Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century

Richard B. McKenzie is the Walter B. Gerken Professor of Enterprise and Society in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine ([email protected]). He is the author of The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage (Basic Books, 1996).

This report is drawn from Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century, edited by Richard B. McKenzie, forthcoming in 1998 from Sage Publications Inc., with permission of the publisher.

The reform agenda presented toward the end of this report was worked out at a three-day symposium, also titled “Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century,” that was held in Newport Beach, California, in June 1997. The participants, who generally support the proposed reforms, are listed at the end of the report.


Mitchell B. Pearlstein | President, Center of the American Experiment

Center of the American Experiment is very pleased to publish this exceptionally important report, “Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century: A Search for Reforms for the Nation’s Child-Welfare System,” by Dr. Richard B. McKenzie. Yet while we are honored, we are also aware that any number of readers are primed to discount it because they simply cannot fathom that anything decent or uplifting can be said of group homes for kids, whether they’re called orphanages or something more imaginative. I would urge such folks to dismiss not orphanages themselves, but the sorry, often demagogic stab at a national debate on this abused subject several years ago.

Which is another way of saying that I trust you will find as much good and humane sense in the following pages about rescuing endangered boys and girls as in anything else you’ve read in a while.

But before I highlight what, exactly, in this report leads me to make this claim, let me say something about how American Experiment first came to team up with Professor McKenzie.

I had asked him to speak in St. Paul in December 1993 on an entirely different topic, one much more in keeping with his (original) scholarly expertise: helping states and other levels of government avoid being held fiscally hostage by businesses shopping around for lucrative subsidies. We were having dinner with two other friends of American Experiment, and when the conversation turned to children in great need, Richard noted that he had grown up in an orphanage in North Carolina in the 1950s.

“You’ve got to write about that,” I said, adding that American Exper-iment would be very much interested in publishing such a piece.

Six months or so later, Richard called to say that he had just finished a book about growing up in an orphanage and asked if I would be interested in reading it. Of course, I said. I hadn’t expected him to take me literally at book length–but then again, given that the soon to be published The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage was (at that time) approximately his twentieth 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 writing The Home (which is an intimately personal story), Dr. McKenzie em-barked on a broader, empirical study of the subject. One of the first products of that effort was a superb essay titled “Orphanages: Did They Throttle the Children in Their Care?” published by American Experiment in May 1995.

More specifically, that paper reported on a survey he had just conducted of more than 300 fellow alumni of the Barium Springs Home for Children. I wrote at the time that readers would be “struck by how remarkably well these now middle-aged and elderly men and women–adults who started off with anything but great fortune–have done in life.”

From there, Professor McKenzie expanded his inquiry by surveying alumni of a total of nine orphanages in the South and Midwest. More recently, in June 1997, he hosted a three-day national symposium in California. Background readings for the symposium have been collected in a volume with the same name as this report — Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century — to be published in 1998.

The report you have in hand, in fact, is a preview of that book. More precisely, it is a chapter from that anthology, and it contains (among other things) a summary of recommendations offered by the academics and activists who attended the symposium. American Experiment is proud to be of service to the cause once again.

About “the cause”: it’s essential to understand that it is not merely a drive or movement to revive institutions that answer to the name “orphanage,” or to historically less charged terms such as “group home,” “congregate care facility,” or, as was facetiously suggested about three years ago, “24-hour day-care center.” First of all, a revival of sorts may be happening anyway. And at any rate, orphanages never disappeared completely. The true cause, rather, has to do with assuring a “good start” in life for all children, nothing more complicated or less demanding than that.

“Most children,” Professor McKenzie writes in this report, “will get the good start they need from their biological families.” Others, he continues:

will get a good start from adoptive families, and still others will benefit from some form of short-term or long-term foster care as their families reconstitute themselves. Work on improving the care children receive from their biological, adoptive, and foster families must continue for an obvious reason: these forms of care will always be the dominant means by which children get a start in life.

But, he goes on, many disadvantaged children never will be adopted. Far too many boys and girls will spend long years in what can only be called “permanent temporary care,” bouncing from one placement to another in a broken, overloaded foster-care system. All this is propelled and exacerbated, he correctly contends, by the “unadulterated fact” that many children should never be returned to their abusive and neglectful birth parents.

In light of these terrifically sad circumstances and stories, might at least some children “find better childhood experiences in care centers that offer long-term, permanent substitute care that might not match the ideal of family life but would be significantly better than their next best alternative”? Decidedly yes, Professor McKenzie argues powerfully, albeit with care and modesty. For his aim, to repeat, is not to bus every child in an out-of-home placement to an orphanage somewhere. The aim, instead, is to provide the kind of very good, permanent home he found at Barium Springs for those children it might fit and for whom other options are absent.

The recommendations listed toward the end of the report–read them more as guideposts than as prescriptions–fall under two headings.

First, Professor McKenzie and his colleagues argue that in creating and running group homes, religious, charitable, and similar organizations must be given greater freedom than government currently accords so as to devise more cost-effective methods of care. Laws in many states, for example, allow parents to assign their children a wide range of work responsibilities around the home and in family farms and businesses. Why shouldn’t child-care institutions be afforded the same rights to assign work responsibilities to the children in their care? Work around Barium Springs forty years ago certainly didn’t hurt Professor McKenzie.

And second, the recommendations focus on how and why more children must be allowed to enter permanent institutional care before they have been repeatedly abused, have experienced prolonged stays in the foster-care system, and have been damaged by the lack of permanence in their lives.

