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The Best Thing About Orphanages


By Richard B. McKenzie

January 15, 2010 / wsj.com

Last month, Duke University researchers issued the first report on their multiyear study of 3,000 orphaned, abandoned and neglected children in developing countries in Africa and East and South Asia. About half were reared in small and large "institutions" (or orphanages) and half in "community" programs (kin and foster care). Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

Critics of orphanages point out that children are always better off in loving and safe biological families. That's always been the case, of course, but many kids have no hope of access to such families. There are about 143 million orphaned children, and tens of millions more abandoned, in the world today. Over a half-million American kids are in foster care (which is often luxury care by the standards of orphanage care in poor countries), but still a sizable percentage of American foster-care kids will have their disadvantages compounded in one important way: They will spend their entire childhoods in the worst of all possible situations, "permanent temporary care," in which they will be moved from one placement to the next to the next, many losing count of their foster homes before they "age out" of the system at 18.

When Newt Gingrich suggested in 1994 that many welfare kids would be better off in orphanages, Hillary Clinton declared the proposal "unbelievable and absurd." Conventional child-welfare wisdom hasn't changed much since.

I watched the Gingrich-Clinton debate with a personal interest, having grown up in an orphanage in North Carolina in the 1950s. I wrote a column for this newspaper defending my own orphanage and others like it: "Most critics would like the public to believe that those of us who went through orphanages were throttled by the experience. No doubt, some were. However, most have charged on." The children at Barium Springs Home for Children worked a lot and didn't get the hugs many children take for granted, but we did get advantages that many children today don't get—a sense of security, permanence and home. I was shocked by the number of orphanage alumni who called, faxed or emailed in agreement. What's more, many added, "My orphanage was better than yours," which made me wonder if the experts knew what they were talking about. During the past decade I have surveyed more than 2,500 alumni from 15 American orphanages. In two journal articles, I reported the same general conclusion: The orphanage alumni have outpaced their counterparts in the general population often by wide margins in almost all social and economic measures, including educational attainment, income and positive attitude toward life. White orphanage alumni had a 39% higher rate of college graduation than white Americans of the same age in the general population, and less than 3% had hostile memories of their orphanage experiences. University of Alabama historian David Beito replicated the study with several hundred alumni from another orphanage, reaching much the same conclusions.Five years ago, George Cawood directed a documentary, "Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America's Orphanages," for which crews traveled to four orphanage homecomings where the aging alumni gathered by the hundreds to celebrate their childhood memories. The producers and cameramen were amazed at the fond memories the alumni reported and feared that they had not filmed enough bad memories to achieve the "dramatic tension" needed to keep audience interest. Nevertheless, I am proud to have been executive producer on the project, because the filmmakers produced an award-winning, honest and powerful oral history of orphanage life that has since aired on many PBS stations across the country.Before 1900, life expectancy was short, which resulted in many orphans. In the 1800s, the "orphan trains" that sent many street kids from New York and other urban centers to live with Protestant farm families in the Midwest inspired Catholic and Jewish groups to establish second-best solutions—orphanages—to prevent their own children from being converted to Protestantism. Conventional wisdom has it that all orphanages through the centuries were set up for no higher purpose than to abuse children, as Oliver was treated in Dickens's novel. But a new collection of academic histories of orphanages dating to the first millennium, which I edited, draws a different conclusion: Orphanages were generally created by communities to improve the life chances of the children in their care and, by and large, did just that.

There were bad orphanages in the past, and there are, no doubt, bad orphanages across the globe, but the same can just as easily be said of many biological and foster families. Good orphanages, which provide long-term care for disadvantaged children (and are different from group homes, which provide short-term care, often for difficult children), are not the only solution for all modern child-welfare problems, but neither is foster care nor adoption. Children need options, including orphanage care.

Critics are right on one point: Orphanages are far too expensive. Unfortunately, too many orphanage proponents and directors are convinced that all such care has to be "high quality" (or better than family care), which means high cost and limited access. But make no mistake about it: Orphanages are returning slowly across this country and around the world because communities see the need is so great.

The world needs a Sam Walton of child welfare who can show how to provide lots of kids with pretty good care at very good prices—comparable to the full cost, including administrative overhead and foster-parent payments, of foster care—as did orphanages of the past. Ed Shipman, founder of Happy Hills Farm on the plains of Texas, and Phyllis Crain, head of The Crossnore School deep in the mountains of North Carolina, are showing the way. Visit these modern-day orphanages and be prepared to be wowed. The reality of these homes for hundreds of kids is "unbelievable," but not in the way that Mrs. Clinton suggested.

Mr. McKenzie, an economics and management professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the editor of "Home Away From Home: The Forgotten History of Orphanages" (2009).

2010 Jan 15