Are There Any Traditional Orphanages in the US?

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Answer by Paul deHolczer, reader, traveler, observer, attorney, student

Yes, there are.

I spent about 10 years in one, between the ages of 8 and 18. The orphanage was Thornwell Orphanage, now Thornwell Home for Children, in Clinton, South Carolina, USA. Thornwell is a mission of the Presbyterian Church. It was founded in 1875 by a devout and devoted Presbyterian minister to care for South Carolina children orphaned by the Civil War. (Page on Thornwell )

To my knowledge, Thornwell has never been intended to house children suffering from physical or mental disability.

What was it like?

Well, orphanages are not static institutions. That is, they tend to reflect society at any given time. Also, I suspect that orphanages have evolved in response to various pressures -- economics, politics, social, etc. Thornwell when I was 8 was different from Thornwell when I was 18 and is different from Thornwell as it is today. There are many different aspects to life in an orphanage, and these many different aspects surely differ between institutions which qualify as "orphanages."

It is probably better if the question, "What are they like?" were more specific because it would take a book to recount the whole experience. Some have written such books. One such book is The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage by Richard McKenzie (1996). His orphanage was in North Carolina, but, I know from talking with other alumni, that his experience as recounted in that book was similar to the experiences of a child at Thornwell at the same approximate time. It is less valid if we are talking of today simply because, as I mentioned above, these institutions are not static.

I will share one of the most important things to know about orphanages today: They are disappearing and this is not a positive development. No one is starting new orphanages, and some old orphanages are closing down. It is expensive to operate an orphanage.

Why is this bad? Because the main reason they are disappearing, though clothed in moral outrage over institutional abuses, is that they are not economical.

Foster care is supplanting orphanages simply because foster care is more economical and not because foster care is inherently better for children -- though there are many people who will support the movement to foster care with anecdotes of institutional abuses in orphanages.

There is no book on foster care that captures the popular imagination that would mirror the stereotypical terrible orphanage of Oliver Twist. There is no "meme" or idiom to oversimplify the foster care situation as there is in media addressing orphanages. These oversimplifications confuse complex issues and do a great disservice to children.

In ten years, I never knew a child at Thornwell to die or be hospitalized for physical abuse or neglect or to simply "disappear" from supervision.

Unfortunately, these things do happen in foster care. Just read your newspaper.

Now, some foster parents are motivated by altruism or religion to foster children and do a great job at fostering. But it is a well-known and little-discussed "secret" that there are many foster parents who foster children for money rather than altruism and religious belief. Newspapers do report from time to time of children in those homes dying, requiring hospitalization for physical abuse or neglect, or simply disappearing. People tell themselves that such incidents are rare, that there are bureaucratic safeguards in place to prevent this, or that such events are inevitable.

In a well-run orphanage - such as Thornwell today - these events are not rare or inevitable. They simply do not happen or, if they do, the severity is much less and the duration is much shorter. Why? Because orphanages are, first and foremost, communities. It is impossible to keep secrets in communities. It is often simple to hide abuse and neglect in a small family unit - even in the biologically-related single-family unit which is the typical family unit. It is even simpler to hide abuse in a foster family unit. In a well-run orphanage, with screening of adult supervisors, institutional precautions and protocols, and a variety of unrelated and overlapping adults interacting with the children, it is nearly impossible.

But set that aside.

Here is the simple truth: Some children do not thrive in foster care.

Think about that.

Foster care is a "one-size-fits-all" approach to child care.

What if a child comes from a large family? Then, there might not be a foster family that can accommodate four or more children. The sibling group is split among foster families and may never develop normal, affectionate sibling bonds, which help build coping skills and teach responsibility. I have known families like this and lived with them in the orphanage.

If a child does not thrive in foster care, we just shrug and say, "Too bad." We assume and accept that we, individually and as a society, cannot help everyone, that some will simply "fall through the cracks" of life. We say that about a child, an innocent, vulnerable person. We say that about a human who will one day be an adult and affect the world as an adult affects the world. We dismiss the potential of a person who has great inherent power to do much good or much evil in the world.

Children will sometimes bounce from foster care placement to foster care placement. They might never know stability. If a child misbehaves or acts inappropriately they might get "kicked out" of a placement. Their lives are again disrupted and they lose school days, predictability, sense of place and self. I have known children like this and lived with them in the orphanage.

If a child misbehaves or acts inappropriately it is because the child does not have the skills or maturity to act or react in a positive, constructive way to stress and a dysfunctional environment or dysfunctional situation. If a child is not taught those skills, the child will never develop those skills. An adult who does not act or react in a positive, constructive way to stress and to dysfunctional environments or dysfunctional situations often becomes a criminal or develops other destructive personality traits which result in substance abuse, child abuse, psychological damage, and perpetuation of these patterns in offspring and others.

And so the cycle repeats itself.

So, the default alternatives to foster care for children who do not thrive in foster care is homelessness and exploitation or the juvenile justice system. And, of course, these are frequently way-stations to the criminal justice system.

Orphanages offer another, better alternative. There are many children who do not thrive in foster care who do thrive in the more structured orphanage setting.

These are children who find in orphanages the safe harbor where they can learn the skills and develop the maturity to act or react in a positive, constructive way to stress and a dysfunctional environment or dysfunctional situation. These are children who successfully avoid homelessness and the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Is that not better? Even if it is more expensive than foster care, orphanages can help children avoid the more expensive criminal justice system. Better yet, the children become responsible, contributing members of society. I have known children like this and lived with them in the orphanage.

Now, this all sounds like nice theory. But Richard McKenzie is a retired economics professor and not just a fellow who wrote a memoir about life in an orphanage. In fact, he edited a book titled Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century (1998) and Home Away from Home: The Forgotten History of Orphanages (Encounter Books, 2009). In Rethinking Orphanages, he wrote of his study which demonstrated that children from orphanages frequently have better outcomes than children from traditional families.

What his books demonstrate is that, far from being "warehouses for unwanted children," well-run orphanages can be supportive communities for child development.

I think children deserve alternative routes to personal satisfaction and a contributory role in society. I think society is better served by giving children more and better alternative routes to personal satisfaction and a contributory role in society. Children are too important to discard or to "write-off." A truly moral, advanced society will help children.

NB: I have served as President of the Thornwell Alumni Association, Chair of the Board of Visitors, and as a Trustee for Thornwell.

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