America's New Orphans

April 05, 1992

The social disintegration of poor, inner-city nuclear families has left many children without either parent to care for them. They are the children of what are being called "zero-parent families," whose mothers and fathers are either unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their upbringing. These children live with relatives or family friends or with foster care families, changing addresses often, resentful at not having a "normal" home life and often failing in school.

State and local social service agencies don't track such children a separate category, nor do school officials usually know which children are growing up in households where neither parent is present because kids are reluctant to admit they've been abandoned. There is evidence that the number of such children is growing, however, as young mothers increasingly fall victim to such multiple poverty-related traumas as homelessness, drug abuse, mental illness and AIDS.

In Baltimore, for example, an interagency task force on education for homeless children counted 1,061 school-age homeless children. That figure may represent a small fraction of the total number of children growing up without a mother or father. In some cities, up to half the kids in the poorest neighborhoods do not live with either parent.

Some have called for reopening the orphanages of a century ago. But others think that would compound the failure. "Orphanages didn't work then and they aren't the solution now," says Susan Leviton of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth. A more effective approach, she suggests, would be targeted help to dysfunctional families so that they can resolve their problems. She would also make adoption easier, so that children who must be removed from situations of abuse or neglect have a better chance of finding new homes. As a last resort, she would even consider radical alternatives, along the lines of the Israeli kibbutzim, that would allow abandoned children to grow up in extended surrogate families.

The Family Preservation Initiative in the mayor's office provides practical assistance to families to help them keep functioning. But adoption is still a complicated, drawn-out process and there is little money for the kind of after-school mentoring and counseling programs that could help older children, in particular, overcome the difficulties they face. Yet it is clear that unless we find better ways to respond to the crisis of America's new orphans, the future will punish us severely for our neglect.

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