NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Foster Care versus Modern Orphanages

February 6, 2014

Arguably, child welfare officials should understand that children need some stability in their lives, something that was once offered in orphanages and is not offered in foster care, says Richard McKenzie, the Walter B. Gerken Professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, and a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

McKenzie surveyed 2,500 aging alumni who lived in 15 American orphanages prior to the mid-1960s. The orphanage alumni at the time of his research had outpaced their age counterparts on education, income and attitudes toward life (and a couple of dozen other social-economic measures):

  • The alumni had a median income 10 percent to 60 percent higher than the general population in their age group; in part because they had a 39 percent higher college graduation rate.
  • They also had substantially lower unemployment and crime rates.
  • More than 85 percent of the alumni reported favorable or very favorable assessments of their orphanage days. A scant 2 percent reported unfavorable memories.

The vast majority of the alumni shuddered at the thought of spending their youth in foster care. 

Surely there have been, and continue to be, bad orphanages in the world, but such could just as surely be said of biological family care, and certainly of foster care.

Critics sometimes acknowledge positive life outcomes for alumni of orphanages of the past, but question the ability to orphanages to function today. McKenzie spent the fall of 2011 embedded in a self-proclaimed "modern-day orphanage," the Crossnore School, hidden in the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains and home to close to a hundred children in all grades who openly talked with him about their life experiences, before and during Crossnore.

  • A seriously withdrawn 13 year old read on the fourth-grade level on admission, but she graduated from high school on time, and then went to community college.
  • A teenage girl was admitted after enduring sexual abuse from age 8 to 11 from her stepfather. After years of truancy, she graduated on time and now attends community college.
  • A 12-year-old boy, who faced a tragic childhood because of his father's psychoses, developed a network of middle school drug dealers. When caught at age 14, Crossnore took a chance on him and reversed his miserable school record. On high school graduation, he became the first teenager to be hired on a major 2008 presidential campaign. He recently graduated on a full scholarship from an elite Northeastern university -- with honors.

There is a need for a menu of care options, including adoption and children's homes.  Foster care -- with kids often going through up to a dozen or more placements before aging out of the system -- should not be the only child care game in town.

Source: Richard B. McKenzie, "Foster Care versus Modern Orphanages," National Center for Policy Analysis, February 2014.


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