Child welfare, as we know it today in America, began with the establishment of orphanages. If these institutions were a safe and effective haven for vulnerable children, why have disappeared? And where are the children?
According to Google, “orphanage near me” is one of the most common phrases people search before clicking on the Embrace website. Closely followed by “where can I donate used suitcases” (which is another post for another day). There are a couple of conclusions we can draw from these analytics:
1. People in our community care about neglected, abused, and abandoned children, and
2. It’s assumed many of these children live in orphanages.
Whether hoping to volunteer, donate items or money, or adopt a child, a quick internet search is a common first step. Unfortunately, misconceptions about how our state cares for vulnerable children can derail individuals hoping to learn and serve. A clearer picture of our child welfare system can help translate good intentions into meaningful impact that changes lives.
Orphanages are a common theme in literature and Hollywood, and a tragic backstory of many heroes and villains alike. Images of stately brick buildings and rooms lined with rows of tidy beds come to mind, as well as darker, Dickensian visions of children at rough tables with bowls of porridge.
But, where do orphanages really fit into the story of child welfare in America?
Orphanages, as we think of them today, first appeared in the United States in the early 1800’s. Although frequently understaffed and overcrowded, these facilities succeeded in preventing homelessness, trafficking, death, and child labor for many orphans, or foundlings*. Today, terms like vulnerable children better describe the vast majority of children being served, since most have at least one living parent. Ratios of caregivers to children in orphanages were poor at best, but interaction with local volunteers leading worship services, tutoring, helping with meals, and hosting children over holidays provided some semblance of normalcy and one-on-one interaction.
War, disease and poverty in the 1800’s left many children orphaned by the death of their parents, but orphanages were largely populated by children of the living poor. Beyond sheltering the less fortunate, orphanages were seen by wealthy benefactors as an opportunity to instruct and mold disenfranchised children into self reliant, law-abiding adults. Some children were voluntarily placed in orphanages, however the poor, immigrants, minorities, and Native Americans were often deemed “unfit” to care for their own children. As a result, many children were removed from their parents and sent to orphanages. When orphanages in urban areas became overpopulated, children were placed on trains to the midwest to be “put up” for adoption**. Literally displayed on a platform for selection by families. While some children were welcomed and loved as family members, many were seen as commodities available to shoulder a portion of the farming workload.
Around the turn of the century, the era of the orphanage in America began its decline. Studies published in the early 1900s revealed the harmful effects of institutionalization on children. Child development, health, and attachment studies verified the many benefits of growing up in a nurturing, family setting. By the 1960s, the number of children in foster homes vastly outnumbered those in institutions. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act passed in 1980 further cemented efforts to place children in the least restrictive and most family-like setting possible. As the age of the orphanage wound down, churches looked to their denominationally-affiliated orphanages to transition into faith-based foster care agencies. Most congregations sustained little more than a vague connection to the care of these children through financial support of these agencies and maternity homes.
Today, 90% of children in foster care live with foster families or licensed relatives. Only a few children’s homes remain part of the foster care system in Texas. These are now known as residential treatment centers (RTCs), and primarily serve teens displaced by repeated, failed foster placements. RTCs provide some stability and structure where foster care did not, but longterm outcomes for young adults leaving a childhood spent institutionalized are very grim. After 150 years of evolving child welfare practices, our nation has arrived at a simple solution: Families are the answer.
So, where does this leave our compassionate “Googlers” asking where the nearest orphanage is? Those who envisioned the needs of hurting children concentrated together but find them, instead, dispersed in families across our community? Embrace exists to connect individuals, small groups, and churches to the needs of foster and adoptive children, at-risk families, and teens who “age-out” of foster care. This unique ministry identifies needs and creates opportunities for the church and community to roll up their sleeves, and care for these children and families. Volunteers serving with Embrace provide meals, babysit, photograph children waiting for adoption, host “Angel Trees”, facilitate adoption events, sponsor children, meet tangible needs, and get a front row seats to incredible healing and restoration. Some even go on to open their hearts and homes to children in need.
Because children’s healing happens most successfully as part of a family, the focus of Embrace’s programs and services are sustaining the health and stability of families opening their homes to care for children. These foster, adoptive, and kinship care parents are on the front lines! When caregivers receive support through Embrace, they serve with increased excellence and endurance. They open their homes to care for more children, older children, and children with significant special needs. This means fewer siblings separated in foster care, sent far away from their home communities, or staying in shelters. Research on child attachment, trauma, and mental health that led to the transition away from institutions still informs our approach today. Visit our volunteer or giving pages to become a part of the solution for vulnerable children and families in our community.
*Terms such as “orphans” or “foundlings” are rarely used today, as they incorrectly describe the situation of most children in foster care
**“Placed for adoption” is a preferable phrase to “put up for adoption” or “given up for adoption”