Orphanages may not be answer to complicated puzzle

January 03, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

CHICAGO -- A soft-spoken teen-ager sat on the couch in the group home where he has lived for three years and described why sometimes, despite all the attention he receives from the staff, he cannot control his temper.

"I can be very nice one minute, and the next minute I can blow off the handle," says Terrence, 16, who has lived in foster homes and residential care facilities since he was a toddler.

"It happens when I think about my past," he continues. "Why did it have to be me going to a group home? Why aren't I going home every night to see my momma, like the other kids?"

Seven hundred miles away, at Atlanta's Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, young residents had similar thoughts.

Sure, says Lakeisha, 8, she'd love some toys and dolls and pretty new clothes for Christmas. But what she really wanted was to be living back at home with her mother, brother and sister.

"Yeah, I like this place. It's fine," she says. "But I'd rather be home."

Unfortunately, for Terrence and Lakeisha and tens of thousands of others like them, home is not an option. Neglected, abused or abandoned by their parents, they are what experts call "social orphans" and many live in the modern-day equivalent of old-fashioned orphanages.

Now, both the children and the institutions are being thrust into the spotlight as a result of the growing national debate over welfare reform. A close look at the evidence suggests that the question of what role orphanages -- and similar forms of group foster care -- can or should play in dealing with the children of poverty is far more complicated than politicians of all stripes make it sound.

Certainly, orphanages don't seem promising as a device for making welfare cheaper. At an average annual cost of $36,000 per child, group homes are more costly than a year at an elite college. Experts generally agree that under normal circumstances the best place for children is with their parents.

On the other hand, crack cocaine, random violence, street gangs, runaway fathers, teen-age mothers and other factors are pushing so many children into dangerous situations that something akin modern orphanages may be their only hope.

Expensive as they may be, in the long run, group care facilities may prove cheaper than any of the alternatives.

Political conservatives started the current argument by suggesting that orphanages could be the answer for children whose parents are cut off the dole by welfare reform and cannot support them.

Incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., fanned the rhetorical flames by suggesting that if first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was appalled by the notion of bringing back orphanages, she should watch the 1938 Spencer Tracy-Mickey Rooney film classic "Boys Town."

Johnnie Melton, who directs two group homes in Chicago, fiercely defends the institutions but says they are no place for a child with loving parents.

"To remove a child from a family -- no matter how poor -- a child feels it has been punished. We've created more problems than we've solved," she says. "There's all this talk about family values and now they're talking about splitting up families. It's very contradictory."

"I have calculated I'd have to take 10 families off welfare to fund one child in the lowest-cost institution," says Gary Stangler, human services director of the American Public Welfare Association.

"We decided some years ago that what we really have to talk about is strengthening families," Mr. Stangler continues. "It's so much cheaper."

In the face of this counterattack, many conservatives have edged away from the orphanage idea.

"I think the states aren't going to go that route," says Rep. James M. Talent, R-Mo. He drafted several sections of the GOP plan for welfare reform, which lists the construction and operations of orphanages as one way states can use funds that would otherwise go to teen-age mothers. The GOP plan would deny teen-age mothers cash benefits in an attempt to discourage out-of-wedlock births.

"It's a non-issue," says Doug Besharov, a former child-welfare official and now a senior policy analyst at the conservative Enterprise Foundation research center. "For some kids, it works. But it's a perversion of a good idea to use it broadly."

Foster care, the living arrangement for the majority of "social orphans," is much less expensive. But each year, more and more children are placed in group homes because their problems are too severe to be dealt with in conventional foster homes.

That is why in 1989, sociologist Joyce Ladner, now the interim president of Howard University, proposed "an institution that many had hoped would never be needed again: the orphanage," as an alternative to a child-welfare system that she called "woefully out of touch with the sorry realities that confront many children."

Today, many group homes occupy the space of former orphanages. But there the similarity ends.

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