Part 1: Orphanages

Written by: Amanda McGinley and Nick Runyon Photos by: Whitney Runyon

Written by: Amanda McGinley and Nick Runyon
Photos by: Whitney Runyon

No matter what period of history is studied, you will always find some kind of tragedy. We don’t always understand why tragedy strikes, but as long as people rally together to help there is hope for the future of humanity. The orphan crisis is no different. People saw the tragedy of children without family and they decided to respond. But any solution to a big problem, like the orphan crisis, will have positive and negative outcomes. Honestly, it’s inevitable. It would be nearly impossible for someone to foresee all the different ways caring for vulnerable children could impact societies, cultures, and families. But lucky for us there is some history here, and we would be foolish not to explore it.

Societies have responded to abandoned children or those in need in a variety of ways; two major responses being adoption (or taking in a child before the legal side was set up), and the creation of orphanages (homes) for vulnerable children.

The creation of orphanages can be traced back to Roman times, when the Church was charged to care for orphans.  Monasteries assumed responsibility in the middle ages, then individual parishes during the Reformation. In the 18th century, with the growth of philanthropy, the first charitable orphanage was founded in 1741 in London, England.  The 19th century saw these privately funded orphanages receive government oversight and royal patronage.  These orphanages carry a mixed history of the type of care they provided and the motivations for that care. You can read more about this in our article on the adoption movement, here.

In the United States, the first orphanage was established in 1729. This was in response to the conflict at Natchez, Mississippi, which left a large number of children without parents. Health epidemics, wars, immigration, growing urbanization, and economic difficulties led to a dramatic increase in U.S. orphanages in the 19th century.

Simultaneously, many Native American children were taken from their homes and placed in orphanages under the policy of assimilation. Then, in 1909, President Roosevelt convened the White House Conference on Children, resulting in the conclusion that children should be placed in foster families rather than orphanages. Thus began the decline of “orphanages” in the U.S.

A similar progression in action can be seen in developing nations throughout the world.  With the rise in international travel, and the transfer of ideas, western involvement in crises around the world grew.  Once confronted with the realities of parentless children, western nations and individuals rushed to help and began to establish orphanages.

For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s (and continuing to today) led to an incredible increase in the number of children needing care.  African traditions of community cooperation relieved some pressure, but with the staggering number of deaths, extended families and communities were pushed beyond their ability and resources.  Governments were slow to respond as scarce public funds were allocated elsewhere. In an emergency response, westerners rushed in and built orphanages. And while these orphanages provided immediate care to children in need, other vulnerable and impoverished families began to see these orphanages as a safe alternative to the poverty at home and began taking their children to these homes. In response, more homes were opened and more impoverished families placed their children in orphanages.

As supply grew, so did demand.

 In many cases, orphanages provided something that was absolutely needed. This temporary relief for children without parents and impoverished families likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives. In the case of U.S. orphanages, many children returned to their families within a year.  In addition, many orphanages could provide for the basic physical needs of a vulnerable child in a speed and capacity that others couldn’t. Many children were protected from the elements, given clothes to wear, and saved from starvation. And although it is rare, it is worth mentioning that, even today, there are healthy group homes that love their children deeply, provide them with excellent education, help heal their past wounds, and send them into the world as healthy adults.

However, orphanages can have a dark side.  Historically, abusive and neglectful conditions were prevalent in unregulated homes.  Additionally, children, especially babies, often did not receive enough interaction (eye contact, physical contact, and stimulation) and as a result suffered from stunted growth, physical and mental.  In Russia alone, 40 percent of children that age out of institutional care frequent prison while 10 percent commit suicide. Moreover, many orphanages are for profit, which has led to individuals using vulnerable children to profit for themselves.  In our next article, ‘Movements Part 2: Adoption’, we further discuss orphanages as for profit business and the extreme impact this has had.

 What history has taught us is that, like orphan care in general, orphanages are complicated. They can alleviate and contribute to the problem all at the same time. They can bring immediate relief to tragic situations or provide temporary care while more holistic care is developed, but they will never suffice as a long-term solution to the orphan crisis because they do not address the breakdown of the family.

Maybe this all sounds too daunting, but one thing hasn’t changed. There is hope for the future because people are still rallying together to help. We are learning from our mistakes and expending time, money, and energy for one of the most worthy causes on the planet: children.

As we move forward may we always use history as our educational map toward a future without an orphan crisis.