Permit me to conclude quite personally. As I write, my wife and I are preparing to make official our adoption of a little girl who has lived in our home for nearly a year now; we have called her our daughter from the start. Nicole is almost seven. Since I started to think about what I would say in this foreword, I haven’t been able to shake a what-if picture in my mind: a picture of Nicole being forced to grow up in an orphanage. Frankly, it’s an image that pains me greatly. But I assure you that I cringe much more when I think about how close she probably came to being forced to spend her entire childhood in the uncertainty of foster care. Which is to say that discussions about places like orphanages have little to do with choosing among ideal alternatives. Instead, they inescapably have everything to do with choosing among real alternatives.

Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century: A Search for Reforms for the Nation’s Child-Welfare System

Richard B. McKenzie

Few question the proposition that children need a “good start” in life, but far too many American children fail to get the good starts that they need. The percentage of children who are growing up without the supervision and guidance of one or both parents for much of the time they are not in school is widely acknowledged. And the statistics on child abuse and neglect are horrific: More than a million cases of significant child abuse and neglect are substantiated every year. Five children in the country die each day from abuse and neglect. Upwards of 22,000 babies are abandoned annually in the hospitals in which they are born. The incidence of child abuse and neglect of all forms more than doubled between 1980 and 1993.1

Adoption has eased the troubles of many children, as have various forms of substitute public care, not the least of which has been foster-parent care.2 However, only 6 percent of the babies abandoned each year in hospital nurseries are adopted. The foster-care system is now approaching a crisis state, given the speed with which the number of children in care is expanding while the number of available foster parents is contracting; the increase in the time children are staying in the system; the decline in the percentage of foster-care children who are adopted out of the system; and the growth in the number of different foster-care placements many children must endure.3

The foster-care system had well over 600,000 children in care in 1992, up by more than 50 percent since 1986. At the same time, tens of thousands of children across the country are waiting to be placed in the foster-care system. The percentage of children in foster care who had been in the system for two to three years increased by almost half in just seven years, from under 11 percent in 1983 to nearly 16 percent in 1990. The percentage of children in foster care for three to five years rose from under 12 percent in 1983 to almost 17 percent in 1990. All the while, the percentage of children adopted out of foster care declined by a third, from 12 percent in 1983 to under 8 percent in 1990.4

Foster care was intended to be temporary care, but one out of every ten children–over 60,000 of all current foster-care children–can expect foster care to be, in effect, permanent care, given that they will spend more than seven years in the system. For all too many children, foster care will also be unstable care, especially since siblings are often sent to different foster homes. Moreover, 23 percent of foster-care children will have two placements, an additional 20 percent will experience three to five placements, and 7 percent will have more than seven placements, which means that more than one quarter of the children who go into the foster-care system can expect to be shifted among more than three foster parents5 (and many can expect to go through dozens of placements).6

Many foster children have done well because their foster parents gave a lot of themselves for very little payment, but signs of strain in the foster-care system abound. Currently, children in foster care constitute less than .003 percent of the nation’s population, while 17 percent of state prisoners are former foster-care children, 40 percent of foster children leave the system to go on the nation’s welfare roles, and 39 percent of the homeless youth in Los Angeles County are former foster-care children.7

Judges and child-care workers across the country openly decry the fact that many abused and neglected children will be sent home from the foster-care system only to be abused again and returned to the system for another round of foster placements. Heads of group homes, which provide temporary care for troubled children, readily admit that many of their charges should never be sent home, but abusive homes or additional foster-care placements all too often are the only options available.8

To say that the nation’s child-care system needs new options is an understatement of major proportions. One of the “new” options for a growing number of children is likely to be an “old” one–the private “orphanage” (or children’s home). In this paper

I review the policy obstacles that impede the return of private children’s homes and offer suggestions for policy reforms devised at a symposium of researchers and practitioners.9

The Children’s Home Option

In late 1994 and early 1995, policy makers and commentators furiously debated the issues of whether private orphanages (or long-term residential and educational care centers for disadvantaged children) should be brought back as a care option.10 Contrary to the way that debate ended–abruptly, without any apparent resolution of the central issue–the issue today is no longer whether private orphanages (or some modern variant of them) will return. Private orphanages never went completely away, as we might believe. Not all children’s homes folded or changed their missions from caring for disadvantaged children to caring for severely troubled youth. The Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, the Connie Maxwell Home for Children in South Carolina, the Masonic Home for Children in North Carolina, and the Palmer House in Mississippi are four examples of children’s homes that have continued to provide long-term care for disadvantaged children for much, if not all, of this century.11

New private orphanages (or children’s homes) are springing up. SOS Children’s Villages-USA, Inc., which has children’s homes in 125 countries, has established a child-care beachhead in the United States with a new model for children’s homes that has been tested and proven effective in Florida and Illinois and that is likely to be duplicated throughout the country.12 Religious and civic groups have concluded that the disadvantaged children who are now being tossed from one foster placement to another, and between foster placements and their own dysfunctional families, need the sense of security that comes from having a permanent home. The Lutheran Churches of California project dubbed “20/20/20” plans to build twenty children’s homes in twenty cities in twenty years. Children’s homes that two and three decades ago became short-term treatment centers are reconsidering their mission with an eye toward reintroducing long-term residential care for children who are not able to return home or who would be likely to continue to move from one foster placement to the next.

