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The Upside of Orphanages

In a culture that promotes adoption, foster care and family reunification, UC Irvine professor Richard McKenzie argues that institutionalizing parentless children is the right way to go. Should America heed someone who claims 'hugs and kisses are overrated'?

November 27, 2005|Michael D'Antonio | Michael D'Antonio's last story for the magazine was about a man who claims to be the Lindbergh baby.

Black swallowtail butterflies flutter up from tall grass as Richard McKenzie walks, smiling, beside an abandoned railroad track in rural North Carolina. He is white-haired and 63, but vividly recalls running with a boy's legs beside the trains, a happy young man. Parentless, consigned to an orphanage, and happy.

"People don't want to believe it, but I did pretty well in life because I was raised here, not in spite of it," he says. "Was I damaged by the experience? I don't think so, not at all." Here is the Barium Springs Home for Children--simply "The Home" to young McKenzie and his fellow orphans in the 1950s--a place he often visits to chase the memories that have shaped his passion.

Perhaps more than anyone else in the country, McKenzie is responsible for renewed interest in institutionalizing parentless children. If that sounds cold, it's because, McKenzie will tell you, the images most of us associate with orphanages are as anachronistic as those in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist." Orphanages "were not the Dickensian hellholes portrayed in the movies," he insists. "They were places where a lot of kids were protected and given another chance in life."

To make his case, McKenzie has written a book and produced a documentary, which some public television stations around the U.S. are planning to air late this year and in 2006. When he's not working at UC Irvine, where he is an economics professor at the Paul Merage School of Business, McKenzie is on the stump, giving speeches and appearing at pro-orphanage fund-raisers.

What makes his crusade remarkable is his persistence despite massive opposition. Federal law favors foster care and adoption for kids whose parents can't or won't care for them, and states are required to provide services aimed at keeping families together and returning children who are in foster care to their parents as soon as possible.

Mountains of research and most child welfare experts dispute the notion that orphanages make sense, financially or otherwise. McKenzie did conduct two surveys that support his position, but they weren't scientific and aren't taken seriously by the mainstream. His brother, who lived with him at Barium Springs, is no fan of orphanages and, McKenzie says, won't talk about his time in North Carolina. There are orphanage advocates who think that some of his arguments are misguided.

The professor forges ahead anyway. He seems to enjoy going against the tide, making shocking statements to underscore subtle points--or, perhaps, to get people's attention.

"Hugs and kisses are overrated," he says when asked to answer one of the arguments made in defense of family-based care. He isn't a fan of reuniting parents with the children they had badly failed. "Permanency, security and a sense of place for the child have to be elevated over family reunification."

McKenzie's recollection of his life at Barium Springs begins with his most disturbing memory. The story opens with the sound of someone drumming on the lid of a peach crate. Dozens of boys in dirty farm clothes answer the call at a barn where they form a procession. They are led by a greasy-haired adolescent called Animal, who had assumed the role of executioner for a mangy old collie named Lady. The dog, a favorite that had given birth to many adored puppies, is dragged along by one of the boys. Animal carries the "bump-off stick," a 4- or 5-foot length of oak with a leather strap.

Killing sick or unwanted pets was routine at the orphanage, as it was on many farms of the day. The main difference was that here the children did the lethal work. Cats were drowned in buckets and dogs were felled with a single blow to the head. A few cruel lessons were reinforced by this process: Pets were of a lower order, real men must carry out their responsibilities no matter how distasteful, mercy requires speed and efficiency.

Lady received no mercy. When Animal struck the first blow, the dog howled and shook but did not fall. A prolonged and bloody scene ensued, with ever-weaker yelps following each subsequent strike. Even after she was down and seemed dead, the dog surprised her killer with a last cry.

Her agony would plague some of the boys into adulthood. Nevertheless, McKenzie manages to find a positive lesson in the memory: The boys learned about shame and the way violence degrades everyone it touches. This look-on-the-bright-side thinking is the product of his optimistic perspective--one that allows him to dismiss his lifelong struggle with late-night panic attacks.

But his finding good in his overall orphanage experience isn't surprising considering the alternative he imagines: life on the streets of Raleigh. When he arrived at Barium Springs in September 1952, he was a terrified 10-year-old whose mother had committed suicide after years of drinking and fighting with his father.

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