Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Why did American orphanages disappear, and where do orphans go today? | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Why did American orphanages disappear, and where do orphans go today?

WTF: We just had to ask...


Published June 9, 2010 at 7:14 a.m.


An orphanage is no place for a kid to grow up. For one thing, it’s a rigid, highly regulated institution devoid of the love and compassion that children need to develop into healthy adults. Then there are the stories of abuse and neglect inside orphanages — the very situations that many orphans escaped from at home. Yet, for much of modern history, an orphanage was the destination for most parentless children.

Look around today, however, and you won’t see a single such place in Vermont. Throughout the United States, the number of orphanages has declined drastically since the late 1940s. What happened?

Kids become orphans for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes their parents die, and no relatives step in to raise them. In other cases, parents abandon their children at birth, go to jail, suffer from mental illness or simply can’t support their offspring.

If any of these things happened to your parents in Vermont in the 19th or early part of the 20th century, you might have gone to an orphanage in the city or become a ward of your town’s overseer. Diane Dexter, the adoption coordinator for the state of Vermont, describes these officials as “kind of like the dogcatcher, except they were responsible for children on the loose.”

The overseer would try to find a family in town to adopt you informally. If that didn’t work, you’d be sent to a “poor farm,” where you’d work alongside itinerant adults for room and board. “You had children going all over Vermont with no one looking out for their rights, safety or health,” Dexter says.

This bleak picture brightened somewhat after the Great Depression, when the New Deal social safety nets were created. Given the widespread poverty in those days, officials recognized that some families simply couldn’t afford to raise their kids. A social welfare system organized by the state and federal governments began to take shape.

Today’s Department for Children and Families (DCF) began soon after World War II as the Department for Social Welfare. Its dominant mission was to provide economic aid to poor families. Secondary to that was its child-protection division for neglected and abused kids.

Our sense of human decency continued to evolve into the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the government began to confront juvenile delinquency and sexual abuse within the home. Around this time, Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS) was formed as a separate agency to deal with child abuse and neglect, and was later absorbed by DCF. In addition, the foster-care system developed, putting Vermont’s last orphanage — St. Joseph’s in Burlington — out of commission in 1974.

Today, the state addresses the problem of orphans in two ways: by helping families stay together, and by matching orphaned children with relatives or foster parents. DCF’s economic-services division helps keep impoverished families intact through the Reach Up program, which provides housing vouchers, cash grants for expenses related to child rearing, Medicaid for children, food stamps, fuel assistance, free school breakfasts and lunches, and even the use of a car for job hunting.

The family-services division of DCF handles abused and neglected children, kids who are beyond the control of their parents, juvenile delinquents, and kids with no parents at all. This is the foster-care system. In placing these minors, the state follows a hierarchy of possible guardians: First it looks for relatives; then it searches the child’s immediate community.

When those options fail, the state turns to “stranger foster families,” men and women who undergo training and licensing as foster parents and make themselves available as the need arises. “When you come into our system as a foster parent,” Dexter says, “we’re going to talk to you about permanency planning and how kids grow best when families are in control of their day-to-day life and activities, not when the state is in control.”

Some foster parents sign up for only short-term care of teenage girls or boys; others are hoping to become full-fledged parents for a lifetime. DCF’s job is to find the foster family that best suits the age, gender, race and personality of the child in need. “We call them up, and we say, ‘Do you have room for a 10-year-old?’” Dexter explains. The state, with the help of the federal government, provides Medicaid to these kids and a stipend to foster parents, reimbursing the costs of clothing, food and other expenses.

Vermont has between 1000 and 1200 foster kids at any given time, and last year DCF completed the adoptions of 153 children. Things get busier in economic downturns, when a lost job combined with a pregnancy can push more families to make adoption plans for the new child.

According to Dexter — herself the mother of two adopted children — the good news is that Vermont’s foster-care system is better than it has ever been. “But, as good as this system is,” she says, “it’s no match for loving parents who care solely for you.”