Clearly, the nation’s growing problems with family stability, child abuse and neglect, welfare reform, and foster care ensure that some modern form of private orphanage care will continue to return. The relevant question now is at what pace private orphanages (or whatever they are called) will spread, and that issue is critically related to the cost of care, which is high and going up.13

Children’s Need for a “Good Start”

To say that children need a “good start” is instructive but not sufficient. One child-care expert, whose authority is grounded in his professional work and his background as an orphanage alumnus, suggests that a good start for a child almost always encompasses four attributes: connectedness, continuity, dignity, and opportunity.

  • By connectedness, he means that “children need to feel that someone is there for them, and that they are a part of someone else’s life.”
  • Continuity is “a sense of continuous belonging with another person or persons. The young person needs to feel a part of a greater whole and has an important position to play within it.”
  • To have dignity is to feel worthy. All children are worthy of respect, caring, love, thought, and courtesy.”
  • Children need an opportunity to grow and develop, which means that “young people must be able to explore and express their capabilities without undue external barriers. Children must have access to quality education, recreation and leisure, all at an appropriate developmental level.”14 

The list is short and subject to quibbles. Its author would be the first to acknowledge that it is not all-inclusive. For example, children also need to feel safe (which he would include under dignity), and they need some form of spiritual and moral nurturing (which he would include under continuity). The point is that children’s needs are fairly basic and relatively easy to identify and categorize. The tough task is ensuring that children get the basics.

Most children will get the good start they need from their biological families. Others will get a good start from adoptive families, and still others will benefit from some form of short-term or long-term foster care as their families reconstitute themselves. Work on improving the care children receive from their biological, adoptive, and foster families must continue for an obvious reason: these forms of care will always be the dominant means by which children get a start in life. However, for a growing number of children, the various forms of family-based care available to them have been inadequate, if not destructive. Many disadvantaged children will never be adopted. This does not mean that adoption should not be encouraged and the legal and cost impediments to adoption reduced, as has been recommended.15

The unadulterated fact remains that many children should never be returned to their abusive and neglectful biological parents, and far too many children will spend years in what can only be called “permanent temporary care,” year by year going from one temporary foster-care placement to another. Could these children find better childhood experiences in care centers that offer long-term, permanent substitute care that might not match the ideal of family life but would be significantly better than their next best alternative?

Reconsideration of Past Assessments of Orphanages

Past assessments of institutional care for children have been far too harsh. Admittedly, many child-care experts have concluded, after reviewing a number of studies relating to the efficacy of institutional care, that private orphanages “damaged” the children in their care.16 While many orphanages may not have provided their charges with good experiences, a critical review of the child-care literature relating to orphanages suggests that the studies themselves are defective in a number of ways, leaving open the question of whether the broad sweep of private orphanages that covered the country during the first half of this century were as “bad” as has been suggested.17

While all homes for disadvantaged children probably harmed some of the children in their care (as do some families), there is strong evidence that homes for disadvantaged children helped a substantial majority of their charges. The general conclusion drawn from the first and only large-scale survey of orphanage alumni (involving 1,600 respondents from nine orphanages in the South and Midwest) stands in sharp contrast to conventional wisdom and expert conclusions on orphanage life: As a group, the alumni have outpaced their counterparts in the general population by significant margins on practically all measures, not the least of which are education, income, and attitude toward life. The survey respondents seem to be saying that they got from their orphanage experience the required “connectedness, continuity, dignity, and opportunity” that constituted a “good start” and served them well later in life.18

The survey details are available in a scholarly journal. I might note here, though, that the orphanage alumni, who are now forty-eight and older, have a 17 percent higher high school graduation rate than their counterparts in the general population and a 39 percent higher college graduation rate. They also have significantly more professional and master’s degrees and more doctorates. Social commentators often fret that the cycles of poverty, abuse, and neglect cannot be broken, but the median household incomes of the orphanage alumni were one-tenth to three-fifths higher (depending on age group) than the medians for their counterparts in the general population. Moreover, the orphans’ rates of unemployment, poverty, incarceration, and dependence on public assistance were minor fractions of the rates for other white Americans.

The record of many homes of the past should be reassessed with an eye toward considering their “batting averages” relative to those of alternative systems of substitute care, most notably foster parent care. Reassessments of the programs of past and current children’s homes should be made with the goal of identifying “best practices” and avoiding mistakes that were made in the past.

The case for temporary institutional care of seriously troubled children has been made and is widely accepted. The case for permanent care of disadvantaged children who have not yet become seriously troubled has not been widely accepted; it needs to be remade with greater force and with reference to the problems and deficiencies in the current substitute-care systems. We must expand the array of care options in order to place children in environments that best serve their particular needs.

It must be acknowledged that many children will never prosper in an institutional setting. At the same time, experience has shown that many children can do well in such a setting, and they can surely do better than they might do in a sequence of temporary placements. Private homes for children can provide a form of long-term, permanent care, from which a sense of security can develop. And they can provide much more: improved educational opportunity, a work ethic, religious and moral nurturing, camaraderie, and a sense of community–attributes that successful alumni of private homes say were
important in their childhoods and that are clearly evident at homes like the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and the SOS Children’s Villages that are scattered across more than 100 countries worldwide.19

Policy Impediments to Permanent Institutional Care

Greater use of the private orphanage (or permanent children’s home) option is now inhibited by a variety of state and federal laws and regulations that encourage judges and child-welfare workers to keep children with their biological but abusive and neglectful parents and to shun the use of long-term institutional care. Many of these laws and regulations also have the effect of driving up the cost of long-term child care in institutional settings, which means that fewer children will receive the type of permanent care they need.

