Return of the Orphanage


The word "orphanage" conjures up images of grim-faced children lined up in dining halls and dormitories, enduring childhood without being the child of anyone in particular. So why are some commentators calling for a return of institutions that are intended to be substitutes for families?

For some conservative social critics, orphanages represent an effort to deal with a steadily increasing growth of out-of-wedlock births, a trend that holds alarming implications for society.

But orphanages? Supporters of the idea argue that even the old stereotypical institutions would be better for youngsters than the households they are born into. Maybe so, but institutions don't raise children. It takes a parent, or at least an omnipresent parental figure, to guide a child to maturity. Done right, orphanages would cost a fortune. Done badly, they would only exacerbate the problems.

A more promising idea that is getting renewed attention is a variation on the old homes for unwed mothers. In the new version, young, unmarried mothers would get medical care and counseling as well as training in parenting or help in placing their babies for adoption. That would please many critics who say that welfare stipends, by giving young mothers the possibility of independence, acts as an incentive to give birth out of wedlock.

Homes for unwed mothers fell out of favor years ago, before the alarms were beginning to sound about the growth in out-of-wedlock births. Now, with many states requiring that under-age welfare mothers live with a parent or other responsible adult, it's worth taking a new look at this idea.

Group homes, or modern-day orphanages, can also fill an important need for some children, usually adolescents, who are too fragile or damaged to cope with the emotional intensities of family life, who need the structure of a group home without the risk of failing to fit into an intimate family setting. From large-scale operations like Boys Town in Nebraska to smaller programs with only a handful of residents, group settings can be an important way station for troubled young people, at least for a limited period of time.

Maryland has long made use of such facilities for children with special needs, even placing them in programs out of state rather than looking for places closer to home. Recent reforms in the social services system have sought to curb this practice, in part to save money and in part to spare families long-distance separations. One benefit of that policy is that new residential treatment services have sprouted up here in Maryland, creating more than 200 jobs in the first year of the new policy.

By whatever name, group homes will get more attention in the coming years. The price tag will not be small, but society may well decide that the cost is outweighed by the severity of the crisis.

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