Orphanages: Did They Throttle the Children in Their Care?

Richard B. McKenzie1, Walter B. Gerken Professor of Enterprise, Graduate School of Business University of California, Irvine

Center of the American Experiment, May 1995

Executive Summary

Child care professionals condemn orphanages, which operated throughout the country during the first two-thirds of this century, for severely damaging the children in their care. This paper presents preliminary findings from a survey of several hundred former “orphans,” all of whom are now middle-aged or older. In contrast to the claims of orphanages’ critics, this study reports that when compared to their counterparts in the general population, the orphans have:

  • A lower divorce rate.
  • A significantly higher level of education, with many more college and advanced degrees.
  • A significantly higher mean income.
  • A far lower unemployment rate.
  • A far lower poverty rate.
  • A minuscule rate of reliance on public assistance.
  • A minuscule arrest rate.
  • A substantially lower rate of mental and emotional disorders.
  • And a higher rate of participation in elections.

The orphans also have a far more optimistic attitude toward life than the general population, with few reporting emotional problems because of their institutional care. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the orphans report that they prefer the way they grew up to the way they would have grown up in foster care or in their own families, and that they have a “very favorable” overall assessment of their orphanage.

What is striking about these findings, which are supported by hard statistics, is that if the claims of child-care professionals were to be taken seriously, the orphans should have done much worse than their counterparts in the general population. The performance of the orphans cannot be explained by the high cost of their institutional care. Their real cost of care in the 1960s and before was only a minor fraction of the widely reported cost of institutional care today.

Future reports by the author will cover the reactions of alumni from several additional homes for children.


Almost a year and a-half ago, in December 1993, I was having dinner with economist Richard McKenzie and two other friends in St. Paul when the conversation turned to children in great need. I said whatever I’ve been known to say on the subject, whereupon he noted that he had grown up in an orphanage in North Carolina during the 1950s. Without tarrying more than a second, I said something like, “You’ve gotta write about that,” adding that American Experiment would be very much interested in publishing such a piece.

Six months or so later Professor McKenzie called to say that he had just finished a draft of a book about growing up in an orphanage, and would I be interested in reading it. Of course, I said, but frankly, I had not expected him to take me so literally at book length. But then again, insofar as the soon-to-be published The Home: From the Inside is about his 20th book, I should not have been surprised by his industry.

So intrigued, in fact, had he grown with the question of orphanages and what they might still offer vulnerable children, that in addition to the book (which is an intimately personal story), Dr. McKenzie embarked on a scholarly study of the subject. This superb essay, “Orphanages: Did They Throttle the Children in their Care?” is the first product of that ongoing project.

More specifically, it reports on a survey he just conducted of more than 300 fellow alumni of the Barium Springs Home for Children. Suffice it to say that you will be struck by how remarkably well these now middle-age and elderly men and women have done in life — adults who started off with anything but great fortune.

Likewise, you will be taken back by the immense gulf between the success of Barium Springs graduates on the one side, and the denigrating orthodoxy about orphanages held to by most child-care professionals on the other. A few excerpts highlight these points.

  • The Census [Dr. McKenzie writes] found that 73 percent of Americans, 45 and older, had high school diplomas. About 88 percent of the alumni [of Barium Springs] had such diplomas, a 21 percent higher graduation rate.
  • The unemployment rate for the country’s entire labor force averaged over 6 percent in 1994. The alumni who were not retired had an unemployment rate of 0.6 percent, less than one-tenth of the national average.
  • The following question has been asked of a large number of Americans since 1957: “Taking all things together, how would you say things are going these days?” In 1994, 29 percent of respondents in the general population indicated they were “very happy”; 59 percent indicated they were “somewhat happy”; and 12 percent indicated they were “not too happy.”The alumni, on the other hand, indicate a far more positive attitude toward life: 67 percent are “very happy” (over twice the percentage for the general population); 29 percent are “somewhat happy”; and less than 3 percent are “not too happy” (one-fourth the percentage for the general population).

“No doubt,” Dr. McKenzie concludes, “some orphanages of the past were horrible places. All had flaws. But the same could be said of families, the traditional and not-so-traditional ones and the government-supported variants. Given what I’ve read to date, I must wonder if many child-care professionals simply do not want to believe that even some orphanages, on balance, did some good work.”

At root, it seems to me, Professor McKenzie has two overriding things to say in this paper.

First, that with millions of American children in severe distress because of frequent family melt-down, we must take advantage of all possible means to help them. Most certainly, this means not allowing the reflexive and empirically groundless dismissals of “experts” to nullify orphanages as life-saving options for some kids. Open-mindedness is a virtue.

And second, this essay — this act of social science though it may be — says thank you, beautifully and with an open heart, to his “Home” and to the good people who ran it.

Richard B. McKenzie is the Walter B. Gerken Professor of Enterprise and Society in the Graduate School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent books include What Went Right in the 1980s and Quicksilver Capital: How the Rapid Movement of Wealth Has Changed the World (with Dwight R. Lee). He also wrote a 1994 paper for American Experiment, “Free to Move: The Economic Foundations of the States’ Bidding War for Business.”

As for the paper in hand, he gave an earlier version of it last March 29 at a Center symposium, under the aeigs of our Vin Weber and Tim Penny Distinguished Senior Fellows Program. He also led a roundtable conversation later that morning with a smaller number of local child-care officials. My enormous thanks to him for joining us in the Twin Cities (for a second time actually in 15 months), and for giving us the opportunity to publish and share this unusually important contribution.