Under current federal law (namely, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980), states must prove that they have made “reasonable efforts” to prevent the removal of children from their biological parents and to return children to their biological parents. It is a seemingly innocuous requirement. The policy intent of the law was understandable–to reverse the sharp rise in foster placements that occurred in the 1970s (which did, in fact, occur for a time),20 and few would question trying to keep families together. The problem is that the term “reasonable efforts” has been unreasonably interpreted by practitioners in the child-welfare system to mean that virtually every possible effort must be made to rehabilitate the parents and to reunite the children with their parents.

The termination of parental rights is often delayed for years as the parents make little or no effort to change their abusive and neglectful ways. Abusive and neglectful parents can also slow down the termination process by making only marginal improvements in their behavior or by claiming that they have not been provided with ample state resources (through, for example, drug rehabilitation programs) to correct their behavior.

The accumulation of delays can mean that children remain with their parents long after parental abuse and neglect has been substantiated, while efforts to rehabilitate the parents and to stop the abuse continue. It has also meant that children have been repeatedly returned to their parents to be abused and neglected again and that, all the while, the children have endured repeated cycles of multiple foster-care placements.21

The termination of parental rights of biological parents has become progressively more difficult and time consuming, even when parents have committed repeated felonies against one or more of their children. Often, children who have not been abused (sexually, emotionally, or physically) cannot be removed from their abusing parent(s) even though one or more of their siblings has been abused.22

No one questions the importance to children of good family nurturing, and state and federal law clearly should not obstruct the continuance of family life when it supports the welfare of children. However, as state efforts to rehabilitate abusive and neglectful parents have been extended and parental rights have not been denied, children have aged through repeated cycles of foster-care placements and have become progressively more troubled. The children’s growing troubles are not surprising: insecurity builds up as they are passed from one set of foster parents to another in the so-called foster-care drift. Understandably, the children become less adoptable, and they often eventually require psychological care in institutional settings.

Indeed, researchers have found that the substitution of the foster-care system for the institutional/orphanage-care system in the 1950s and 1960s has (after adjusting for a number of other forces at work) lowered the adoption rate of disadvantaged children.23 Unfor-tunately, growing evidence indicates that family rehabilitation and reunification programs have been ineffective, and all the while children have not gotten the care they needed–or, worse, have been emotionally abused by way of multiple placements by the child-welfare system that was designed to help them.24

The child-welfare system may have been predisposed to interpret “reasonable efforts” generously because many experts and practitioners are con-vinced that any form of family care is preferable even to the best form of institutional care, but also because the scope of care provided by state agencies can be expanded with a generous interpretation of what constitutes reasonable efforts. Regrettably, within the child aid system there are built-in budget biases in favor of placing children in foster care and not moving them out to institutional care.25

Another, perhaps stronger eco-nomic incentive for the system to make far more than “reasonable efforts” to rehabilitate parents and to reunite children with families that may or may not have been rehabilitated is this: The cost of institutional care, which might have to be covered out of state budgets, is very high–easily exceeding $30,000 per year per child–and the cost has grown substantially over recent decades. At one home for disadvantaged children, for example, the annual cost of care per child in 1995 was more than four times the real (inflation-adjusted) cost of care per child in the early 1950s.26

The growth in the cost of institutional care over the past five decades has been the result of many factors, not the least of which are the rise in the real wages of institutional caregivers and the intentional reduction the institutions have made in their children-to-staff ratios in order to provide higher quality and more personal services. States also have inflicted cost increases on themselves through a growing number of regulations.

Institutions must now adhere to volumes of regulations and accreditation requirements that in printed form weigh several pounds. For example, in many states institutional children’s homes must meet construction requirements that exceed the specifications in building codes for single-family homes, and then they are told how many square feet of living space and toilets they must have for each child. The institutions are also told how many children they can have in each bedroom and how many staff people with various credentials they must hire for each child. In addition, they are required to pay house parents when they are asleep.27 The institutions are limited in the work they can ask of children in their care because of the liability they may incur in case of accidents.28 When institutions accept public funding, they are told how long they can care for a child, and the required religious component of their programs is restricted. These restrictions undoubtedly have undercut the willingness of various religious denominations and civic groups to financially support institutional care.29

The Path to Policy Reforms

We must find a way to ensure that private charities, religious organizations, and civic groups can develop creative alternative institutional-care opportunities that meet the local needs of identified populations of children. To clear the way for development of care options, two changes are necessary:

  • homes and their supporting religious, civic, and charitable organizations must be given greater freedom to devise methods of care that are more cost effective.
  • More children must enter permanent institutional care before they have been repeatedly abused,have experienced prolonged stays in the foster-care system, and have become troubled by the lack of permanence in their lives.30 

Members of Congress and their staffs have recognized the need for substantial reform in the country’s basic child-welfare laws, and there is some reason to hope that laudable policy changes will be forthcoming, given the passage by the House of Representatives in the spring of 1997 of the Adoption Promotion Act of 1997 (H.R. 867), which is understandably intended to encourage adoption.31 As of fall 1997, this legislation was awaiting Senate action. But broader changes are badly needed, given that adoption is not suitable for all disadvantaged children (for example, older children who do not want an attachment to a new family). Still, these children need a place to call home. To afford homes for children greater flexibility in their programs, three very general policy changes need to be considered:

