A response: The Best Thing About Orphanages

You can find the full article here:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703510304574626080835477074.html?mod=googlenews_wsj#articleTabs_comments%3D%26articleTabs%3Dcomments

While researching orphan care best practices, I stumbled onto this article and I thought opening this conversation may bring about some dialogue.

According to this article from 2010, it says, “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.

Interesting.  A lot of people (including myself) don’t think that orphanages are superior to foster care.  I think everyone agrees that children are always better off in biological families, IF they are safe for the child.  Where opinions really start to diverge is if that is not a possibility for a child.

I think that it bears pointing out — orphan is a very generic term and I don’t think that there is a blanket solution.  Double orphans, single orphans, economic orphans, abandoned children, abused and neglected children, street children, at risk youth — there are A LOT of labels for these little ones.

There are between 143 – 210 million children who are considered “orphans” in the world today.  The article goes on to talk about US Foster Care, “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.

Permanent temporary care.  That does not sound to me like best practice.  There is a sharp divide among those who are for children in orphan care and I think (like pretty much every other humanitarian issue) there can be common ground and both side have their points.  One particular quote in the article that struck me was this, “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.

More stunning statistics follow:  “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, 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.” [Bold emphasis is mine.]  This article seems to challenge every other best practice study and article that I have read.

In a historical note, the article points out that, “Orphanages were generally created by communities to improve the life chances of the children in their care and, by and large, did just that.”  That is my goal and my heart — improve the life chances of children.  Love.  Permanency.  But I did not see that as being in an orphanage.

There are bad orphanages, bad group homes, bad biological families, bad foster families.  But maybe weeding out the bad is the answer.  And using the good to continue doing what they are successfully doing.  I think that the answer lies in using orphanages, using group homes, using kinship/biological care, using foster care, using adoption.  The point being that each and every child should have their specific needs and circumstances assessed and addressed.  That is what I am starting to see as being true best practice.



2 thoughts on “A response: The Best Thing About Orphanages

  1. A nice and reasonable comment on my WSJ column of three years ago. Have you and associates ever been on the campus of a “modern-day orphanage”? If not, consider walking on the grounds of The Crossnore School in the mountains of NC or the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in SC. Be prepared to be challenged on preconceptions of what “orphanages” can be to day. You might also consider viewing a short (7 minutes) video I produced on Crossnore that is now up on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rp8LaWwzbsc

    Then, watch for an announcement in December of a new model for child welfare that has both public and private support, and could pull you in.

    Richard McKenzie

    • Richard, thank you! I have not been to either of those as of yet, but they have been added to the top of my list to visit immediately. I am very interested in learning more about orphanage models that work that can be replicated both here and in the developing world. I very much enjoyed the video on The Crossnore School as well and I am very much looking forward to the announcement of a new model in December. Thank you for sharing! I seen that you have a book coming out in 2013, I look forward to reading that as well. Congrats!

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