Orphanages in a storm

January 30, 1995

Granted, Newt Gingrich is given to overblown rhetoric. But the storm that still continues long after the House speaker's suggestion of bringing back orphanages is doing nothing to address the problems facing too many children in this society.

Humane people hold sacred the bond between children and parents, and the bond between young children and their mothers is especially important. So when Mr. Gingrich talks somewhat callously of substituting orphanages for welfare payments, his critics understandably respond with rhetorical missiles.

But it's possible -- even, we trust, for Mr. Gingrich -- to reject the notion of punishing mothers for being poor while acknowledging that for many children home is a dangerous place to be. The orphanages of bygone years may have been austere places where children were vulnerable to loneliness and sometimes even mistreatment by the staff. But those children were at least getting the food, shelter and clothing their own families were not able to provide -- and which many children today lack in adequate measure. Americans ought to acknowledge the fact that for many children, even the orphanages of yesterday were better environments than a crack house.

No one would argue that the group facilities and foster care homes of today are an appealing alternative to warm, caring families, even if they are poor. But in too many cases, that is not the choice. There are children today whose lives are at risk if they stay with their parents. Ask children of crack addicts to choose between an "orphanage" and their biological families, and you may well find a child who has already run away from a chaotic household in a desperate cry for help.

Mr. Gingrich is naive if he thinks orphanages in themselves will solve the welfare problem. But he is realistic to suggest there are children who should not be living with their parents.

Liberals and conservatives alike need to acknowledge the fact that children matter -- including the children of the poor. The conditions in which they spend their early years indelibly mark their lives. A society that is willing to ignore their plight will eventually pay a price, regardless of whether the reasoning for its neglect is based on an overblown respect for parental rights or a punitive impulse to teach poor parents a lesson.

The debate about orphanages is really a debate about illegitimacy and about whether government programs are helping to fray the bonds that ought to hold families together. It is, fundamentally, a debate about the welfare of children.

It's also a debate this country sorely needs -- and one that ought not to be shackled by preconceived notions and stereotypes held dear by either the left or the right.

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