1. Lessen the regulatory burden on child-care institutions. State licensure statutes and regulations applicable to residential educational institutions must be liberalized to lower the costs facing current and would-be operators of care facilities and to promote innovation and entrepreneurial efforts.32 We suggest that states license particular providers of residential child care–including churches and other civic and philanthropic organizations–and leave the details of staffing and programming to them. In general, the states should be assigned responsibility for setting the standards of care, especially when public funding is involved, while the facilities should be in the business of determining how to balance quality and cost to meet the standards. Thus, we suggest that:

  • states adopt statutes that provide for a less regulated status of “registered” child-care institution as an alternative to the traditional, more regulated “licensed” status (versions of which have been adopted in Florida and Mississippi);
  • states take steps to eliminate the statutes and regulations that currently discourage the use of volunteers and resident labor, to the extent allowed by applicable federal law; and
  • state regulatory bodies recognize the role of the law in contributing to the high cost of starting up and operating residential facilities for children and engage in ongoing discussions with the providers of these facilities to find additional ways by which statutes and regulations can be relaxed or eliminated and thus reduce the start-up costs of new care facilities and the cost of continuing care. 

2. Expand work opportunities in child-care institutions. Laws in many states allow parents to assign their children a broad range of work responsibilities around the home and in family farms and businesses. Child-care institutions should be afforded the same rights to assign work responsibilities to the children in their care.

3. Convert public child-welfare funds to block grants. A portion, if not all, of federal child-welfare funds that are now going into foster care should be distributed to states as block grants, allowing states maximum flexibility in the placement of disadvantaged children in existing permanent institutional settings (for example, SOS Children’s Villages-USA), and in the development, monitoring, and evaluation of new options for the permanent institutional placement of children.

To reduce the time children spend in foster care and to increase the chances that they will have a measure of permanence in their lives, a number of policy recommendations need to be considered:

1. Elevate the importance of “permanence” in the development of child-welfare policies. Preserving families and reuniting children with their biological parents are worthy welfare goals, but they are not the only goals that should direct child-welfare policies, given the number of children who continue to be harmed by their parents. North Carolina legislators have taken the lead in giving child safety precedence over family preservation and reunification in child-welfare policies.33 Of course, children can be “safe” as they are bounced among multiple foster-care placements; policy makers must take an additional step, making the establishment of a permanent residence for the child a higher public policy priority. This means that the time allotted for permanency planning for children in some jurisdictions, which can stretch to a number of years or until the child grows to adulthood, must be shortened. We must seek to impose a time limit on the process of family rehabilitation and reunification, and enforce a deadline when parental rights are ultimately terminated. Clearly, we must make subjecting the child to the fewest possible substitute-care placements a top priority.

2. Narrow the range of cases in which “reasonable efforts” must be made to reunite children with their abusive and neglectful families. The Adoption Promotion Act of 1997 (H.R. 867) proposes the type of change in federal child-welfare law that is needed. Under that bill, states would not be required to make reasonable efforts to reunite a family in “aggravated circumstances” as defined by state law and when a court has confirmed that a child has been subjected to aggravated circumstances such as abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, or sexual abuse. Nor would reasonable efforts be required when parents’ rights with respect to a sibling have been involuntarily terminated or when parents have murdered or committed manslaughter of another child. In determining the reasonable efforts to be made, the child’s health and safety must be the paramount concern.

3. Assign the initial investigation of cases of extraordinary abuse and neglect to the police and the criminal justice system. Charges of child abuse and neglect, even in severe cases, are handled in many states by social workers. Shifting the assignment of investigative duties to the police and the criminal justice system would eliminate the inherent conflict of interest within the child-welfare system that now frequently investigates–and at the same time apportions resources for children who are found to be victims of–abuse or neglect. (The police and the criminal justice system are also more likely to follow proper criminal investigative procedures and requirements, such as notifying suspects of their rights at appropriate stages of an investigation. In all too many instances, procedural errors alone cause substantial delays in the termination of parental rights.)

4. Establish a rebuttable presumption of unfitness in the child-welfare law. This means, for example, that we must make the intentional infliction of serious injury or the killing of a child or spouse presumptive grounds for the termination of parental rights with respect to all surviving children.

5. Shorten the timetable for the initial hearings on the termination of parental rights. H.R. 867 recommends that the timetable for initial hearings for children removed from their homes be shortened to twelve months. Such hearings would be strengthened by requiring that the expected permanency outcomes–including whether and when the child would be returned home, placed for adoption, or placed in a home for children–be a part of the child’s written plan.

6. Speed up the notification of judicial authorities of cases of parental rights termination. Delays in the termination of parental rights occur simply because judges have not been notified of parents’ abuse and neglect of their children until after all avenues of parental rehabilitation have been exhausted. We must begin to notify judicial authorities at earlier stages of potential cases involving the termination of parental rights — particularly when a parent commits a felony against his or her child.

7. Establish guidelines for the permanent placement of children. We must establish enforceable timelines for the permanent placement of children after the termination of parental rights, and guidelines for the pursuit of adoption and institutional placement options.34

8. Place responsibility for rehabilitation on parents. When parental rehabilitation is an issue, we must place the responsibility for rehabilitation entirely on the parent. We must eliminate the objection to termination of parental rights based on services not having been provided to the parent by the government or some other service provider (for example, drug treatment programs for addicted parents). Such objections now delay many cases of parental rights termination.

