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Let's Bring Back Children's Homes

Society: Many kids would be better off not being adopted, if they had another viable option.

March 23, 2000|RICHARD B. McKENZIE | Richard B. McKenzie, editor of "Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century" (Sage Publications, 1998), is a UC Irvine Graduate School of Management professor. E-mail: mckenzie@uci.edu

"Cider House Rules," an Academy Award-nominated film set in an orphanage during the late 1930s and early 1940s, presents us with a moral tragedy that is still with us today: What do we do with the children who remain unwanted?

The easy answer has been to find those children foster parents and to facilitate adoption.

Yet these options are failing many children. Meanwhile, the other, still viable option--children's homes--have had so many regulatory costs heaped upon them that many private civic and religious groups have pulled out of doing what they once did so well--providing the kind of permanent care for disadvantaged children that was evident in "Cider House."

Foster care can be a godsend for children who need temporary out-of-home placement while their biological parents regroup or amend their abusive ways. However, there are tens of thousands of children in the U.S. who will spend their childhoods going from one temporary placement to the next, exiting the system disturbed by their experience and ill-prepared to deal with the world.

As for adoptions, Congress has done much over the past two years to encourage adoptions out of foster care, even giving child welfare agencies bounties for each "system" child adopted.

However, as fully evident in "Cider House," it's a mistake to assume that all children are adoptable. Often the decision that prospective parents make on who to adopt is almost arbitrary, perhaps even, as one child in "Cider House" lamented, based on the color of a child's eyes.

Even if there were as many couples seeking adoptions as there were available children, there would always be some children who would never be adopted. Further, hard as it might be to believe, not all children, even those living in orphanages, want to be adopted.

In my survey of 1,600 middle-aged and elderly alumni from nine orphanages in the South and Midwest, more than 90% indicated that as children they either never or rarely entertained thoughts of adoption. And they had good reasons. When you come from difficult family circumstances and are living in a pretty good place--even if it is an "institution"--why give it up?

Also, adoption can mean a final and complete severance of any relationship children might have with their biological parents, and many children don't want to make that kind of break, even from abusive parents.

In a film like "Cider House," every adoption story ends with the unstated message, "And they lived happily ever after." That is not always the case. Not all adoptions work. It appears from a growing number of news reports that the count of failed adoptions is on the rise, although there are no official statistics.

Why do adoptions fail? Sometimes because adoptive parents are ill-equipped to deal with the problem children they adopt. Sometimes because these parents aren't told about the children's emotional, physical or behavioral problems. And sometimes because couples use adoption as a last-ditch means of holding a failing marriage together and, when it doesn't work, neither parent wants the adopted child.

What do we do with children who have been dumped by their biological parents, dumped by a series of foster parents and then dumped emotionally by adoptive parents? "Cider House" offers some guidance: Bring back children's homes.

This may not be a perfect or complete solution, but it is one that has worked for many children in the past at places like the Stephen Girard Home in Pennsylvania and the Connie Maxwell Children's Home in South Carolina. It is an option that is being developed in San Diego.

In a way, "Cider House Rules" is both a glimpse into the nation's child care past and into its future. The good news is that existing children's homes are expanding, and new ones are being organized, albeit at a slow pace. The country needs more children's homes like the one in "Cider House." That means more private, civic, religious and charitable organizations will need to step up to the plate and do what was done for children decades ago, only do it even better.

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