NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Welfare Reform Has Renewed Interest In Orphanages

January 14, 1999

A provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law allowing public funding of for-profit "residential centers" -- orphanages -- for children is spurring interest in the construction of private facilities, say experts.

Orphanages have traditionally not only served children with no living parents, but also those whose parents who could not support them, according to Timothy A. Hacsi, author of "Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America."

  • From the 1830s to the 1930s, orphanages, most of which were privately funded and associated with religious sects, were the primary way dependent children received care.
  • While some sought to isolate children from their families, they increasingly adopted an integrative approach involving the community and the children's parents.
  • Beginning in the 1890s, however, "placing-out advocates" such as Charles Loring Brace and his Children's Aid Society criticized the regimentation of institutional care and advocated foster care as a better alternative, "since it permanently separated them from their parents," says Hacsi.

Since many experts -- for instance, participants in the 1909 White House Conference on Dependent Children convened by President Theodore Roosevelt -- agreed home settings were better, orphanages were largely replaced with foster care and government financial support to keep families together. In the 1930s, the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program was enacted with the aim of keeping impoverished families together.

By the 1980s, the commitment of child welfare proponents to family maintenance and reunification was seriously tested by the crack epidemic's creation of huge number of "parentless" children; in Chicago, for example, the number of children in foster care increased by more than fourfold in a decade.

While some experts and politicians are urging reconsideration of residential schools, one problem is that orphanages are more costly than foster care.

Source: Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars), "The Kindness of Strangers," New Republic, December 28, 1998.


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