American Experiment members receive free copies of all Center publications, including “Orphanages: Did They Throttle the Children in Their Care?” Additional copies are $4 for members and $5 for nonmembers. Bulk discounts are available for schools, civic groups and other organizations. Please note our phone and address on the first page of this Foreword for membership information.

Thanks very much and, as always, I welcome your comments.

Mitchell B. Pearlstein, President | May 1995

(I) Introduction

When the words “orphan” and “orphanage” are used, Americans typically recoil, almost by reflex, in fear that the children who grew up in them had the crudest and cruelest of childhoods. Many Americans might even worry that children from orphanages had to plead regularly for “more gruel” (the presumed food of choice), as did Oliver Twist, only to be rebuffed with equal regularity by the meanest of caretakers. Harsh, unrelenting critics of orphanages — who now include the First Lady, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and virtually all child-care experts, most of whom have had no experience with the way homes for children were operated in an earlier era — continue to play on popular images of orphanages to the detriment, regrettably, of an untold number of children.

I understand all too well what others have said about orphanages. I’ve listened quietly and intently for decades. However, the claims of the critics have recently become so grotesque that I can no longer remain quiet. I know that the contorted descriptions of orphanages are out of whack and out of date. I grew up in a home for children in the 1950s, and I’m pleased that I had the opportunity to do so.2 Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered just how former “orphans” have done over the years and how they, not child-care experts, assess their experience. I report here some of my early findings. However, before I report the facts, consider the strong sentiments of the critics of homes for children.

(II) The Condemnation of Critics

Nationally syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman considers suggestions that orphanages should be reinvigorated to be the work of policy extremists. She comments, “These orphanages [in the early part of this century] were not only Dickensian institutions where children were literally lost, but they were expensive,” and she ends her sarcastic and cynical condemnation with a jab, “Orphanages, How Refreshing.”3 First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton kept the anti-orphanage chant going in the media in the fall of 1994 when she suggested that the idea of bringing back orphanages is “unbelievable and absurd.”4

Of course, most of the nation’s largest news magazines carried major stories toward the end of 1994 on the “storm over orphanages,” which was Time magazine’s characterization of last fall’s short-lived debate. Newsweek probably sold a lot of magazines in late 1994 by appealing to public prejudices with its cover story, “The Orphanage: Is It Time to Bring Them Back?”5 Readers of that issue might remember that the cover carried a turn-of-the-century black and white photograph of a group of orphan girls, all about six to eight years old, with identical dresses that had all the styling of feed sacks. Each of the girls had identical bowl-cut hairdos, and each stared empty-eyed, with out-stretched begging arms, toward the photographer. The picture answered, probably for most readers, the question on the cover.

1. Child-care professionals

Child-care professionals and their organizations are, generally, dead set against seriously reconsidering the resurrection of orphanages. They appear intent on dismissing the subject out of hand with dramatic, and often ill-supported claims about how bad all orphanages were, with no distinction among them. Robert Feldman, dean of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, argues that any suggestion to revive orphanages is “nothing more than Hollywood illusions.” Moreover, he contends, “Children raised in custodial homes [meaning orphanages] are more likely to have serious problems adjusting to society when they leave. Children reared in supportive, family-like environments will become better adults, parents and taxpayers — all things that [Speaker of the U.S. House] Mr. Gingrich says he wants.”6 We can only wonder if the implied choice is a false one.

Eve Smith, a child-care professional and editor of an academic journal, recently concluded with little hesitation or qualification:

Examination of the historical record of orphanages of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century reveals characteristics that would make the creation of a new system of orphanages expensive and highly unfeasible. Proponents of new orphanages would also have the burden of disproving past criticism by professionals, based on the perceived harm done to children by institutional care.7

Professor Smith — who apparently couldn’t resist dubbing orphanages “asylums” and the children who lived in them “inmates” (the long-out-of-date tags for orphanages and orphans) — recites a favorite list of problems found in orphanages. According to Professor Smith, “extreme” forms of abuse — physical, sexual, and mental — were largely unchecked in orphanages. She also faulted the institutions for excluding children deemed “immoral” and for requiring the children to be “compliant, respectful, and well-behaved,” and for not allowing the children “to ‘talk back’ to their adult care-givers.”8 Moreover, Smith charges, the staffs of the homes were lowly paid and untrained, a sure-fire sign that they were all inclined to “exploit” their charges.

You might think that such condemnations of orphanages would always be supported by references to data-based research, especially since they frequently appear in academic publications. But in general-interest commentaries and even in many scholarly discussions of orphanages, citations are often provided only very sparingly, and most of the citations to the literature are to other child-care experts who have registered a variety of equally severe criticisms of orphanages but, again, often without reference to meaningful data to substantiate the claims. Professor Smith does provide a few approving comments on homes for children, but these few positive signs are overwhelmed by much longer and more frequent quotations of the negative sides of orphanages.

