Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century


Edited by: Richard B. McKenzie

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    An enthusiastic “Y'know what I'm gonna be?!” is a frequent comment I hear from young people living in “orphanages,” “children's homes,” “residential boarding schools,” and “youth villages” in the United States and in other countries. The excitement of so many of these children about their promising futures is the strongest impression remaining from my visits to more than 30 programs. Almost without exception, however, these young people are from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Only the students in “prep” schools come from “advantaged” backgrounds. Most had entered their residential programs with little self-esteem and few prospects for a productive future.

    Why, then, are long-term residential environments for at-risk children and youth so poorly viewed by people in the United States? Why is it considered acceptable, if not attractive, to send a young person from a supportive, affluent family away to a residential boarding school, whereas it is considered destructive to send a young person from an unsafe, unhealthy home environment to a nurturing, educational, residential setting? Because of popular imagery of past orphanage life, now well out of date, many residential education programs have folded during the past four or five decades. There are now few education-focused, residential settings available for young people, especially adolescents, who have neither homes that can support them nor schools that can effectively teach them. There are, however, tens of thousands of children who could benefit from such care.

    Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century provides the foundation for a real national policy debate. The short-lived, sound-bite-based national policy debate on orphanage care that took place in late 1994 was, regrettably, founded on old orphanage stereotypes. House Speaker Newt Gingrich extolled the 1930s movie Boys Town, whereas his critics in the Clinton administration countered with visions of orphanages in London in the late 1800s, as depicted in Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist. Major newsmagazines supported these popular stereotypes with turn-of-the-century pictures of pathetic orphanage residents on their covers. The debate lasted only a few months. The critics claimed victory once again, and nothing was done.

    This edited volume is the first attempt to rethink critical issues relating to the long-term residential education of at-risk, disadvantaged young people. One contributor evaluates the current dreadful state of care for many American children. Another contributor evaluates the scholarly literature relating to orphanage care and finds much of it wanting. Yet another contributor does what the critics have not done—surveys orphanage alumni about how they have done in life and how they look back on their experiences. The orphanage critics will be surprised with what this author found: The orphanage alumni have done quite well! Other contributors assess the obstacles to bringing back some modern form of permanent residential education for children. Unfortunately, the reality of residential education settings—as distinct from carefully crafted Washington-based and Hollywood-based portrayals of them—has never been described in the depth presented here.

    In the United States, residential possibilities for disadvantaged young people include the following:

    • Treatment centers for emotionally troubled children
    • Juvenile detention facilities
    • Foster care

    These options are suitable and beneficial for some young people, and they are available in most communities. What are all too often missing in the list are residential settings that prevent further serious emotional deterioration and self-destructive behavior. What are also missing are healthy, structured, affordable settings in which young people can live for periods longer than a few months and can begin to believe that they “belong” and matter to a community. The name we give these settings—orphanages, children's homes, children's villages, or residential schools—is unimportant. What is important is that the settings allow the children in their care to develop for long stretches of time away from their otherwise corrosive neighborhoods and dysfunctional families.

    Residential education settings also tend to be more affordable than detention facilities, treatment centers, and some types of foster care largely because they do not use and do not need a plethora of expensive, highly trained psychiatrists and social workers. They can also be effective because the children are in residence for long stretches of time and do not have to endure repeated cycles of multiple placements in the foster-care system. Make no mistake about it: There is a crying need in the United States for settings that can offer many disadvantaged children a sense of permanence, stability, and security. What residential education programs currently exist in the United States? There are two state-run programs, in Indiana and Pennsylvania, for children of military veterans. The only federal programs for at-risk children and youth under the age of 16 are the network of residential schools for Native Americans, now largely run by Native Americans themselves, and the National Guard's Challenge Program. The federal government's Job Corps Program is for low-income, 16- to 24-year-olds. There is a smattering of privately funded programs—the Milton Hershey School and Girard College in Pennsylvania, the Connie Maxwell Home for Children in South Carolina, Boys Home in Virginia, and Girls and Boys Country in Texas; a few African American boarding schools; and a handful of settings begun as orphanages that have survived and kept their missions intact. These are few and far between, given the magnitude of the need.

    New residential education programs are beginning to open throughout the country. Some homes are privately funded. For example, in 1993, the American Honda Education Corporation opened the Eagle Rock School in Colorado. SOS Children's Villages, Incorporated has opened homes in Florida and Illinois. Public and private home partnerships have merged: The Boston University Residential Charter School opened in September 1997. New residential charter schools are opening in New Jersey and the District of Columbia. As of this writing (fall 1997), the Pennsylvania legislature was considering passage of the Residential Education Act of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, under which three new residential schools would be developed. In addition, a few private, nonprofit organizations have been formed by citizens committed to opening new residential schools in urban areas. A few sectarian groups, which have traditionally supported orphanages, are considering reopening or converting treatment centers to orphanages. For example, the Lutheran Church of California in 1997 was plotting the organization of a home-for-children project called “20/20/20”—20 homes in 20 cities in 20 years. These local efforts continue despite the lack of national policy support for the residential option for children and youth. The lack of support is largely due to popular, misguided myths about residential education that are based on a lack of knowledge about the realities of past settings. In fact, national policies and practices have actually obstructed the emergence of more residential care options. They have, as a consequence, caused many American kids to suffer poor care or to receive no care at all.

    Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century highlights issues that need further review by those policymakers and laypeople who wish to seriously consider a return of residential education for at-risk, disadvantaged young people. Accordingly, the book reviews the unmet needs of the foster care and family-preservation systems, child labor practices, government regulations that increase costs, critics' hostility to the residential care option, and quality and cost trade-offs. It identifies elements in the children's homes that are vital to the development of the many young people for whom the residential education option, which will always be one of a continuum of care options for young people, is most appropriate. These elements necessarily include safety, permanence, positive role models, supportive peers, structure, work ethic, community service, and responsibility. The book is enriched by the wide variety of disciplines and professions from which contributors are drawn.

