Prior to President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, institutional placement was considered the “best method” of caring for dependent youth. Boards of trustees comprised of community leaders volunteered to oversee the operation of these institutions. They raised funds, hired and supervised staff, admitted children and dictated policy with little or no government funding or supervision.
This philosophy changed when the Progressive Movement ordained the government-run foster care system the new “best practice.”
In both cases, alumni had little or no say in the matter … nor do we today. For the past 150 years, non-alumni have decided what is in our “best interests.”
But what do alumni have to say about which of these very different approaches is the “best way” to care for dependent youth?
Take for example Dr. Richard McKenzie who detailed the positive influence of growing up in a North Carolina orphanage in his 1996 book The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage, including the results of surveying the over 1,000 living alumni of The Home – averaging age 66.
When asked whether they would rather have grown up in foster care, over 90% said no and less than 1% said yes. Furthermore, the orphans described themselves as “very happy” at a rate twice that of the general population. They surpassed the national norms in education, income and employment, and compared to the general population the orphans reported relatively low rates of emotional difficulty, incarceration and need for public assistance.
Alumni Dr. Phil Craft and Dr. Stan Friedland, co-authors of the 1998 book An Orphan has Many Parents, reinforce Dr. McKenzie’s findings. Their informal survey of over 200 boys and girls who aged out of a Jewish orphanage in Brooklyn found that none of the residents were ever in trouble with the law, all graduated high school, most finished college and many went on to graduate and professional schools.
In a personal communication, Dr. Friedland added: “Many of those surveyed also had foster care experience in their childhood and, to a person, felt that their orphanage residency was far superior in every respect.”
Alumni who have lived in both orphanage and foster placement seem to favor orphanages over the alternatives. Alumna Dr. Rosalind Folman is noted thusly on pages 156-157 of our 2009 book, Growing Up in the Care of Strangers:
“Finally, one major theme came to the fore, both in my life and in the lives of the hundreds of children whom I have interviewed: It is how children live that matters, not where children live. The best example of this is an overlooked and underestimated group of foster children who thrive because of their placement experience, children who grew up in institutions, such as children’s homes and orphanages.
Because of the misguided emphasis on ‘where’ children live, as opposed to ‘how’ they live, policymakers and politicians largely eliminated these institutions in favor of foster care. They mistakenly believed that foster care would provide children the next best thing to the nuclear family … this approach failed decades ago.”
Based upon the research cited earlier, we suspect that institutions trump foster families in terms of both quality of care and quality of outcomes. Maybe like anything, each has its good and bad points. Rather than suspecting, however, we need to find out.
Where, when and why to place dependent kids are three of the many important issues a national survey of alumni will address.
What we do know with absolute certainty, however, is that “how” foster kids live is the crux of the matter.
A child will flower in poverty if only she is loved, yet wither in the wealth of a heartless millionaire.
Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.
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