The Child Welfare League of America has declared its unfaltering opposition to a return to orphanage care of the nation’s neglected, unwanted, abused, and disadvantaged children. In a news release, the CWLA announced a widely repeated “fact” that quality institutional care of children would cost a minimum of $36,500 per child per year, and anything less would “yield Dickensian conditions,” only to fortify its opposition with the following claims:

  • Children experience a great deal of stress and trauma when they are forced to leave their birth parents. Severe emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems result.
  • Child welfare experts recognize that orphanages are the wrong place for children who 1) have a loving parent capable of caring for them, and 2) have no need for residential care and treatment.9

You might think the CWLA would support its position with reams of hard data. Not so. When asked for documentation, it sent a copy of Eve Smith’s article, which, as noted, is mainly a series of unsubstantiated claims. What is fascinating about my work in this area is the extent to which so many child-care professionals “know” that virtually all homes for children were harmful to children, yet cannot point to studies that are directly relevant to the type of institution in which many other children and I grew up.

In contrast to many of their professional colleagues, Mary Ford and Joe Kroll, writing for the North American Council on Adoptable Children, have admirably identified studies that do provide some data on the impact of institutionalization on children’s development.10 Consequently their work must be taken seriously.11 At the same time, it must be noted that they find nothing but damage in the research of child-care professionals, leading them to condemn with a broad brush all institutional child care for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are:

Institutionalized children are denied the opportunity to form a consistent relationship with a caregiver in their early years and are at serious risk for developmental problems and long-term personal disorders.

Many [institutionalized children] are insecurely attached. Institutionalized children lack sympathy, seek behavior in negative ways, exhibit poor self-confidence, show indiscriminate affection toward adults, are prone to noncompliance, and are more aggressive than their non-institutionalized counterparts.12

2. Claims and evidence

Maybe child-care professionals have important anecdotal evidence. Maybe those who are unable to cite studies have not had the time to do the requisite literature search and research. But maybe the available studies are not as strong as the available claims about the studies.

There are studies available, but the evidence does not, I submit, measure up to the force of the widely repeated claims. Some of the evidence marshaled against homes for children relates only to “maternal deprivation,” or the short-term of loss of a (presumably loving and nurturing) mother, not to the types of neglectful and abusive mothers some children have to endure.13

Much of the evidence cited in the condemnations applies not to homes for children, as I knew mine, but to mental institutions, nurseries, hospitals, and crisis management and juvenile detention centers. Many of the children studied were quite young — under two years of age — when they were institutionalized. The stays of the children in their “institutions” were often temporary, a matter of months or a few years, resulting in assessments of children who did not have the security that comes with a long-term stay.

The children studied (and, it needs to be kept in mind, that the available studies often deal with no more than a dozen or two children at most) may also have had constantly revolving care givers (as many as 50 in one series of studies, all of whom were instructed not to form attachments to the children) in the short time the children were institutionalized, not exactly the type of conditions that would lead to normal and productive lives.

Moreover, the children studied had to cope with the difficulties of being adopted or restored to their families. No wonder some of these children were traumatized, overly inclined to seek affection, overly friendly to strangers, and disinclined to make attachments with friends (among other criticisms). And it should be stressed that the studies cited depend on the assessments of the adopted parents or the restored parents, which means we must wonder whose problems were the subject of the assessment, the children or the adults involved.

Finally, many of these studies are focused on only a handful of behaviors and characteristics exhibited by the children under study, not the multitude of human behaviors and characteristics that determine just how productive and stable children will be over the course of their adult lives.14 The children studied could have been deprived in some ways (for example, denied attention from adults) but advantaged in many others (for example, instilled with a work ethic) by their institutions.

The short of the matter is that just because child-care experts say that orphanages damaged children, it doesn’t follow that the case has been made, at least not for all institutional child care. We should look to what the orphans have done with their lives. Nevertheless, the imagery of a difficult life is fortified with the frequent association of homes for children with “warehouses”; a picture which is then juxtaposed with astronomical estimates of the cost of care.

No doubt, some orphanages of the past were horrible places. All had flaws. But the same could be said of families, the traditional and not-so-traditional ones and the government-supported variants. Given what I’ve read to date, I must wonder if many child-care professionals simply do not want to believe that even some orphanages, on balance, did some good work. Given their blanket condemnations, I must wonder if child-care experts are simply defending their professional turf and funding.

Instead of always pointing to cases of damaged children, might our time be more productively employed finding out how well the alumni have done over the years; determining which homes, on balance, worked well; and trying to figure out how the best features of the best homes can be affordably replicated today? Could we not benefit from seeking to improve on the good institutional forms of the past?

(III) Personal Assessments

My work on orphanages is, naturally, colored by my childhood experience. Last November, I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal (that, incidentally, has been reprinted more times than anything else I’ve written).15 It was a personal, emotionally charged statement concerned with my assessment of life in my home for children. In that column, I acknowledged that at The Home we lacked many things — frequent baths and shoes, and the daily hugs other children take for granted — but I also stressed a point that is too often overlooked: “Critics of orphanages stress what the children there did not have. Those of us who were there have a different perspective. We were, and remain, able to draw a comparison between what we had [at The Home] and what we would have had outside it.” In my view, so many of the things that child-care experts now fault orphanages for simply did not matter to us. I stressed that, “with all the current talk about ‘family values,’ we must never forget that some families value very little. Sometimes, families work less well than even the worst of institutions.”

Before I went public with that commentary, I worried that my experience was out of the ordinary, that maybe I had the good fortune of being sent to a home for children that was unusual, that my impressions of life in an orphanage were distorted by the successes of my immediate “brothers and sisters” at The Home. Frankly, I have discovered that my worries were largely unfounded.

