Hey, Look Everybody! The Magic Orphanage Is Back!

Every few years media and politicians fall in love with another Magic Orphanage. News stories assure us that the Magic Orphanage is nothing like those mean old Victorian places. Now “house parents” supposedly work miracles with happy children rescued from their horrible parents.

60 Minutes spun that story about Maryville Academy near Chicago. Florida reporters flocked to SOS Children’s Village. And of course former House Speaker Newt Gingrich cited Boys Town when pushing the idea of orphanages for the children of parents whose only crime was poverty. (Give Gingrich credit for this much: He was honest about the purpose of orphanages.)

And now, behold! Marie Cohen offers a new candidate for Magic Orphanage: The Crossnore School. Apparently based on that most objective of sources, the school’s website, Cohen gushes about the place. Nineteen – count ‘em, 19! – different forms of therapy! An adventure playground! Almost all the kids graduate from high school! What could be better?

Newt_Gingrich_by_Gage_Skidmore_8
At least Newt Gingrich was honest about the purpose of orphanages. Photo by Gage Skidmore

A family, that’s what. A “house parent” is not a parent. (For starters, they typically quit every year or two.) And “homelike,” a word that appears all over the website, is not home.

When people with no ax to grind look at orphanages, they come to very different conclusions. It takes three single-spaced pages just to list the studies describing the harm of institutionalization. Institutions that rebrand as “residential treatment centers” do no better. The younger the child, the worse the harm. Crossnore institutionalizes children as young as one year old.

As for all that therapy: Now that we’ve invented the automobile, it’s possible to bring children to therapists and therapists to children without actually making children live in an institution. It works for playgrounds, too.

The graduation rate probably is helped by the fact that Crossnore decides whom to take and whom to exclude. Crossnore also takes private placements, so not all of those graduates are foster children.

But the big advantage Crossnore has is, of course, money. Crossnore spends $66,265.06 per year per child – and that’s just the operating budget.

A Better Way to Spend $66,265

Now, let’s consider a case from another Cohen column: a 19-year-old who came forward to adopt his 3-year-old son. Cohen bemoans the fact that a judge placed the child with his father – who had never abused or neglected him – instead of letting foster parents adopt him. She notes that the father was unemployed and had not finished high school.

But what would happen if we provided the father with a new house, and $66,265 per year to help him finish high school, go to college, get a job and provide whatever other help he and his son needed?

Given what a mere $4,000 can do, that kind of help really could work magic.

But Cohen is horrified at the thought of this child being raised by his own father, and joyous at the prospect of children like him, and even younger, being raised in institutions.

The people working real magic are those who have realized institutions are a failure and are working to change their own institutions – including some that used to get the Magic Orphanage treatment in the media.

There’s one other problem with Magic Orphanages. Sometimes, things are pretty ugly behind the curtain.

  • Six years after 60 Minutes visited Maryville Academy, it was revealed to be a place of terror for many of the children confined there. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that “the place is often up for grabs, with staff struggling to handle suicide attempts, sex abuse, drug use, fights and vandalism…” In 2001, police were called to Maryville 909 times.

By 2004, Illinois had pulled all 270 state wards out of Maryville – something it could do because it had done such a good job of reducing needless foster care.

  • At SOS Children’s Village in Florida, between 1999 and 2001, 33 reports were filed with Florida’s child abuse hotline alleging abuse of children at the 50-bed facility; 21 were “substantiated” or “indicated.” During the same time period, 13 “house parents” and 14 “parent assistants” quit or were fired.
  • And in 2010, the state of Nebraska suspended admissions to two programs run by Boys Town amid allegations of misuse and overuse of “restraints” and medication.

Those are just the magic orphanages. When it comes to typical institutions, we’re not talking rotten apples, we’re talking rotten barrels.

Get the children who don’t need to be in any form of substitute care back into their own homes, and there will be plenty of room in good, safe, foster homes for the children who really need them. And no one will even think of warehousing more children in orphanages.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).