During the Great Depression, at the height of the “orphanage era” of child welfare in the United States, 144,000 children lived in those settings. By the 1950s, the system had begun a decades-long shift towards the use of foster homes and today, the American orphanage is largely considered “extinct.”
But is it?
Our child welfare system still places tens of thousands of kids in institutional care every year. Nearly 44,000 children, or around 10% of U.S. kids in foster care, are in institutional placements. Children are often placed in institutions when there is not a relative or foster family available to care for them or when they need specialized behavioral supports or intensive treatment. But institutions should never be the default placement for children, even those with traumatic childhood experiences.
All of us were created to live in relationship with one another, and children are meant to be raised within a family. Studies have shown that institutional care affects the way a child’s brain develops, causing dramatic developmental delays, and institutionalized children fall well below average development for physical, behavioral, and mental growth when compared to children raised in a family. Young children especially need attention, touch, and positive affirmation from a consistent and present adult connection.
A recent report by Think of Us found that many institutional placements fail to provide children with a sense of safety, permanency, and well-being — the three things the child welfare system is supposed to ensure a child. Many were found to be “prison-like” and “punitive” environments in which youth feel “like they [don’t] have a way out.”
When it comes to the use of institutions and group homes, the system charged with “rehabilitating ineffective parents” has become an ineffective parent.
Please hear my heart when I say there are many genuinely good people trying to do genuinely good things for kids within group care. In fact, some youth can benefit from time-limited intensive services in a residential setting that supports progress in certain specialized areas for them.
But we should no longer tolerate doing things the same old way we’ve always done them. The status quo of automatically sending teenagers, or youth with higher mental health needs, to institutions without exhausting family-based interventions has harmed too many kids. Sadly, those of us in the child welfare community continue to see that happen again and again.
In some ways, I think we’ve simply stopped using the word orphanage to describe institutional care because it soothes our collective conscience. It’s far past time to truly eliminate them, and not just in name only. We should be more concerned with the harm our broken child welfare system continues to inflict upon the most marginalized children, families, and communities, rather than protecting the status quo. When we perpetuate a system that sacrifices the well-being of children and families it supposedly protects, who are we actually protecting?
At Bethany Christian Services, where I lead our continuum of domestic child welfare programs across the country – from family strengthening and preservation to foster care and adoption – we are part of this system. But we are determined not to uphold the system at the expense of children, youth, and families.
Throughout our nearly 80-year history, we’ve continually evolved as we’ve learned better ways of keeping children, youth, and families safe, loved, and connected. Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Bethany was founded as an orphanage. Today, we’re continuing to creatively adapt programs and services to better meet the dynamic challenges facing those we walk alongside.
We know what needs to be done to limit the extent to which we lean on group settings. It starts with genuinely listening to and investing in families and communities to prevent kids from entering foster care in the first place. When given the chance to share, families at risk of being separated by the child welfare system almost always know what supports and resources they need to keep their kids safe. They just are hardly ever asked, much less invited, to genuinely co-design solutions alongside those with resources, influence, and power.
When their voices are sought out, many are hesitant to engage because they have been burned too many times by powerful people and institutions who simply want to check the “community engagement” box without really hearing what the community has to say. Too many promises have been broken, and the cycle of dehumanization and disempowerment continues.
At Bethany Christian Services, we are partnering with Alia Innovations, a bold thought leader in child welfare transformative redesign, to help us become a better community co-designer as we intentionally and increasingly focus on family support, strengthening and preservation work.
When risks are present, we should partner with families to keep children and youth safely at home. Most children in the foster care system were removed from their homes because of a finding of neglect, not because they were abused. Community-based family support, strengthening and preservation services like Parent Cafes, Safe Care, and the Homebuilders program offer family-led solutions to help them stay safely intact. We are intentionally expanding our continuum of family-centric programs across the nation to empower parents to safely care for their children where they can best thrive – in their own families and communities.
When children do need to be somewhere other than with their parents to ensure safety, we must increase our material support for kinship families and shared parenting initiatives. The child welfare system too often pits birth parents and foster parents against each other. Through innovative kinship support initiatives like Bethany’s new Say Yes 2 FAMILY model, it is possible to keep children more closely connected with their birth families by building strong ties between birth parents, relatives, and foster parents.
We believe it is possible to place more than 70% of children removed from their birth families with relatives. Through this model, we anticipate increased safety and emotional well-being for children, their birth parents, and their relatives, and that a greater proportion of children will be reunified with their families more quickly.
In the extremely rare cases where institutional placements are needed, it should always be a last resort, time limited, and solely reserved for specialized care including mental health and behavioral treatment. Every possible family alternative should be exhausted before a child is ever placed in institutional care. Behavioral or mental health needs that require institutional care should always be proven before institutional care is ever used, and it should always be for a limited time until a family-based, deeply supportive setting can be established.
Today, children are placed in institutional care far more often than they should be because of the trauma and rejection they experience upon removal and as a result of numerous placement changes. In these cases, access to stabilizing treatment options must be immediately prioritized. Of course, that means they must be funded and available too. Child welfare professionals and parents should not have to jump through many administrative hoops and drive hundreds of miles just to get children the treatment they need. The current system sets them and our youth up to fail.