Again, I understand that every home for children has flaws and has experienced failures with some of the children in its care. Mine clearly had faults (in terms of the bad memories that some people relate). The child-care experts who have been interviewed for the avalanche of media reports have emphasized the failures of homes for children, as perhaps they should. At the same time, the reports need balance.

“Balance” in media reports on orphanages implies an equal number of interviews with children who had good and bad experiences in their orphanages. “Dear Abby” followed the usual pattern of giving one column to reports from orphans who had fond memories of their childhoods and a column to those who had dreadful memories.16

My experience suggests that “balance” should imply interviews that reflect the distribution of good and bad experiences of children who grew up in homes. In other words, people need to look at the “batting average” of homes. My experience suggests that the “batting average” is far more favorable than that which is described by interviews in the media and by assessments in the child-care literature.

I have been touched by former “orphans” from across the country who, in reaction to my column, have written or called to say, with all the emotional force they can muster, “Right on! The home I grew up in is dear to my heart, also. I share your fond and enduring memories.” A professor of medicine at Baylor University called for no other purpose than to say his home made his career possible. An executive vice president of a subsidiary of one of the nation’s largest banks wrote that my words brought back fond memories of work at the dairy in the wee morning hours and the lighting of the Christmas tree in the central dining hall at his home for children.

A woman from northern California wrote to tell me she and her classmates will be returning this year to homecoming to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their graduation from their home, which they remember only with fondness. Another successful businessman wrote, “Thank God and the Southern Baptists of North Carolina for the orphanage that I was fortunate enough to be placed in.” A professor of marketing in Mississippi wrote to tell me that she had the good fortune of serving on the board of a home in Florida, an experience that led her and her husband to add a provision to their wills that their “two sons, if orphaned, would go there [to the Florida children’s home] rather than to relatives on either side of the family.” A practicing child psychiatrist from Oregon wrote to tell me that he was old enough to have witnessed the demise of orphanages and the growing dominance of the foster-care system, and the harm the latter has done, and continues to do, to children mainly because of the “terrible risk of foster home roulette.” He regrets his active participation in the demolition process.

Columnist Mike Royko, who dared to advocate a return of orphanages as a partial solution to the country’s growing child-care problems, has received a steady stream of mail from former “orphans” who have nothing but praise for the way they grew up. Royko asks prophetically, “What’s going on here?”17 I have to wonder also, and my wondering has led me to conduct some research that, you might think, would have been done repeatedly before now. In my research, I am asking former residents of homes for disadvantaged (not severely troubled) children to address two questions:

  • How have things turned out for you?
  • How do you now assess your childhood experiences at your home for children?

(IV) Work in Progress

My research is “in progress,” given that I only began my survey work at the start of this year. Before the year is out, I intend to survey the alumni from as many as eight orphanages. However, only three groups have been contacted to date, with this paper providing a preliminary report on the findings from only one of the survey group, my own Barium Springs Home for Children.

1. The nature of The Home

In order to understand the findings, key characteristics of The Home must be kept in mind:

  • Barium Springs was a private home, established in 1891 and funded almost totally throughout most of its history as a home for children (not as a crisis-management center) by the Presbyterian Church of North Carolina and private contributions, with minimal funds coming from government or the parents and relatives of the children who lived there.
  • The Home, which, in the 1950s covered approximately 1,500 acres, is in rural North Carolina, 40 miles north of Charlotte.
  • The campus could be mistaken for a small college straddling U.S. Route 21, with a number of what we called “cottages.” Prior to the 1950s, each cottage could, and did, house 25 or more children. The children were separated into cottages by age and sex, with one set of cottages for each sex on opposite sides of the central dining hall, which was marked by a large bell tower. The ringing of the bell set the daily routine.
  • Until the late 1950s, we had our own on-campus schools, from first through twelfth grade, and we had our own sports teams, which were generally successful against much larger county and city schools in the area. In my era, if you wanted to go to college, The Home would help with the expenses you could not cover.
  • We had virtually everything a child could want in the way of recreation, a gymnasium, a pool, fishing holes, lots of space for pick-up games, and we had all 1,500 acres of pastures, woods, and creeks to explore — and did we ever explore them.
  • We worked long and hard, up to 50 hours a week in the summer for no pay, manning the full sweep of farming activities and campus shops (plumbing, carpentry, canning, rendering, laundry, and printing). During the school year, we worked daily, either before dawn or after school, and the time spent at work was in addition to the time we spent on sports.
  • The three most important values at The Home were work, sports, and religion — in that order. Religion was not unimportant, mind you. We went to church several times a week. Nonetheless, religion was dominated by emphasis on the first two. Basic values for the “good and honorable life” were constantly stressed by virtually everyone on the staff, few of whom were trained child-care professionals.
  • The number of children cared for reached its historical maximum of about 350 in the 1930s. There were 125 to 225 children at The Home in the 1950s. In this earlier era, The Home mirrored life in the South, which meant it was all white. Like so many other similar homes for children, my home gradually converted, starting in the mid-1960s, from a home for orphaned and disadvantaged children to a crisis-management or residential management center. It serves all races today.
  • Today, The Home cares for about 50 severely troubled children, often products of the foster-care system, at a cost of about $45,000 per child per year.

