The Dynamics of Disruption

Similarities between the nineteenth century Orphan Trains and the adoptions of today.

Sonia Billadeau April 08, 2014
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Although there are several possible explanations for why an individual, a couple, or a family chooses to add an unrelated child to their home, in today’s modern society it usually boils down to one basic principle–the desire to be a parent. Perhaps some are motivated more by altruistic feelings than others. Still, the desire to parent is a core motivator.

When the Orphan Trains of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century relocated thousands of children from cities in the northeast to waiting families in the west, some of the families “adopted” the orphans for the same reasons people adopt today. Others considered the children merely to be a source of cheap labor. These adoptive families expended very little effort and little or no money to facilitate the placements. Their “home studies” were nonexistent in most cases. Post-placement services typically consisted of two visits the first year and yearly visits and/or reports from the families after that. Some of the children thrived. Some didn’t.

It has been over 150 years since the first Orphan Trains headed west with abused, neglected, and abandoned children. Still, children come from all around the globe to find new homes with families in America. I have yet to meet one adoptive parent who chose to add a child merely for the labor that child could perform. (I have, however, met many parents who thought their new son or daughter would be grateful!) People adopt biologically unrelated children for the purpose of parenting those children–the opportunity to (hopefully) have a loving, reciprocal relationship while perpetuating values and ideals.

Unlike the Orphan Train era, people today pay great sums of money to facilitate adoptions. Additionally, they invest significant amounts of time, energy, and emotions into this experience. They are subjected to scrutiny in varying degrees before being allowed to adopt. Theoretically, their motives, expectations, and parenting style are examined. Parenting classes are required. Their income level is evaluated. Lengthy explanations are provided to extended family and friends about the process. In some cases, a tiny, blurry photograph is mass reproduced and disseminated to anyone even remotely interested in their new “assignment.” A flurry of additional preparations is undertaken, hopefully culminating in a trip overseas, an exciting first meeting at a local airport, or perhaps even the opportunity to be at the hospital to witness a child’s birth.

So, how do the children of today differ from those who disembarked from the Orphan Trains years ago? In some ways, they don’t. Some Orphan Train children truly were orphans, or at least “half-orphans”, with one parent dead and the other unable to care for the child. Many of these children lived in squalor on the streets of major cities, stealing or prostituting themselves to survive. Some, however, had parents who did love them, but were temporarily unable to care for them. One can assume that this program led to many children arriving out west with considerable emotional “baggage”, while others, although traumatized, were more able to adjust to their new lives and new families.

If a family seeking another “laborer” was matched with a child who exhibited what we now call Reactive Attachment Disorder, the child’s considerable discomfort with emotional intimacy would not have been a problem for that family. An emotionally healthy child in that same family would have clearly been unhappy. Unless they were also physically abused, they would have grown up healthy enough to lead a productive life. Presumably, some of the families who adopted emotionally healthy children as “farm hands” grew to love those children in spite of the original motives for adopting.

Those children who were not able to adjust to their new placements were taken back into the agency’s custody. According to an article dated January 13, 1911, in the Jefferson County (Kansas) Tribune, the Rev. J.W. Swan, state agent for the society for Missouri, stated: “We only have about 10 percent returned to the society.” Of course, little information is available to determine whether the issues causing the disruption were the child’s, the family’s, or both. It is likely that in some cases a child’s inability to form intimate relationships with other people was a significant factor in the family’s decision to discontinue the placement.

Used with permission from:

Nancy Spoolstra, DVM
Attachment Disorder Network
www.radzebra.org

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Sonia Billadeau


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