Orphan Family Values


A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare, by Kenneth Cmiel, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 249 pages, $24.95

The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage, by Richard McKenzie, New York: Basic Books, 228 pages, $23.00

Although orphanages may owe their 15 minutes of recent fame to Newt Gingrich's passing reference on a Sunday morning talk show, asylums as way stations for abandoned or neglected children are not a new idea. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau deposited all five of his children in a foundling home, and declared that he was doing them a favor. Sources trace orphanages at least as far back as eighth-century Milan, and abandoned children were commonly housed for the long haul in "hospitals" in 12th-century Europe.

In A Home of Another Kind, Kenneth Cmiel, a history professor at the University of Iowa, informs us that the first recent appeal for the revival of the orphanage here in America can be traced not to Gingrich but to a 1988 article published in The Washington Monthly by Lois Forer, a retired judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. Forer's call to action was a response to what she had been witnessing in her own court with increasing frequency. "Given the flood of horribly abused children who were becoming wards of the state, she argued, and given the well-documented inadequacies of the foster care system, the way to do better was to bring back the orphanage," explains Cmiel.

He notes that in the 1980s, "the number of children without a stable home exploded." Crack cocaine played a significant part in the growth of what are now called the "no parent" children–children who are muddling through with sub-adequate parenting. The rise in the number of children who received out-of-home institutional care rose from 262,000 in 1982 to 442,000 10 years later.

This appalling state of affairs raises the question that was on Gingrich's mind when he proposed that we take another look at orphanages: What should we do with a growing population of children living in families that seem to be utterly unprepared to care for them? Cmiel's book and Richard McKenzie's memoir The Home put that question (and the Gingrich-Forer solution) into historical and personal contexts.

A Home of Another Kind tells the story of how the nature and objectives of orphanages in America changed over the last century. Because Cmiel takes the vantage point of a single institution, the Chicago Nursery and Half-Orphan Asylum, his book is at once history and drama. It is also a cautionary tale in which readers allergic to oversight agencies of either the public or private kind will take some perverse pleasure. What began as an independent, efficient haven for children in need of temporary custodial care metamorphosed into a state-supported monitoring agency of the very sort that discredited the American orphanage system.

The Homeis economist Richard McKenzie's personal appeal to take another look at the orphanage as a legitimate solution to the problem of functionally homeless children. After his mother committed suicide and his chronically drunk and unemployed father failed to take care of him, McKenzie's maternal aunts placed him in an orphanage. "In the emerging debate over what to do with parentless, neglected, abused, or abandoned children in our midst," he observes, "no one has thought to ask orphans themselves, the children who were there, what they think about their years in the orphanage."

A Home of Another Kind follows the activities of the Chicago Nursery and Half-Orphan Asylum from the mid-1800s to 1984 when the orphanage, now called Chapin Hall, finally closed its doors. Cmiel charts changes in the nature of the Asylum's clientele, its ideas about what kinds of children need help, and its views regarding what kinds of help are most appropriate. The Asylum and similar institutions remade themselves in response to a sustained effort by first bureaucratic and then academic reformers to professionalize welfare services.

In the late 19th century, places like the Asylum were managed by middle-class female volunteers who were in control of the daily decisions and activities of the institutions. They knew the family circumstances of each of the children, they were involved in each individual case, and they trusted their own instincts in setting policy. Such hands-on engagement, however, was "exactly the zone that welfare professionals tried to empty when they attacked volunteerism in the early decades of the twentieth century." By the end of the 1920s, the Asylum's managers depended on experts with degrees in social work to set the direction of the institution. This professionalization of welfare radically altered and eventually all but eliminated traditional orphanages.

It also subjected children and their families to erratic policy changes dictated by the latest fashionable psychologizing, all of which would soon be discarded in favor of a newer, trendier theory. The picture that emerges from Cmiel's story is one of frequently fluctuating policies and redefinitions of orphanages that twist and turn back on themselves and often do more harm than good.

In the 19th century, orphanages tended to be autonomous institutions in the business of providing housing for children whose families were suffering some kind of temporary dislocation. As Cmiel notes, the idea of the orphanage of the 1800s was to give parents with insufficient income to keep a home together some "breathing space to get back on their feet." Surprisingly, perhaps more than half of the children living in the Asylum in the late 1800s had two parents, and most children housed in 19th-century orphanages still had at least one living parent. Such orphanages were not meant to be permanent homes for children.