2. The survey

Early this year, I sent out surveys to the more than 525 members of the alumni association who left The Home prior to 1967. This meant the current ages of the targeted alumni ranges from 45 to 96. More than 300 surveys were returned; better than a 60-percent response. Given that the questionnaire is eight pages long, often requiring detailed and personal responses, and given that an undetermined number of the alumni may be too old and frail to respond, the response rate should be viewed as remarkable. (Many researchers in my own Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine are pleased with a response rate of 20 percent.)

The average year of the respondents’ arrival at The Home is 1935. Their average age at arrival was between seven and eight years old, and the respondents are evenly divided between males (49 percent) and females (51 percent). Their average age today is 66 years old (and nearly two-thirds of them are retired). The reasons the respondents gave (and they could indicate more than one reason) for being sent to The Home are distributed in the following way:

  • One parent deceased: 64%
  • Lack of family support: 32%
  • Broken homes: 20%
  • Other reasons: 14%
    (For example, alcoholism,
    mental problems, and
    criminal records of their
  • Both parents deceased: 9%

Only 7 percent of the respondents reported ever being physically abused prior to going to The Home, while 4 percent reported sexual abuse, 9 percent reported mental abuse, and 3 percent reported other forms of abuse.

3. Preliminary findings

How did the alumni turn out? If the claims of child-care professionals are taken seriously, then we might expect the alumni to have done poorly (or, at least, not well). We might expect the alumni to be below average in all the “good” dimensions of their life records and above average in all of the “bad” dimensions of their life records. We might also expect them to have poor attitudes toward life and to poorly assess their childhood experiences at The Home. Many harsh critics might not be surprised if most of the respondents were emotional, mental, and economic “basket cases.” However, in almost all regards, the survey reveals the exact opposite of such expectations. Consider the following list of findings:

  • Divorce. The percentage of white Americans, in 1990, who had been divorced at least once was 36 percent for the 45 to 49 age group, and 29 percent for the 50 to 54 age group (the only age groups for which data could be found).

The divorce rate for the Barium Springs alumni who responded is 20 percent.

  • Education. The Barium Springs alumni surpassed their age group in the general population at every rung of the educational ladder:
  • High School Graduates. The Census found that 73 percent of Americans 45 and older had high school diplomas in 1993.

About 88 percent of the alumni had such diplomas, a 21 percent higher graduation rate.18

  • College Graduates. The Census found that 18 percent of Americans 45 and older had college degrees.

Over 31 percent of the alumni had similar degrees, a difference of 70 percent.

  • Advanced Degrees. The Census found that less than 4 percent of Americans 45 and older had advanced degrees.

Nearly 14 percent of the alumni had advanced degrees, nearly three times the percentage for the general population in the same age group.

  • Unemployment. The unemployment rate for the country’s entire labor force averaged over 6 percent in 1994.

The alumni who were not retired had an unemployment rate of 0.6 percent, less than one-tenth of the national average.

  • Household income. The mean income for white households headed by someone 45 or older was $42,000 (1992 mean income adjusted to 1994 prices).

The mean income of the alumni was close to $51,000, 21 percent higher than their comparable age group in the general (white) population.19

Undoubtedly, the gap would be greater if adjustments could be made for the fact that the alumni are predominantly retired and live in the South where incomes are generally lower than in other parts of the country. After such adjustments are made in my planned work with the data, I would not be surprised if the “true” representative average income for the alumni is more than twice that of their counterparts in the general population.

  • Poverty. In 1992, the national poverty rate was close to 15 percent for Americans of all races (11.6 percent for whites). The national poverty rate for white Americans in families with a head whose age was 45 and over was 5.6 to 5.9 percent.

The poverty rate of the respondents was less than 3 percent.

  • Public Assistance. In 1992, 19 percent of the general population was receiving at least one form of public assistance (not counting Social Security).

Less than 4 percent of the alumni have ever been on any form of public assistance (not counting Social Security).

  • Time in prison. Less than 1 percent of the alumni (actually, only two people) report ever spending any time in jail. I have not been able to determine a comparable figure for the general population, but the percentage who have served jail time is, no doubt, several times the percentage for the alumni group.
  • Emotional Disorders. According to one estimate, at least a fifth (and maybe 28 percent) of all Americans at any point suffer from some form of diagnosable psychiatric disorder.20 The percentage would, no doubt, be much greater with a more lenient definition of dysfunction.Only 8 percent of the respondents have ever suffered from a mental or emotional disorder sufficiently severe to warrant the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist, and only a fourth of those who reported such problems (2 percent of all respondents) felt their problems were related to their experiences at their home for children.
  • Voter participation. About 76 percent of Americans who were 45 years old and older in 1992 and who were eligible to vote in the 1992 election did so.Nearly 88 percent of the alumni voted (although they would have elected George Bush with a vote margin of 44 percent to 32 percent, in contrast to the 43 percent to 37 percent vote by all voters in favor of Bill Clinton).
  • Attitude toward life. The following question has been asked of a large number of Americans since 1957 (through the General Social Survey administered by the National Opinion Research Center): “Taking all things together, how would you say things are going these days?” In 1994, 29 percent of respondents in the general population indicated they were “very happy”; 59 percent indicated they were “somewhat happy”; and 12 percent indicated they were “not too happy.”21The alumni, on the other hand, indicate a far more positive attitude toward life: 67 percent are “very happy” (over twice the percentage for the general population); 29 percent are “somewhat happy”; and less than 3 percent are “not too happy” (one-fourth the percentage for the general population).22
  • Preference for institutional care. The alumni appear to have an overwhelming preference for their way of growing up to the next best alternative.
  • Foster Care. When asked if they preferred to grow up at Barium Springs or foster care, 93 percent said Barium Springs, less than 1 percent indicated foster care, and 6 percent reported not knowing enough to say one way or the other.
  • Own Families. When asked if they preferred to grow up at Barium Springs or with available members of their own families, 81 percent of the respondents chose Barium Springs, whereas only 10 percent chose their own families, with 8 percent not being able to say.
  • Overall assessment of childhood experiences. The alumni were asked to indicate how they evaluated their care and experiences at Barium Springs. Almost 84 percent rated their experiences as “very favorable”; 5 percent indicated “somewhat favorable”; 11 percent had mixed reactions (although a number of the people in this group indicated that they still would have preferred the way they grew up to their next best option); and less than 1 percent had “somewhat unfavorable” and “very unfavorable” experiences.