    Prevailing myths and other harmful attitudes about long-term residential settings are debunked with facts. One common myth is that children are placed in residential schools after being ripped from the arms of loving parents and guardians by welfare authorities. This may have been the practice in the 1920s, but it is not the practice today. In a national study of American residential education programs completed 2 years ago by the International Center for Residential Education, it was found that the vast majority of young people in the programs were sent by parents who wanted something better for their children. Almost all schools also have some students known as “pilgrims.” These are students who somehow manage to walk to the doors of the schools, satchels in hand, and say in so many words, “Please take me in!”

    First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has maintained in her widely read book published in 1996 that “It takes a village” to properly rear children. Richard McKenzie, this book's editor, writes in his memoir of growing up in an orphanage, “For many children, orphanages were nothing short of ‘visible extensions’ of families. They were, in effect, villages that arose in response to community needs.” McKenzie asks in the introduction to this volume, “Might it not be that any reinvigorated orphanage system developed in the 21st century could be far superior than what existed 100 or more years before?”

    For those who refuse to accept the labeling of tens of thousands of at-risk young people as “throwaway children,” I urge you to read this book and then reengage the national debate over rethinking the orphanage option. The debate starts here. Expanded opportunities for children await the outcome of the debate.

    HeidiGoldsmithInternational Center for Residential Education Washington, D.C.


    Anyone who has edited a collection of articles understands that the process is more taxing than it might seem. Nevertheless, this project was eased for me by a number of key people, including many of the contributors who made a special effort to submit their chapters in a timely manner. I am confident of the quality of the contributions to this book because of the willingness of the researchers and child welfare practitioners who participated in a 1997 symposium (which was organized around the chapters in this book) to read, critique, and make suggestions for improvement of the chapters. These symposium participants, who are listed in the appendix of Chapter 16, were also instrumental in the development of recommended policy reforms that are outlined in Chapter 16.

    I am also indebted to my colleague in child development. Professor Wendy Goldberg carefully read all contributions to the book and offered many valuable suggestions for improvement. Karen McKenzie provided many editorial improvements to the manuscript, as did Margaret Zusky and Dan Hays at Sage. I am thankful to my student research assistant Anita Rowhani, who greatly facilitated the editing process in a multitude of ways. Finally, this project would not have been possible without the support of Michael Joyce, Hillel Fradkin, and Diane Sehler at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, which provided funding for the project.

  • About the Authors

    David J. Boudreaux is President of the Foundation for Economic Education. He is author of “A Modest Proposal to Deregulate Infant Adoptions” (Cato Journal).

    Karol C. Boudreaux is a research associate at the Center for Policy Research at Clemson University. She received a JD from the University of Virginia and is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia.

    Del Bradshaw is a certified public accountant and a founding partner of the accounting firm of Bradshaw, Gordon, and Clinkscale, P.A., in Greenville, South Carolina.

    William F. Chappell is Associate Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Mississippi.

    Conna Craig is President and a trustee of the Institute for Children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She advises governors, members of Congress, and other opinion leaders on restructuring foster care and adoption so that every child has the chance to grow up in a permanent family. She is author of “What I Need Is a Mom: The Welfare State Denies Homes to Thousands of Foster Children” (Policy Review, 1995, summer).

    Michael DeBow is a professor in the Law School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

    Richard J. Gelles is the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence, School of Social Work, University of Pennsylvania. He is author of The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives (1996).

    Heidi Goldsmith is Executive Director of the International Center for Residential Education in Washington, D.C. She is author of Residential Education: An Option for America's Youth (Milton Hershey School, 1995).

    Derek Herbert is Associate Director of the Institute for Children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He directed the institute's 2-year study of public child welfare programs in all 50 states, which resulted in the publication of The State of the Children: An Examination of Government-Run Foster Care (National Center for Policy Analysis, 1997).

    Dwight R. Lee is the Ramsey Professor of Economics at the University of Georgia at Athens. His many publications are in the area of public-choice economics, or the application of economic theory to political decision making.

    Ross D. London is Juvenile Court Referee with the Superior Court of New Jersey and PhD candidate at Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice. He is a consultant on delinquency issues to the U.S. Department of Justice and is author of many articles, including “Early Childhood Intervention: A New Vision for Inner-City Education” in Task Force Report of the American Society of Criminology (1995).

    Joseph L. Maxwell III is Field Representative for the Palmer Home for Children in Mississippi and editor of Regeneration Quarterly.

    John N. McCall is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. He received a PhD in psychology from the University of Minnesota. He was raised at Barium Springs Home for Children in North Carolina during the 1930s and 1940s.

    Richard B. McKenzie is the Walter B. Gerken Professor of Enterprise and Society in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to many other books and articles on economics and management, he is author of The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage (Basic Books, 1996). He was raised at Barium Springs Home for Children in North Carolina during the 1950s.

    Estella May Moriarty is a circuit court judge in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She has served on the board of directors of SOS Children's Village of Florida, CHARLEE Family Homes for Broward County, and Covenant House, Florida.

    Marvin Olasky is a professor at the University of Texas and editor of World, a Christian weekly news magazine. He is author of 14 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion and Abortion Rites.

    William F. Shughart II is Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Mississippi. He has published widely in public choice and policy economics.

    Margaret MacFarlane Wright is a practicing attorney, specializing in labor law, in Irvine, California. She has also lectured in the Cornell University Law School.

    Donald Wyant is a certified public accountant with the accounting firm of Bradshaw, Gordon, and Clinksdale, P.A., in Greenville, South Carolina.

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