Indeed, the Asylum was originally nothing more than a day-care center for the children of working mothers. Even after the Asylum had been converted into a residential institution, most youngsters stayed less than six months and 86 percent stayed less than two years. By the early 1900s, things had changed. Using money as a carrot for the orphanages, privately run Progressive clearinghouses like the Community Fund bought increasing influence on the way that welfare was managed in Chicago.

Reformist agencies began to exert leverage on places like the Asylum by centralizing the welfare system. While channeling placements through single agencies reduced burdens on parents, it also meant that they had less personal control over where their children ended up. And, says Cmiel, it meant that children with indifferent parents might be "passed from one agency to another by a 'caring' but bureaucratic system."

Other parents actually found themselves battling with the system for custody of their own children. The effect was to diminish the role of parents as custodians of their own sons and daughters.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the Asylum began to view itself as a substitute home for children, and youngsters began staying at the Asylum for years. Managers, directed by the professionals, were now willing to take legal custody of children whose parents they judged psychologically unfit.

Thus, Cmiel describes the case of a father who brought his three children to the Asylum some months after the death of his wife. The case worker reported that the father "feels now it is too hard for him after working all day to come home and do the washing, ironing, and cooking in the evening." The children languished in the Asylum for 10 years, the daughter begging and pleading to be taken home and the boys turning into delinquents.

As Progressive reformers worked to separate children from "bad" parents, writes Cmiel, they also "argued that [normal] children should be kept at home." At orphanages like the Asylum, renamed Chapin Hall in the 1930s, the idea was no longer to provide the child with a "family" environment. Orphanages became places for "emotionally disturbed" children and the focus was on therapy.

By the 1950s, the children at Chapin Hall had more serious problems, and the emphasis now shifted toward psychiatric–and especially psychoanalytic–care. The staff encouraged the children to view themselves as "sick," although some of the youngsters resisted the label. Consistent with the "professional ethos" of the time, caretakers were no longer willing to be viewed as surrogate parents. By the 1960s, the director reinvented Chapin Hall as a state-of-the-art, full-service, state-supported psychiatric group home for emotionally disturbed children.

In the 1970s, however, the psychiatric residential institution fell from grace, in part because no empirical research had ever shown that residential treatment did any good. The experts now favored deinstitutionalization. Chapin Hall closed its doors in 1984 as a home for children and re-opened as a research center affiliated with the University of Chicago. In a sort of Twilight Zone turnabout, Chapin Hall is now a privately and publicly funded monitoring agency of just the sort with which the Asylum and other orphanages had sparred over the years.

During the Progressive Era, recounts Cmiel, the "cottage system" was the favorite alternative choice for housing children when foster care was not an option. The idea was to locate children out in the country in bungalows that tried as much as possible to be like conventional homes. This is the kind of institution to which Richard McKenzie, now a business professor at University of California at Irvine, was sent. If Cmiel's book is a cautionary tale about what can happen to child-care systems when they get into the wrong hands, McKenzie's story helps address the question of whether certain kinds of institutional care are sometimes preferable to living at home when home is intolerable.

Echoing Gingrich's response to his critics, McKenzie wants us to understand that "The Home was a vast improvement on the lives we had known before arriving there." He walks us through his experiences at an orphanage very much like the asylums of the 1950s described by Cmiel, so the books complement each other in satisfying ways. The Home gives us a good sense of the kinds of children who found themselves at places like The Home, the kinds of lives they lived there, and the kinds of people they turned out to be.

McKenzie's Home housed some 200 children at any one time, few of whom were true orphans. Many came from homes disrupted by divorce, abuse, and neglect, and many, by the time they got to The Home, were serious troublemakers. McKenzie describes himself as "the child teachers didn't want in their classrooms: bratty, recalcitrant, prone to fights . I had become a child of the streets."

The average age of the children at The Home from the 1930s to the 1950s was 7 or 8 years and the average stay was 10 years. Children lived in individual houses but ate in a common dining room. The Home was a large and functioning farm in North Carolina, and everyone was expected to work when not in school. The annual cost of care per child, including education, came to less than $5,000 in 1995 dollars.