9. Make what is best for the children the central issue in cases of termination of parental rights. Parental rights are important, but protecting the rights of parents may increase the suffering of children. In far too many cases, the rights of the parents take precedence over what is best for the children. We must reverse this situation.

10. Require concurrent case planning for both family reunification and termination of parental rights. All too often, attempts to terminate parental rights are initiated only after repeated efforts to rehabilitate parents have failed, resulting in prolonged stays for the children in the foster-care system. If termination proceedings are initiated at the same time that efforts to rehabilitate are begun, and if reunification of a child with his or her parents is not possible, the termination of parental rights can proceed expeditiously.

11. Evaluate parents’ fitness to be parents at the start of child abuse and neglect cases. The most fervently contested cases of parental rights termination are usually those of neglect (rather than abuse). All too often, the termination of parental rights is delayed because psychological and substance abuse evaluations of parents are not made until rehabilitation efforts have failed. Initiating parental evaluation at the start of an investigation would expedite processing of these cases.

12. Use public funds to encourage child-care innovations. In restructuring current federal law (specifically, Title IV), Congress should allow states maximum flexibility in the use of funds in order to encourage more groups to explore new care options, including institutional care.


The child-welfare system in the United States is helping hundreds of thousands of children. There are, however, obvious problems within the system, not the least of which is the lack of permanent care for many children. Private children’s homes have never been a dominant form of care for children in need, nor will they be

a dominant form in the future. Nevertheless, many of today’s disadvantaged children could benefit from the type of permanent care that children’s homes have demonstrated they can provide. The evidence is mounting that children’s homes have worked well in the past, are working well now, and can work even better in the future.

Although institutional care always has been and will continue to be an imperfect substitute for loving biological, adoptive, or other substitute parents, it can provide better care for many hard-to-place children than what they would otherwise receive. When responsible and loving parental care is not possible, children need, at the very least, the basic amenities of life. They also need permanence and security. The recommendations tendered here are intended to provide disadvantaged children with more opportunities to find permanence and security in their lives.


1. For details on the extent of the nation’s problems of abuse and neglect, see Andrea J. Sedlak and Diane D. Broadhurst, The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect: Final Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, September 1996). For a summary of statistics on child abuse and neglect, see Patrick F. Fagan and Dorothy B. Hanks, “The Child Abuse Crisis: The Disintegration of Marriage, Family, and the American Community,” Backgrounder (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, May 15, 1997).

2. For a review of the problems potential adoptive parents face in their efforts to adopt children, see Conna Craig, “What I Need Is a Mom,” Policy Review, Summer 1995, pp. 41-49.

3. For a review of one state’s child-welfare system, see Justin Matlick, Fifteen Years of Failure: An Assessment of California’s Child Welfare System (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, March 1997).

4. For details on problems in the foster-care system, see Carole Statuto Bevan, Foster Care: Too Much, Too Little, Too Early, Too Late (Washington, D.C.: National Council for Adoption, 1996).

5. As reported in A Challenge to the Nation: Safe and Permanent Homes for Children, a report to President William Clinton on adoption reform (Alexandria, Va.: SOS Children’s Villages-USA, Inc., February 6, 1997), p. 3.

6. No one knows how many children go through placements that reach into the dozens, but Donald Verleur, an officer in the Olive Crest home for children in Orange County, California, and Robert Stansel, president of Barium Springs Home for Children in Iredell County, North Carolina, attest to all too frequently working with children who may have been through three and four dozen foster placements.

7. As reported in A Challenge to the Nation, p. 3.

8. For an example of how judges assess their options, see Estella Moriarty, “The Nation’s Childcare Problem As Viewed from the Bench,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century, ed. Richard B. McKenzie (New York: Sage, forthcoming in 1998).

9. A list of symposium participants follows this report.

10. For a review of the orphanage debate of 1994-95, see Ross London, “The 1994 Orphanage Debate,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

11. For reviews of beneficial residential children’s programs in Israel, Africa, and Europe, see Jerome Beker and Douglas Magnuson, Residential Education as an Option for At-Risk Youth (New York: Haworth, 1996). For a review of the potential benefits of residential programs in the United States, see Heidi Goldsmith, Residential Education: An Option for America’s Youth (Hershey, Pa.: Milton Hershey School, 1995).

12. For more information on SOS Villages-International, see the organization’s home page: There are currently 361 SOS children’s villages worldwide caring for nearly 30,000 children supported by over 6 million “friends” of the organization. All of the world’s major religions are represented in the villages, and each child is brought up in his or her own religion.

13. For an analysis of the cost of care at two child-care institutions, see Del Bradshaw, Donald Wyent, and Richard B. McKenzie, “The Cost of Care in Institutions and Families,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century. The authors found that the annual cost of care at one home for severely troubled children was over $64,000 per child in 1995. The annual cost of care in a home for disadvantaged children was more than $32,000 per child. The annual cost of care per child at both institutions in 1950 (when they cared for disadvantaged children) was less than $7,500 per child in 1995 dollars.

14. John Seita, Martin Mitchell, and Christi Tobin, In Whose Best Interest: One Child’s Odyssey, A Nation’s Responsibility (Elizabethtown, Pa.: Continental, 1996), pp. 93, 96, 98, 100.

