America’s government-run foster care system has miserably failed the most vulnerable children in our society. It is a complex and expensive bureaucracy administered by social workers whose overriding goal is “family preservation”—that is, counseling troubled or abusive parents in efforts to reunite them with their children who have been placed in what is supposed to be temporary outside care. The trouble is that this counseling may go on for years as children are shuffled from foster home to foster home, never experiencing life in a stable, loving family. Children are also sometimes returned to abusive parents. As many as 700,000 children will spend all or part of this year in foster care, and the number is growing.
Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century argues convincingly that the private sector is better able to care for these children. It includes 15 essays that discuss the history of children’s homes, or private orphanages, and the policy reforms needed to revive them (only a handful remain).
McKenzie, who grew up in an orphanage in the 1950s (and who rates his experience very highly), challenges the widespread notion that orphanages are undesirable places. He asks why it is considered acceptable for wealthy parents to send their children to boarding schools to receive education and moral instruction, but inappropriate to send children from unsafe, abusive homes to similar institutions. He presents findings from his own survey of middle-aged and elderly alumni from nine orphanages, almost all of whom look back on their orphanage experiences favorably. And interestingly, most of them outpace the general population in terms of education, income, and attitude toward life.
The essayists identify several reasons why orphanages have declined in this century. As poverty rates fell in the 1950s and 1960s, fewer parents had to abandon children they could not afford to keep. The social work profession has also disparaged orphanages and vigorously lobbied to expand state foster care. And the cost of running orphanages has increased because of new liability laws that hold institutions accountable for any harm children might incur while working. Most orphanages have reduced or eliminated child labor, such as on-site farm work, that at one time reduced their operating costs. Yet the essayists note that such work once instilled the values of discipline, responsibility, and team effort. Indeed, critics often cite “regimentation” as the chief drawback of orphanages. Yet this is what former orphans believe is their chief strength.
Rethinking Orphanages suggests several policy reforms that could help to revive children’s homes. Among them: broadly liberalize state licensure statutes and regulations, giving providers greater authority to make their own staff and program decisions; eliminate statutes and regulations that discourage the use of volunteers and resident labor that could reduce operating costs; convert government child-welfare funds to block grants, allowing states greater flexibility in placing children into permanent adoptive or children’s homes rather than in temporary foster care.
McKenzie and other contributors also propose reforms to reduce the amount of time children spend in foster care and to make placement in permanent care settings more common. Two are noteworthy: assign the police and the criminal justice system, rather than social workers, to conduct the initial investigation of cases of significant abuse and neglect (eliminating a conflict of interest in the current child welfare system that usually investigates and also apportions funds for cases of abuse and neglect); and place a time limit, preferably 12 months, on abusive and negligent parents to rehabilitate themselves. If children cannot be safely returned to their parents after one year, those parents should forfeit any right to regain custody of their children.
Rethinking Orphanages is a worthwhile attempt to re-evaluate a private institution that has almost disappeared from the American landscape. It is an outstanding collection of well-argued essays that should rekindle interest in a viable private alternative to government bureaucracy that could greatly benefit tens of thousands of needy children.
Daniel T. Oliver is a research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Research Center and a freelance writer.