Note: This is part two of a three-part look by columnists and former foster youth Waln Brown and John Seita about the darker side of foster care in America. Click here to read Part One, and click here to read Part Three.
In response to the Protestant agenda of converting Catholic youths, Catholics began building orphanages exclusively for Catholics. Protestants did likewise for Protestants, as did Jews for Jewish kids. Orphanages of all cultural and religious orientation sprang up throughout America. By the 1900s, there were about 1,000 orphanages and institutions serving orphaned, dependent and delinquent youth.
But liberal reformers began to criticize orphanages as “regimented institutions that destroyed individuality.” This initial wave of de-institutionalization sentiment grew out of a new social and political movement called the “Progressive Movement.” Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Theodore Dreiser and other social reformers did not believe in placing children in institutional care.
On January 25, 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt held a conference to discuss the welfare of “children who are destitute and neglected but not delinquent.” The nearly 200 social workers and activists in attendance declared that the best method of caring for dependent youth was at home or in an alternative family; orphanages and other children’s institutions were a last resort.
To our knowledge, only one of the conference participants had lived in out-of-home care. But that did not matter to the Progressive Movement. It had a much broader mission. It would advance its political agenda of developing a government-run social welfare system similar to that of Europe by first attacking the plight of orphaned and dependent children.
After all, who could criticize a system of care that seemed to make life better for America’s least fortunate and vulnerable citizens? Socially acceptable phrases like “foster child,” “foster parent,” “foster family” and “foster care” replaced the negative terms associated with Charles Dickens: “orphan” and “orphanage.”
The one alumnus known to have attended The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children was James E. West. A lawyer and a committee leader at the White House Conference, West read the following question for the conferees to consider:
“Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune be kept with their parents … aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?”
West’s question resulted in resolutions stating that children should not be removed from their families except for urgent and compelling reasons, but not destitution. If necessary, poor families should receive government aid to support their children.
Furthermore, children who had to be removed from their families should be cared for by foster families – not orphanages – who were to be paid.
The Conference effectively initiated the death knell that slowly killed off orphanages operated by charities and replaced them with the allegedly new and improved government-run version of foster care. The Progressive Movement purposely exploited the plight of dependent children as the hot button to promote its larger political agenda of expanding government.
Charities began closing orphanages in the early 1920s and creating foster care agencies to follow the Progressive Movement’s new “best practice” that embraced foster placements and scorned orphanages. Government agencies arose to replace the services once provided by charities and took control of the foster care system by licensing and monitoring foster parents and creating reports and records.
By the late 1950s, many orphanages had become residential treatment centers or temporary foster care shelters. The anti-institution movement of the 1960s and 1970s wiped out more of the remaining orphanages.
Dependent children had been rendered totally dependent on the government-run foster care system for their shelter, sustenance, safety and stability.
Lacking any political power and no say in the matter, dependent children became the unwitting pawns of social engineering … again.
Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.
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