(V) Initial Evaluation

What can we make of these findings? I would be the first to acknowledge the potential biases in the study. The group surveyed included only those alumni who had maintained contact with The Home through the alumni association. The alumni who did not have a good experience may have, in disproportionate numbers, dropped their association with The Home. This problem could not be rectified, given that Barium Springs does not keep the current addresses of all alumni; only the independent alumni association does so through their newsletter and annual homecoming meetings.23

Those alumni who have favorable assessments of their experiences and who have significant life records may have responded with greater frequency than those who have not done so well or who do not have favorable assessments. To check on this potential problem, I had a student assistant call 100 randomly selected alumni for the purpose of determining if the respondents were materially different in their assessments from those who did not respond. As measured by their responses to their overall evaluation of their experience, we found that the respondents were no more positive than those who chose not to respond.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the measures used here are not fully descriptive of the accomplishments of the alumni, the overwhelming majority of whom have become good parents and citizens even when they may not have gone far in education and may not have earned high incomes. Moreover, what the survey statistics do not convey is the depth of emotional attachment and fond memories the vast majority of alumni expressed at the end of the questionnaire.

All told, the alumni wrote commentaries that, when computerized, ran to 90 pages, single spaced. When asked for a list of three negative attributes of the way they grew up (a totally open-ended question), slightly more than half of the alumni could point to problems with the way they were brought up. Lack of affection and loneliness and not enough time with siblings were the most often noted negatives (but each of these negatives were mentioned, respectively, by only 17 percent and 13 percent of respondents). Unfair and harsh discipline and abuse were mentioned by less than 8 percent of the respondents. Lack of a “normal” family setting was mentioned by 3 percent, and excessive regimentation was mentioned by only 5 respondents (1.6 percent of the total).

However, it needs to be stressed that the most frequent response — from nearly half of the alumni — was either “none” or no negatives cited at all. A number of respondents stressed their position with “NONE” or “NO NEGATIVES” scrawled across the space provided.

While many observers of homes for children point to missing amenities as problems, no one who responded to the survey thought the quality of the food or housing was worth mentioning as a negative, and only two respondents (less than 1 percent) thought the clothes they had were a problem sufficiently serious to be worth mentioning as a negative in the space provided.

As for the noted positive attributes (again, with the listing open-ended), over half of the respondents noted the value of their education, the influence of those workers who provided the education, and the power of their religious upbringing. The importance of their training to be responsible, their work ethic, and their sense of security and belonging were mentioned by upwards of a third of the respondents (attributes a number of the respondents noted they did not have before going to The Home). Many respondents also stressed that their life-long friendships with dozens of “brothers and sisters” were hallmarks of their childhood experiences.

In their commentaries on the way they grew up, no one complained about the lack of child-care training for the staff (although a couple complained bitterly of “whippings” they got on occasion). Indeed, the alumni frequently noted not how little love and affection they got, but how much they received (especially from the director of The Home prior to 1950). The dominant emotion expressed was gratitude, not regret or hostility. While a few (less than five) of the respondents had negative overall assessments, the following positive quotes are representative:

  1. Respondent One

Overall assessment: Somewhat favorable

I have no regrets of being raised in an orphanage. I think a lot of children would be better off in orphanages as to how they are living now. People can better themselves if taught in their youth to respect people and good work habits.

  1. Respondent Two

Overall assessment: Very favorable 

If the orphanages could be operated like Barium Springs was during those years, I am in favor of the orphanages. I thank God I was sent there. No telling what would have become of us. With God’s love and guidance our family has enjoyed many wonderful years.

