Public Policy and the 'Wicked Stepmother': The Ideological War against Institutional Child Care

By Pawel, Michael A. | The Humanist, January-February 1995 | Go to article overview

Public Policy and the 'Wicked Stepmother': The Ideological War against Institutional Child Care


Pawel, Michael A., The Humanist


Call yourself an advocate for youth in America, and your position on institutionalizing adolescents is supposed to be clear: you must be against it. De-institutionalization has no firmer constituency than the professional child-welfare movement. Although the limitations of de-institutionalization are by now well recognized by those who advocate the rights of parallel dependent groups like the elderly and the mentally ill, advocates for children almost universally retain the view that children are always better off in families (preferably their own) than in institutional care.

This is curious because the idea that children are always best off at home flies in the face not only of the everyday experience of most child-care workers--whose arguments are simply dismissed as self-serving--but also of such common topical preoccupations as the relatively high rates of serious violence (including rape and murder) of children in their families, and the historical conviction of the left (until very recent years) that the nuclear family is the seat of almost all evil. Traditionally, the right wing defended parental (particularly paternal) prerogatives, and reform movements sought to liberate young people from chattel status and enable them to escape the tyranny of their parents. Yet these days, the Marian Wright Edelmans are no less vociferous than the Phyllis Schlaflys in advocating (at least for others) the "family value" that children should always be cared for by their natural mothers.

How has this essentially reactionary view come to be embraced so uncritically by such a wide cross-section of our society, including those who consider themselves socially enlightened? Is it because institutional child care is demonstrably cruel or unsuccessful (by whatever standards)? Is it because the nuclear family in America is enjoying such a renaissance of success? Or is it for other, less praiseworthy reasons: political expedience, self-aggrandizement, financial gain, or the satisfaction of irrational and largely unconscious drives? These questions urgently need to be examined before a well-intentioned national administration blindly endorses "the family" above all else in a federal policy on children and youth.

Has Institutional Care Generally Failed?

The roots of institutional child care in the United States reach well back into the first half of the nineteenth century. Then, as now, large-scale population movement to urban areas produced a disturbing and frightening surge of abandoned children. Destitute and minimally socialized, they constituted an ongoing threat to public safety, as well as a reproach to the common conscience. Reformist organizations began to develop asylums for these children like the New York House of Refuge, a cross between orphanage and reform school, where abandoned children could be sheltered and taught decent conduct and a useful trade. At the same time, the precursor of family foster care was introduced when organizations like the Children's Aid Society began shipping trainloads of street urchins to the Midwest, where they supposedly were welcomed by families in need of extra hands. In the West, the theory went, these children would find big, warm, real American families full of love, milk (a symbol of motherhood, rich food, and American purity unself-consciously embraced as a reformative agent), and wholesome middle-American values.

The closing of the frontier ended an era when "dumping" the socially and economically superfluous could be justified as offering them the chance for a new start. Although so-called Greyhound therapy of the homeless, the mentally ill, and the young persists, it now more commonly involves exporting these people from the heartland to urban centers where, as the new rationale goes, they will find either new opportunities or "the service they really need"--and where their support will be shifted to other, politically weaker, inner-city taxpayers. Thus, New York concentrates social services for juveniles and for the homeless at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, hoping to divert youngsters from the notorious "Minnesota Strip" where Father Bruce Ritter made his reputation working with young prostitutes from the Midwest. …

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