggling families.” There was also economic growth that enabled parents to care for their own children and to foster other children. As a result, fewer children were placed in orphanages and remained in a family environment.
Traditional orphanages in the United States began closing following World War II, as public social services were on the rise. US adoption policy and procedures, as well as child protection laws, began to take shape, leading to the demise of traditional American orphanages, which were replaced with individual and small group foster homes. The reformers pushing for this change argued that children would do better placed in homes, where they could receive personalized care and individual attention, than in institutions. By the 1950s, more children lived in foster homes than in orphanages in the United States, and by the 1960s, foster care had become a government-funded program.
Traditional orphanages are extinct in America today. Instead there is a complex, government-funded foster system, whose main goal is the reunification of children with families who can appropriately care for them. In addition to the foster care system, there are residential treatment facilities and group homes for children who, for a number of reasons, cannot thrive in or integrate into a foster home. Sometimes the children have behavioral, emotional, physical, or mental problems that foster parents are unable or unwilling to work through, or it is in the best interest of the child to be medically institutionalized. Belinda Luscombe in her article quotes Kathryn Whetten, a Duke professor of public policy and director of the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research (CHPIR), “In the U.S. there is a movement to see long-term residential care as detrimental to all children and that only when no other options are available do we place children in residential care and with the condition that they stay for as little time as possible…Yet many of the residential centers here in the U.S. provide family-like care with long-term caregivers/parents who are continuously trained and supported in how to raise children who have experienced significant chaos and trauma in their lives. The children have family meals and can consider the [other] children in the unit to be like siblings.” No matter how “family-like” the environment of a residential center, long-term institutionalization should only be reverted to when it is in the best interest of the child. Every child deserves a loving, forever family, even if that child has to remain in long-term residential care for safety.
Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Lifesong for Orphans says on their blog that “428,000 children are in foster care in the U.S.” To give a visual aide, “consider this: The 4 largest football stadiums in the United States could be filled to capacity and still not hold all the children who are currently in the system…[and around] 102,000 of these children are currently eligible for adoption.” The Abba Fund surmises that “if 1 family in every 3 churches in the US adopted a waiting child, every waiting child in the US would have a forever family.” If that happened, more children could be rescued from aging out of the system and being left all alone as they make their own way through life.
In conclusion, the orphanages of the past were replaced by the foster system, including group homes and institutions, of today. While the structures to house orphans have changed, the fact that there are still orphans has not. Every child deserves a loving, forever home.