  1. Respondent Three

Overall assessment: Very favorable 

I feel that orphanages are very important. A child needs a stable environment, a constant in their life. They need a place to belong. A child does not need to wonder will they keep me, will they like me, where are my brothers and sisters, am I satisfying them. In the best of foster homes, there are friends, problems, family, celebrations, everyday stress, that make you feel you are in the way (an outsider). These things occur in orphanages but there they are your problem because you belong. You belong because there would be no orphanages if not for kids like you who cannot stay at home. You feel the orphanage will keep you but a foster home can get rid of you. Counseling families is fine, but take the child out of the situation. A child needs security, a constant, stability. They cannot learn and mature going from foster home to foster home while the parents do well this month and may take them back, but next month the stress is too much and they slip back to old behavior. A child can discuss, accept, forgive, and learn to understand their parents if they feel secure. In an orphanage a child knows what the rules are, they know what will get them in trouble, everything is constant. In foster homes you must learn over and over what is wrong, what will upset them, what would make them send you somewhere else. In a foster home you know you are different. In an orphanage you are in a different environment, but you are not “different,” every child there belongs there even if the reasons for being there are different. A child does not have to worry about will they keep me, will they die, what kind of punishment will they give me, will they hit me, will they abuse me. There are other children around all the time. If some of these things were to happen you know there is someone to talk to, someone to believe you. I know my sister’s experiences with foster homes. They were quote, “good homes,” but she was treated different, never felt secure. She experienced anger, fear, loneliness, insecurity, no constant in her life.

  1. Respondent Four

Overall Assessment: Very favorable 

One of the best things that ever happened to me, was the day I went to Barium. Not having been at Barium I would never have finished school, I don’t think church would have meant much to me. I think of all the brothers and sisters I would n ever have known — and love them all. In my way of thinking there is a need for good orphanages today. I see kids every day I think would be better off in an orphanage. I know an orphanage is no better than the people who run it. My time at Barium, I was lucky to have had Mr. J.B. Johnston, Buck Jackson, Kate Taylor, and others who kept me on a straight line. The years at Barium were the best a boy could have had — we learned a lot, to work, respect for others. Barium was a good life.

I can only imagine that some critics may now be thinking that I may have “cooked the numbers,” or, at least, may have advertently or inadvertently slanted the presentation of the findings to suit my personal views. Of course, I don’t think I have at all. And the “kids” I grew up with will not be surprised with my findings.

I would be the first to confess that my comparing the alumni group with the general population is not fair — to the orphans! The alumni constitute a group of people who, because of their backgrounds, should have done (most people seem to think) significantly worse than the general population on most measures covered in this report. They have, instead, done much better.

Moreover, the actual improvement in their positions is not fully represented in the data. By the same token, those of us who were there have always understood that our improvement was ours to make. We were, in the main, only disadvantaged prior to living at The Home. Most of us feel we were advantaged thereafter.

Understandably, some critics may have concluded that we lived in the lap of high-priced care, that is, at a cost, in today’s dollars, approaching the $36,500 to $72,000 a year per child, as widely reported in all of the news magazines and commentaries.24 The critics will have to think again. The suggestion that The Home spent upwards of a million dollars on each cottage each year is, to put it bluntly, ludicrous.

At the end of the 1940s and at the start of the 1950s, the cost of institutional child care in North and South Carolina white homes (according to the Duke Endowment, a Charlotte-based philanthropic foundation that partially supported several homes in the South) was less than $5,000 per year per child — in (early) 1995 dollars.25 Barium Springs was probably average in its cost of care for homes in that era.26 The simple facts of the matter, as we already know them, are that the cost of care for reasonably “normal” children is far more modest than many people — especially child-care professionals — want to believe or entertain.27

Readers may have concluded that Barium Springs Home for Children was special, unequaled by other homes. We alumni like to think it was special in many ways. But I am not so sure that we were all that much out of the ordinary for many homes, as our future reports will likely show. I recently sent questionnaires to the alumni of a Jewish home and of a non-sectarian home, both of which are in Ohio. I cannot give you the final tallies of those surveys, but if the first three hundred surveys already received (and the dozens of phone calls taken) are indicative of what all responses might show, it is clear that alumni from other homes have produced records that should be the envy of the general population (and maybe even of the Barium Springs alumni). Stay tuned.

(VI) Concluding Comments

The data provided here are preliminary, subject to adjustments and refinements. Of course, I do not know the details of my final conclusions for the whole research project. However, I can venture what the overarching theme will be:

In an earlier era, private homes for children — orphanages — found ways of working wonders with most (but not all) of the children in their care. Some homes knew how to overcome the much-heralded “cycles of poverty and abuse,” and they did it for a substantial percentage of the children in their care.

However, for reasons I do not now understand, homes for children have been thoroughly trashed over the years by policy makers and the child-care establishment. I and many others who grew up the way I did can only feel some sadness in the fall of homes like mine, mainly because their demise means many abused, neglected and disadvantaged children today will never have the opportunity we had, which was to be catapulted into a totally new environment and onto a new, productive, safe and satisfying life course.

1 The author is indebted to a number of people for their help in the development of the survey instrument and for critical comments on earlier drafts of this paper, including Charles Barrett, Henry Bridges, Douglas Byrd, Donald Frazier, Earle Frazier, Wendy Goldberg, James Kiser and Randolph Shaw. He is also indebted to Lynda Ly and Melody Nishino for research and computer assistance and to Tinamarie Bernard and Karen McKenzie for editorial improvements.

2 Until recently, I have told few people other than close friends of my background, but not because I resent the way I grew up. On the contrary, I am proud of it, and thankful. Rather, I have kept my childhood a guarded secret because of the gross misconceptions many people have of what it meant to be an “orphan” and to grow up in an “orphanage.” To me, and to many of my cohorts at “The Home” (which is what we called it), the words “orphan” and “orphanages” were “O-words,” and not to be used except in the closed company of those with whom we journeyed through our formative years. The identification of my childhood to the uninformed or misinformed has, regrettably, been a sure-fire conversation stopper, all-too-frequently closed off with, “Oh dear.”