Over and over, McKenzie compares The Home with what life was like for him and the other children back with their families, and it is this comparison that convinces McKenzie–and the reader–that, given the alternative, The Home was not such a bad place. "The Home provided a setting, albeit an institutional one, that allowed us to come in contact with places, things, and people in varying combinations, most of which helped us to redefine, to one degree or another, our direction," writes McKenzie. This was critical for children with family backgrounds like his: "Those of us who grew up [at The Home] have all had to fight at one time or another the conclusion that we weren't worth much. The people who were important to us neglected us, abused us, dumped us."

McKenzie and his brother found themselves being carted off to an institution by two aunts who assured the boys that "we meant so much to them" and explained that they were sending their nephews to The Home because "they had to." For McKenzie, this was a betrayal. "I knew I was being committed, put away, dumped." By contrast, at The Home, "The message everywhere…was: 'You are worth something. You can do things. You need not let choices made by others hold you back.'" That message was reinforced by what McKenzie calls the "great triad–work, sports, and religion–without which The Home would have been a far different, and less influential, place to grow up."

"For most of us," writes McKenzie, "The Home was a place to change course. It offered a set of experiences that were life-focusing. It gave us constraints, direction, purpose, and inspiration." At The Home, says McKenzie, "I found people…I wanted to make proud."

McKenzie's evaluation of orphanages rings true in part because he also tells you what The Home did not provide. In numerous vignettes threaded throughout the book, we glimpse children who mainly need to feel that they belong to someone. Thus, McKenzie recollects, "When I graduated, I received the 'most athletic' trophy. I was grateful for any award, mostly in the hope that my aunts would come to see me receive it. They never did."

The most touching of these memories focus on what it is like to grow up without a mother. "If there is one thing we missed at The Home, it was having access to the type of person our mothers could have been," writes McKenzie. "If there is anything I would have loved to have had, it is the type of retreat a mother could provide." Musing about religion, McKenzie admits that he hopes God exists and that he has just "missed the evidence. I hope that if He does exist, I will be found good enough when the balance is taken. I say that because I would like very much to be able to see my mother again, to tell her some things, and to find out whether she has been watching."

Such wistful, moving reflections underscore the real dilemma that there are children in America who are living in sub-adequate families. What can we do, what shall we do with them and for them? Psychologists provide some clues regarding the environments that tend to produce self-reliant, self-controlled, confident, persistent, moral, ambitious, friendly, cooperative, generally happy children. Children of this sort tend to come from backgrounds in which caretakers are available, affectionate, and sensitive to their signals. Parents of such children tend to set high standards, define limits, but take the opinions of their children into account. They emphasize rationality. And they are consistent.

It is possible to provide this kind of environment for children in settings other than their homes. But apart from the pragmatic problems of how to construct such an environment and how to pay for it, two other dilemmas remain.

First, people living in a free society rightly shrink from the idea of forcibly removing children from their families. So we have a problem regarding what to do with children whose parents do not wish to place them in some kind of alternative setting. Second, it is unclear how to provide a child in an institutional setting with someone who can take the place of a mother. Parents seem to earn the devotion of their children just because they are their parents. Youngsters who spend most of their waking hours in day care nevertheless become more attached to their mothers than to any substitute caretaker. No one really knows why. Abused children similarly retain an attachment and loyalty to their abusive parents that amazes observers. Again, no one knows why.

McKenzie understands all of this. Here is his unsentimental recommendation: "Today's disadvantaged children need a break. They need love and nurturing. When those precious advantages cannot be provided, children need, at a minimum, a safe, stable, structured, and permanent place that provides opportunities for personal growth, a chance to live down and away from the problems of their past. They need the break I was lucky enough to get at The Home….With all the current talk about family values, we must remember that there are families that value very little, least of all their children. Some families are worse for children than even the worst institutions."

This was the point that Gingrich struggled to make in response to the criticism that his orphanage solution was cruel and heartless. If we want to entertain the orphanage as a way of coping with "no parent" children, McKenzie and Cmiel provide helpful illustrations of the kinds of alternative child-rearing settings that have been tried in the past and important lessons about what pitfalls to avoid.

Gwen Broude (broude@vassar.edu) teaches developmental psychology and cognitive science at Vassar College.