These are no angry behemoths hulking on downtown streets or
rising on the hills of distant railroad towns. Often, today's
American orphanages look so unlike their Dickensian predecessors
that you could almost believe the brightly colored cottages were
sets for some Disney fairy tale.
The children, too, seem distant from the privations of old. They
have food, clothes, and a measure of stability - most even have
parents, beyond the wilds of the foster-care system.
Look deeper, though, and perhaps not so much has changed in 150
"The orphanage never really went away," says child welfare expert
Richard Wexler. "It sort of metamorphosed" into the system of
shelters, group homes, residential treatment centers, and
residential educational academies that provide the bulk of
institutional foster care in the US today. "But they couldn't change
the facts: Institutional care is bad for kids."
Mr. Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for
Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), is among a growing number of
analysts drawing attention to what he calls a "back to the
orphanage" movement now under way. The population of American foster
children in institutional settings is quietly growing, they say -
not due to any concerted social or legal effort, just a pieced-
together system that affords comparatively few services to families
in need but offers fiscal incentives to take children away.
These analysts are not the only ones concerned: Last week the US
House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony on a Bush
administration proposal that would allow states to take their annual
foster care money - currently the only bottomless pool of funds
available for poor kids - in an up-front sum that could be used for
family-preservation services. The child welfare community is
divided: some Bush detractors actually support the proposal, citing
its potential to strengthen family services; many institutional care
providers oppose it.
Half a million in foster care
Today, more than half a million children are in foster care in
the US. According to the latest Department of Health and Human
Services (HHS) figures, roughly 100,000 live in group facilities:
emergency shelters, group homes, and institutions.
But numbers of children in state care are notoriously slippery:
Though states began enacting foster-care laws in the late 19th
century, and though the first major study of its outcomes was
published in 1924, the federal government did not begin to keep
comprehensive nationwide data on children in foster care until 1998.
Before that, states reported on kids in care voluntarily - and
While the four years of available data do not show a rise in
group care of foster kids, many in the field say they believe the
proportion of children in such care is on the rise.
"It's not a huge upswing, but it's been my impression that it's
growing," says Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy
and Practice Group in Montgomery, Ala.
At the same time, says Madelyn Freund-lich of the child advocacy
group Children's Rights, a number of states are currently building
new institutions, or expanding existing ones, to house these
children. In theory, she says, the system's goal is to reunite these
kids with their own or foster families, but in practice many kids
who land in institutions stay there for the long haul.
Add to that a growing number of faith-based groups - particularly
in Florida and Georgia - working to bring back orphanage care as an
intentional part of the foster care system, and what you have, says
researcher Mary Ford, of the North American Council on Adoptable
Children, is troubling.
"All this focus on [institutional] permanency goes against a
hundred years of child welfare policy," Ms. Freundlich adds. "Why
are we promoting this against all our policy directives?"
A system under strain
Whatever you know about this country's foster-care system, you've
probably heard it's a mess: the kids too many and too troubled,
their families incompetent or worse, foster parents too few and
sometimes abusive, and resources chronically scarce. …