15. See Bevan, Foster Care, chapter 5.

16. For a summary of the criticisms, see M. Ford and J. Kroll, There Is a Better Way: Family-Based Alternatives to Institutional Care (Washington, D.C.: North American Council on Adoptable Children, Research Brief #3, March 1995).

17. For a brief history of the orphanage movement in this country, see Marvin Olasky, “The Emergence of Orphanages in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century. Also see Seita, Mitchell, and Tobin, In Whose Best Interest. For histories of individual homes that appeared to have served a substantial majority of their children well, see Kenneth Cmiel’s A Home of a Different Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Howard Goldstein, The Home on Gorham Street and the Voices of Its Children (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1996); and Nurith Zmora’s Orphanages Reconsidered: Child Care Institutions in Progressive Era Baltimore (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994). For a review of the scholarly child-care literature as it relates to orphanage care, see John McCall, “A Critical Review of the Childcare Literature: Do Experts Have Good Justification for Their Hostility toward the Orphanage Option?” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century; and Children’s Bureau, Orphanage Background Materials (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, May 1995, duplicated).

18. See Richard B. McKenzie, “Orphanage Alumni: How They Have Done and How They Evaluate Their Experience,” Child and Youth Care Forum, April 1997, pp. 87-111. The overwhelming majority of the respondents indicated that they maintain favorable assessments of their orphanage experience.

19. See McKenzie, “Orphanage Alumni,” and Heidi Goldsmith, Residential Education.

20. Foster-care placements fell from a half million in the late 1970s to 300,000 by the mid-1980s, but placements were back above 600,000 by the early 1990s. See L. Pelton, For Reasons of Poverty: A Critical Analysis of the Public Child Welfare System in the United States (New York: Praeger, 1989); T. Tatara, Characteristics of Children in Substitute and Adoptive Care (Washington, D.C.: Voluntary Cooperative Information System, Amer-ican Public Welfare Association); and U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, Child Abuse and Neglect: First Steps in Response to a National Emer-gency: 1990 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Depart-ment of Health and Human Services, 1993).

21. See Conna Craig, “The State of Child Welfare,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

22. For discussion of the problems children must face because of family rehabilitation and reunification efforts, see Moriarty, “The Nation’s Childcare Problem As Viewed from the Bench,” and Richard Gelles, The Book of David: How Preserving Children Can Cost Children’s Lives (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

23. See William Chappell and William Shughart, “The Demand for Childcare: What Is the Trade-Off between the Quality and Cost of Care?” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

24. See Richard Gelles, “Family Preservation and Child Maltreatment,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century. Gelles’s themes are developed in greater detail in his Book of David.

25. For a political assessment of the growth of the child-welfare system, see Carolyn Boudreaux and Donald Boudreaux, “The Evolution of Public Assistance Programs for Children,” and Dwight R. Lee, “A Public Choice Analysis of Childcare Dollars: The Political Bias in Favor of the Status Quo,” both in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century. The Bordeauxs write: “Such a program [AFDC] creates clear incentives to place children in foster-care families. Add to the open-endedness of these funds the fact that under the AFDC program ‘administrative costs’ of social services agencies were shared on a 50/50 basis with the federal government, and the bureaucratic tendency to grow like kudzu receives further encouragement. That is, social service agencies were receiving unlimited funds from federal coffers for AFDC payments, which as of 1961 included some foster-children, and agencies were splitting administrative costs with the federal government. The greater the number of children placed with foster-care families, the larger the child-welfare agency budget.” They quote the Encyclopedia of Social Work, which also concludes that “[s]tates that were heavily dependent on [AFDC foster-care] funds had no incentives to move children out of foster care because funding was lost each time a child was discharged from placement” (18th ed., vol. 1 [Silver Spring, Md: National Association of Social Workers, 1987], p. 642).

26. See Del Bradshaw, Donald Wyent, and Richard B. McKenzie, “The Cost of Institutional Child Care for Disadvantaged Children vs. Severely Troubled Children,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

27. See Michael DeBow, “The Impact of Childcare Regulations on the Cost of Institutional Care: What Seems to Be Unnecessary and Counterproductive?” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

28. Margaret MacFarlane Wright, “The Impact of Changing Child Labor Laws on the Reintroduction of Orphanages: What Are the Obstacles?” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

29. See Ross London, “The Conflict between Value-Based Care and the Acceptance of Public Funding,” in Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

30. For a set of policy recommendations designed specifically to curb child abuse, see Fagan and Hanks, “The Child Abuse Crisis.”

31. Adoption Promotion Act of 1997, H.R. 867, 105th Cong., 1st Sess. (April 28, 1997) 105 77 (as found on the Web: /z?c105:h.r.867). The House report can also be found on the Web ( Under H.R. 867, as amended by a bipartisan proposal accepted by voice vote, the current child-welfare system would be reformed in numerous ways that are endorsed in this paper: certain aggravated circumstances involving children in which states can bypass or discontinue efforts to reunite abused or neglected children with their family would be identified; financial incentives would be provided to the states to move more children out of foster care and into adoptive families; for children under the age of ten who have spent a substantial portion of their lives in foster care, states would be required to move expeditiously toward freeing them for adoption; the timetable for the hearing that determines a child’s future placement would be shortened from eighteen months to one year; and states would be required to provide foster parents and relatives notice of all hearings and reviews. Additional minor and technical amendments are also included in the bill.

