Modern Alternatives to the Current Foster Care System

1909 Childcare Conference in Washington, D.C.

At the 1909 childcare conference in Washington, D.C., hundreds of childcare professionals had gathered from across the United States with the goal of reforming the childcare system that existed at that time. The professionals came up with two different solutions to the childcare crisis that they were facing around the turn to the twentieth century. The original childcare system that was proposed by the professionals at this conference was the foster care system, the basic principles of which make up the foster care system we have today. However, the professionals at the conference also suggested an alternative system if the foster care system was not feasible. The alternative was a system of institutions that incorporated the best aspects of the orphanage system with a more personal family oriented system. The conference report called this the “cottage system.” The summary of the report on the conference specifies that children should live in cottages and the “cottage unit should not be larger than will permit effective personal relations between the adult caretaker or caretakers of each cottage and each child therein.” Essentially, the cottage system would divide a large orphanage into several smaller home-style orphanages. This gives the kids the personal attention of each adult, while each adult is under the supervision of the larger orphanage. The report does acknowledge that this system would cost more than the foster care system that they proposed, but they also suggested that this increase would be worth it because of the stability that the cottage system provides for the children. Another advantage that the report list from this cottage system is that it “secures . . . a nearer approach to the conditions of family life, which are required for the proper molding of childhood.” The report also states “inferior methods should never be accepted by reason of lack of funds . . .” This statement addresses the argument given by some sociologists today, that we should avoid switching to a system of orphanages because that system would cost more money than the foster care system that we currently have.

Current Examples of Institutional Care

There are examples of this kind of institutional care where the children are divided into cottages. The two articles entitled “The School that Chocolate Built” and “A Town for Boys” give examples of modern, successful institutions that are based on this cottage system. The articles give a bit of the history for the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania and the Boys Town program, which now has several locations across the United States. These two institutions have a few things in common, but have very unique beginnings. The Milton Hershey School was started by chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey and his wife “Kitty”; whereas Boys Town was started by a Catholic priest named Father Flanagan who had very little funding for his home for boys. However, both of the schools were started with a similar purpose in mind: to give young boys the best chance at living a successful and productive life.

Teaching Family Model

Both of these institutions now use a method of treating behavioral problems in youth that is not often found in traditional institutional care. They use a method known as the Teaching Family Model, which involves placing youth in family-like settings. The basic premise behind the Teaching Family Model is that children with behavioral issues, and children in general, need to be raised in a family-like environment where they can learn the skills necessary to become productive members of society. In each cottage there is a married couple, a mother and a father, which serves as the pseudo parents of the children in that cottage. In this family-like setting, the children are given chores to perform and are expected to go to school every day and a religious service on the weekends. Father Flanagan and Milton Hershey believed that children needed responsibilities of their own if they were to grow up to be responsible adults.

Cost of the Institutions

These two institutions come at no cost to the participants and both of these institutions are also private organizations, which means that their primary source of funding does not come from taxes. Instead, both organizations are run as nonprofits. In the case of Boys Town, in 2013 less than 5%, or $12,468,633, of their total revenue (total revenue for 2013 was $272,071,348) came from the federal government and this money helped the 28,000 youth enrolled in the Boys Town Family Home Program. This means that Boys Town annually cost the federal government about $450 per child. This is an annual savings of 90%, or $4,050, per child compared to the annual cost of a child in foster care, which, according to the Child Welfare League of America, an advocate for foster care, is about $4,500. The savings is even greater when considering the cost of foster care as determined by other agencies, such as the Americans for Civil Liberties Union, which in 1995 pegged the annual cost of foster care at $17,500 per child, bringing the annual savings to $26,814.29 per child, after adjusting for inflation. This means that the federal government, based on the number of children in foster care according to the latest Children’s Bureau report, could have saved a total of $54.2 billion over the last five years by switching from the current foster care system to one that better utilizes the institutional programs similar to the ones at Boys Town and the Milton Hershey School.

Which is the Best System?

The jury is still out on which system, either foster care or institutions, is better for children. Both systems have their merits and both are better than what we think of when we think of traditional orphanages from the 1800s. Whichever way we chose to help the children of America, our children, the most important thing to remember is that we help them.