3 Ellen Goodman, “If Welfare Is a Nasty Word, Is Orphanage High Concept?” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1994, p. B11.

4 As quoted in Todd S. Purdum, “First Lady Vs. Orphanages,” New York Times, December 1, 1994, p. A11.

5 Tom Morganthau, “The Orphanage,” Newsweek, December 12, 1994, pp. 28-33, plus cover.

6 Ronald A. Feldman, “What You Can’t Learn from ‘Boys Town’,” New York Times, December 13, 1994, p. A19.

7Eve P. Smith, “Bring Back Orphanages? What Policymakers of Today Can Learn from the Past,” Child Welfare, January/February 1995, p. 115 (115-138).

8 Ibid., p. 126.

“Welfare Reform: Guidelines for Responsible Welfare Reform.” Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America, December 15, 1995 (no page number).

10 Mary Ford and Joe Kroll, “There Is a Better Way: Family-Based Alternatives to Institutional Care.” St. Paul, MN: North American Council on Adoptable Children, March 1995 (draft copy), p. 2.

11 Among a number of other studies, Ford and Kroll cite W. Goldfarb, “The Effects of Early Institutional Care on Adolescent Personality,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 12, 1944, pp. 106-129; W. Yule and N. Raynes, “Children in Care: A Psychiatric Study,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 13, pp. 249-258; Barbara Tizard and Jill Hodges, “The Effect of Early Institutional Rearing on the Behaviour Problems and Affectional Relationships of Four-Year-Old Children,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 16, 1975, pp. 61-73; Barbara Tizard and Jill Hodges, “The Effect of Early Institutional Rearing on the Development of Eight Year Old Children,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 19, 1978, pp. 177-186; Jill Hodges and Barbara Tizard, “IQ and Behavioural Adjustment of Ex-Institutional Adolescents,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 30, 1989, pp. 53-75; Jill Hodges and Barbara Tizard, “Social and Family Relationships of Ex-Institutional Adolescents,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 30, 1989, pp. 77-97.

12 Ford and Kroll, “There Is a Better Way.”

13 A widely referenced work on the negative consequences of “maternal deprivation” is John Bowlby, Maternal Care and Mental Health. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1951.

14 See the studies cited by Mary Ford and Joe Kroll (footnote 11).

15 Richard B. McKenzie, “An Orphan on Orphanages,” Wall Street Journal, November 29, 1994, p. A24.

16 See Abigail Van Buren, “Orphanage Graduate Remember them Fondly,” Orange County (CA) Register, February 6, 1995; and “The Sad, Harsh Side of Orphanage Life,” Orange County (CA) Register, February 27, 1995, p. E11.

17 Mike Royko, “Until a Perfect World Gets Here, Try Orphanages,” Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), December 5, 1994, p. A9.

18 Very few, if any, of the alumni who stayed at The Home until they were 18 years old failed to graduate from high school. Almost all of the alumni who had not graduated from high school left The Home prior to their eighteenth birthday.

19 However, it must be understood that a third of the respondents refused to provide income data. Also, one respondent earned close to half a million dollars in 1994. With that income excluded from the tally, the average income from the respondents was $49,000, 17 percent higher than the average for the counterpart group.

20 As reported in Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), p. 13. See also, Center for Mental Health Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mental Health, United States: 1994 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, n.d.) chap. 3.

21 During the 1957-1994 period, the high for the “very favorable” category is the figure for 1964 and 1974, 38 percent; the low for that category was 22 percent in 1972. For years 1957-88, see Richard G. Niemi, John Mueller, and Tom W. Smith, Trends in Public Opinion (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), p. 290. For years 1989-94 (except 1992), see Thomas Smith, General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, Chicago, personal communications, May 9, 1995.

22 The lowest percentage for “not too happy” for the general population is 7 percent recorded in 1978. The high for that category is 20 percent in 1974 (ibid.).

23 I can only roughly estimate that approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of the living alumni of Barium Springs Home for children are members of the alumni association. However, one cannot conclude that the people who are not members necessarily had bad experiences there. I was not a member for years, mainly because Barium Springs had dramatically changed its direction and was no longer the type of home I remember. For many years the administration of The Home appeared intent on forgetting its institutional history, by maintaining only tenuous connections to its alumni from its earlier era. That problem has been partially corrected, which explains my own current listing with the alumni association.

24 See Douglas J. Besharov, “Orphanages Aren’t Welfare Reform,” New York Times, December 20, 1994, p. A19.

25 As provided by Robert Mayer, Director of Child Services, Duke Endowment Annual Reports, and adjusted by the consumer price index.

26 However, while such cost estimates are useful benchmarks, no one now knows the true cost of child care at Barium Springs Home for Children when it was a home for disadvantaged children. I will be researching very carefully the cost of child care in an earlier era. For now, I am quite certain that after adjusting for inflation the expenditures in the 1950s (and before) were a minor fraction of the reputed cost of institutional child care today. We will certainly need to research the factors — including laws and regulations — that have been driving the cost of care dramatically upwards.

27 The Tamassee D.A.R. School, currently a home for 65 children in the foothills of South Carolina, has an average annual costs per child today of $12,500. Even then, its cost of care is inflated by a variety of laws and regulations.