A vote for orphanages - Until...


Pat O'Brien
Focus on Adoption magazine

Would teens who move from foster home to foster home be better off in an orphanage?

There's a "new" debate going on about building orphanages for foster kids. There's even a group in Minnesota that's proposing orphanages for younger children. When asked at a public hearing what ages of children they would place in their orphanages, they noted "60% of the children will be 8 or 9 to 15 year olds with the rest being older or younger." So we know that at least one group out there is advocating for children even younger than 8-year-old.

I am confident that the groups advocating against placing younger children in orphanages will win the day. Hence, the debate will yet again focus on what's best for the teens: the stability of an orphanage or placement in traditionally prepared foster homes.

What’s in a name?

These advocates talk as if orphanages don’t already exist. Yet, right now in every state in the Union there are orphanages that warehouse children until the day they become homeless when they leave foster care. Yet, there is no fuss about these orphanages because the people that set them up were sophisticated enough to call them something else. Some are called “residential treatment centers.” Others are called group homes, correctional facilities, or congregate care facilities. (I’m a strong believer in treatment centers for teens that need treatment. I’m also a strong believer in juvenile correctional facilities for teens that need rehabilitation.)

This year we will have close to 20,000 American youths discharged after their “treatment” or “long-term foster care” is over. They will be discharged to the ever-popular child welfare permanency-planning goal of “independent living.” In fact, they will simply be let loose upon our land to wander.

For the teen that has no home, the facility he or she is residing in is an orphanage. Plain and simple. So why all the fuss? What’s the big deal that a group of citizens want to call a spade a spade and say they want to build an orphanage? I, for one, appreciate their honesty.

Now, back to the issue of what’s best for teenagers—an orphanage or a traditionally prepared foster family. Many advocates will argue that any family is better than an orphanage. I argue that only unconditionally committed adoptive or permanent families are better than orphanages. I do not believe just any foster family is better than an orphanage and here’s why.

Placing teens in just any home is perhaps the cruelest hoax that we can play on a child. These folks may look like parents, they may walk like parents, and they may even talk like parents; but, a parent is a person who unilaterally and unconditionally commits to a child. These parents do not unconditionally commit to the teenager’s future because no one even asks them to. Hence, we are constantly setting up the teenager living in foster homes and here’s how.

Eggshell families

Across the United States, we place teenagers in traditionally prepared foster homes that only take them because an intake worker makes “the deal” with them. “The deal” is what I consider the worst form of legal child abuse that exists in this country today, and that “deal” is, “Try it and see if it works out.” You can’t fault the foster parent for “trying.” The organization that wants to place the child is asking for their help and the foster family truly believes they are being helpful. However, the teens find themselves living in what I have come to call “eggshell families.” Don’t shake, rattle, or roll this family or you may find your life broken yet again.  

Teens get removed from eggshell families for just about anything you or I did when we were teenagers. They are not just being removed for fire setting or aggressive behaviour. They are being removed because of nasty attitudes, not showing appreciation, talking back, expressing their opinions, cutting school, smoking, cursing, or any of a variety of things that are normal during the teen years.

The promise of the orphanage is that teens would no longer have to suffer the risks of living in eggshell families where they have to move all the time.

I ran an Intake/Home Finding department for a traditional foster care agency for three years in the late 1990s. Almost all of the teenagers that I know who were placed in our best foster families were kicked out for behaviors that displeased these traditionally prepared foster families. We lead these otherwise terrific foster families into believing that they were helping out only to have them request the removal of the child when that child did something that displeased them. And the kicker is they honored their end of the “deal.”  They “tried” but “it didn’t work out.”

So what’s so bad about an orphanage? It could offer a youth stability so that he or she can get a high school diploma, perhaps even go to college; hopefully, it will offer a youth some job and skills training.

Teens that have to live in eggshell homes know that they cannot really be themselves because they run the risk of having child welfare’s equivalent of capital punishment (i.e., losing the bed they slept in last night) imposed on them for simply being their developmental selves--sometimes nice, sometimes nasty. Sometimes well behaved, sometimes breaking the rules; sometimes adult-like, and sometimes childish. In eggshell homes they get kicked out for being nasty, breaking the rules, and acting like children. And the teens that stay in these homes are still only there until they are discharged to homelessness because the home is not committed to them beyond their years in care. 

The reason we place kids in eggshell homes to begin with rather than adoptive or permanent families is because we believe no one would make a permanent commitment to them. What would you say if I told you it is easier to find permanent homes for teens than eggshell homes? Would you start looking for them if you knew permanent homes were easier to find? I hope so. And it is true. We can find unconditionally committed adoptive or permanent parents for every kid in our care. But we have to choose to believe the families are out there first. Once we absolutely know the families are there, 75% of the job of finding the family is done. The other 25%, actually identifying an individual family for the child, becomes the easy part. And anyone interested in ideas on how to find these families, once you believe they are out there, can contact me directly.

But until we are all on the same page, I vote for the orphanage over putting any teenager in a traditionally prepared foster family. However, I only vote for the orphanage until each and every one of us are on the same page about identifying adoptive and permanent homes for every teen in our care before they are discharged from our care.

Eggshell families no more! Yeah for the orphanages until!

Pat O’Brien is the Executive Director of You Gotta Believe: The Older Child Adoption and Permanency Movement, in New York.

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