32. For an analysis of the extent and impact of institutional child-care regulations in six states, see DeBow, “The Impact of Childcare Regulations on the Cost of Institutional Care.”

33. As reported by Taylor Batten, “Child Safety Tops Family in Senate Vote,” Charlotte Observer, July 30, 1997, p. 1C.

34. As would be required by H.R. 867, states would have to document steps taken to find and finalize an adoptive or other permanent home for the child, including placement in the custody of another fit and willing relative or home for children. Of course, biological and foster parents and relatives providing child care would be notified of reviews and permanency hearings regarding child placement and would be given the opportunity to be heard at these proceedings.

Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century: A Symposium in Search of Reforms for the Nation’s Child-Welfare System

Newport Beach, California · June 6-8, 1997

Symposium Participants:

Ms. Melissa Beall
Office of Congressman Todd Tiahrt
428 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225-6216 Fax: 225-3489
[email protected]

Dr. Cassie Bevan
Ways and Means Committee
B317 Rayburn House Office Building
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225-1025 Fax: 225-9480
[email protected]

Mr. Dennis Braziel, Director
Group and Residential Care
Child Welfare League of America
440 1st Street NW
Washington, DC 20001-2028
(202) 942-0314 Fax: 638-4004
[email protected]

Mr. Robert Chitister
Idea Channel
10539 Edinboro Rd.
McKean, PA 16426
(814) 476-7721 Fax: 476-1283
[email protected]

Ms. Conna Craig, President
Institute for Children, Inc.
18 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 491-4614 Fax: 491-4673
[email protected]

Professor Michael DeBow
Cumberland Law School
Samford University
Birmingham, AL 35229
(205) 870-2434 Fax: 970-2587
[email protected]

Dr. Glenn Ellmers, Research Fellow
The Claremont Institute for the Study of
Statesmanship and Political Philosophy
250 First Street, Suite 330
Claremont, CA 91711
(909) 621-6825 Fax: 626-8724
[email protected]

Professor Richard Gelles
Family Violence Research Program
University of Rhode Island
509A Chafee Social Science Center
Kingston, RI 02881
Phone/Fax: (401) 792-4138
[email protected]

Ms. Heidi Goldsmith, Executive Director
International Center for
Residential Education
3726 Connecticut Ave. NW, #109
Washington, DC 20008
(202) 966-4304 Fax: 244-0820
[email protected]

Mr. Derek Herbert
Institute for Children
18 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 491-4691 Fax: 491-4673
[email protected]

Ms. Carolyn Hicks
Legislative Director
Office of Congressman Dan Burton
2185 Rayburn House Office Building
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225-2276 Fax: 225-0016
[email protected]

Mr. James Jones
Milton Hershey School
Founders Hall — Box 830
Hershey, PA 17033
(717) 520-2445 Fax: 520-2444
[email protected]

The Honorable Kathleen Kearney
Circuit Judge, 17th Circuit of Florida
Broward County Courthouse
201 SE 6th Street
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
(954) 831-7093 Fax: 831-5572
[email protected]

Professor Dwight Lee
Department of Economics
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
(706) 542-3970 Fax: 542-4144
[email protected]

Dr. Allen Leland
20/20/20 Project, Lutheran Church
90 Faculty Street
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360
(805) 492-1121

Professor Douglas Magnuson
College of Saint Catherine
Project on Vocation, Work, and Youth Development
Box 4165
2004 Randolph Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105
(612) 690-8718 Fax: 690-6024
[email protected]

Mr. Justin Matlick, Senior Researcher
Pacific Research Institute
755 Sansome Street, Suite 450
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 989-0833 Fax: 989-2411
[email protected]

Ms. Karen McKenzie
3 Owen Court
Irvine, CA 92612
(714) 854-7156
[email protected]

Professor Richard McKenzie
Symposium Organizer
Graduate School of Management
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92717-3125
O: (714) 824-2604 H: 854-7156
Fax: 824-8469
[email protected]

Dr. Richard Pierce
Dean of Community Life
Milton Hershey School
Hershey, PA 17033
(717) 520-2061 Fax: 520-2068
[email protected]

Mr. Robert Stansel, President
Barium Springs Home for Children
PO Box 1
Barium Springs, NC 28010-0001
(704) 872-4257 Fax: 838-1541

Mr. Bernie Stumbras, President
SOS Villages, USA
1906 Capital Avenue
Madison, WI 53705
(608) 238-4584 Fax: 238-4611
[email protected]

Mr. Donald Verleur, CEO
Olive Crest
2130 E. Fourth Street, Suite 200
Santa Ana, CA 92705
(714) 543-5437 ext. 115 Fax: 543-5463
[email protected]

Mr. David Villiotti
Executive Director
Nashua Children’s Association
125 Amherst Street
Nashua, NH 03060-2043
(603) 883-3851 Fax: 883-5925

Mr. John Walters, President
Philanthropy Roundtable
1150 17th Street NW, Suite 503
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 822-8333
[email protected]

Dr. Delores Wardell
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
540 N. Golden Circle Drive, Suite 114
Santa Ana, CA 92705
(714) 558-0971 Fax: 550-0166
[email protected]

Ms. Margaret MacFarlane Wright, Attorney
Margaret MacFarlane Wright
A Professional Corporation
2472 Chambers Road, Suite 150
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 832-9440 Fax: 832-9545
[email protected]