When people think about orphanages, the majority do not consider them as still in existence in the United States; they tend to believe that they are only needed in third world countries. The usual conceptualization of an orphanage is that of a large building with an overcrowding of children, perhaps similar to the one pictured in the musical of Annie, which featured large dormitory rooms and mistreated children. People usually think of limited sources and unwanted, orphaned children.
Orphanages are a topic that is not frequently addressed in our country, and it is not a topic that is easy to discuss. But there are many questions that we should be aware of and know the answers. Did they ever exist? Do they still exist? Were the conditions acceptable? Why were children placed in orphanages?
To first understand orphanages and about their creation and duration, we must learn when and why they began. In a recent article, the origin of orphanages in the U.S. was discussed. Orphanages were formed in the United States between the 1700s and 1800s. They were formed to care for children who were orphaned because of wars or illnesses. It wasn’t until the 1900s when President Theodore Roosevelt realized that a change was needed to this system and then instilled a change to the child welfare system.
The concept of Orphan Trains was conceived about 1853 and was inspired by the New York Children’s Aid Society. This organization would send letters out to people and churches, asking if they would house orphaned children and take care of them in exchange for the child helping them on their farm or home. Once a child was accepted, the child was placed on a train and traveled to the family in which they were placed.
When a family was found for the child, the child would travel with an adult who would ensure that the family had what they needed to take care of the child and that the child would fit in with the family. This program did have mostly positive outcomes, and the majority of the children found loving homes and were grateful for their upbringing. However, there was a small number of children that did experience abuse, but fortunately, it was a small percentage.
After World War II, the number of orphanages in the U.S. began to decline. That number coincided with the time that President Roosevelt created the child welfare system. Foster care and child protective services were also created.
Another area of discussion relating to orphanages in the U.S. concerns foster care versus orphanages. What are the differences between them? What are the pros and cons of each? Typically, people think that orphanages do not give or provide the quality of care that is found in foster care. They tend to think that an orphanage is more “institutionalized.” But, as in the case with most things, there are pros and cons to both. There are risks involved in both. Additionally, one will find good and bad orphanages as well as good and bad foster homes. A recent article discussed specifically this topic and how to view foster care versus an orphanage. With foster homes, most foster parents become foster parents because they love children and want to make a difference in children’s lives. But, unfortunately, there are also many homes that want to provide foster care because of the financial subsidy. When reviewing orphanages, there are many that have plentiful resources and are able to provide the best care as possible, but as in all situations, others are understaffed and unable to give children the best care.
In addition to looking at orphanages versus foster care, it is necessary to look at alternatives to the current foster care system. The teaching family model cites the crucial importance of children growing up in a family environment as much as possible. The family model includes cottages or “homes” for children that have a married couple who step in as the children’s “mothers” and “fathers.” This is so the children can learn about a family system, the dynamics that go along with a family, and the skills needed to be a part of a family and overall society.
One of these “cottages” that still exists today in the United States is the School that Chocolate Built. Milton Hershey and his wife created the Milton Hershey School in the early 1900s. This was a school formed to house boys and provide them with an education or technical training so they would easily be able to find a career when they became an adult. Today, it is listed as a boarding school and not an orphanage, but it originally was based on many beliefs of an orphanage. But something that is different than most orphanages is that they used and continue to use the cottage system. The Hershey family believed in the importance of having a couple take care of a smaller group of boys and act like a family unit.
One matter of great importance is to acknowledge what care the child has received when in the orphanage and what to expect from a child who has been in an orphanage. An article suggested that no matter the age, children from an orphanage may show different characteristics. For example, they may not have an understanding of family or permanency. They may not understand how to bond with someone or how to love someone. They have all experienced some level of trauma and through this may show survival skills. Additionally, they may have experienced some sort of abuse or neglect. While these may all look different in each child, there are some common traits among children from an orphanage. Losing their birth family is traumatic. Being in an institutionalized setting is traumatic. They may have been on a very regimented schedule, so they are more programmed and will need to be taught how to be a child and how to play. Some may believe that they can’t trust anyone and have to look out for themselves which can lead to concerns with bonding and with trusting and loving adults.
Another article suggested many ideas and reasons why children need families and not orphanages. Orphanages are typically institutionalized, meaning that they will most likely be very structured and not a lot of one-on-one care will happen. Due to the fact that workers in orphanages change so frequently, children may also have a hard time bonding with adults and trusting other adults. They have to learn that they can bond and trust others and not depend solely on themselves. Additionally, the sad fact is children “age out” from care at a certain age. If they are not adopted by the time they are to age out, their resources are very limited. Having a family for a child to fall back on is so important and knows no age limits.
Personally, as a mother of a child who was in an orphanage for three years before adoption, it has been a very contrasting and eye-opening experience to see the difference between him and our daughter who we adopted as an infant. Anyone can read the facts and be told what to expect, but it truly doesn’t prepare you about what to expect. In all honesty, it is a long process—a timely process—to determine what your child needs and the best methods to employ so that your child’s needs will be fulfilled.
One powerful article stated that “In the United States 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.”
What does this quote show and represent? It is saying, and research shows, that institutionalization does have an impact on the child and these impacts might be long-term. While every person is different and one event will impact each person differently, there are also underlying factors that cannot be seen.
According to this article, 15.1 million orphans, globally, have lost both parents. With the majority of these children in orphanages and foster homes across the world, that is a staggering number of children that are experiencing trauma and not the love of a home and family.
What can be the response to the amount of children in need in the United States? If you are considering making a difference in the life of a child and releasing him or her from the institutionalization of a center or orphanage, you may be overwhelmed on where to even begin. Here is a step-by-step guide of where to begin. The adoption process begins with a lot of self-reflection. Am I ready to adopt? What type of adoption is the best fit? This includes domestic adoption, infant adoption, or international adoption.
Few orphanages in the U.S. exist today. In place, instead, the government has established the child welfare system which includes child protective services, foster care, and adoption services. For some this is a debatable topic, but research supports that it much more valuable for children to be in an environment that as closely resembles a family structure instead of an institutionalized structure as possible.
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