Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 30, 1961
NUMBER 30, PAGE 1,12a

Children --- Lost And Found

(A Reprint From Time Magazine, October 27, 1961)

Americans are often accused of being painfully self-conscious about their society and its failings. But Americans are curiously oblivious to some of their society's achievements. It took foreign visitors to point out how remarkable it was that in the U. S. automobile workers drive to work in their own cars. Similarly unnoticed is another achievement of U. S. culture. The orphanage, that bleak institution that has outraged human sensibilities from the time of Oliver Twist to Little Annie Rooney, has all but vanished.

The reasons are manifold, and the process has been gradual, a function of both the U. S.'s long social conscience and its incredibly productive economy. Thanks to better medical care, there are fewer orphans today. Few mothers die in childbirth; fathers live longer. Even if the father dies, social security payments enable a mother to keep her children with her. Furthermore, almost any average childless couple that wants a child can afford one. Result: more couples clamoring for babies than there are babies to adopt — and the highest rate of adoption of any nation in the world.

Still, a new kind of problem child has replaced the vanishing orphan in the U. S.'s conscience. He is the child who is homeless as a result of divorce, illegitimacy, parental abuse or mental illness — orphaned in spirit if not in fact. There are 283,000 of these children. About 96,000 — the emotionally retarded, the medically ill — are cared for in special institutions. The rest are the beneficiaries of that phenomenal revolution in society, the foster home.

Vagrant Packs

Scarcely 50 years ago, civilized Americans thought of children as belonging to one of two classes: those with families and those without. The neglected and orphaned were hauled off to Dickensian institutions to live in lock-stepped desperation; and when the orphanages were filled, the" rest were left to roam the cities in vagrant packs or were rounded up and shipped to agricultural communities to be palmed off on farmers in need of kitchen and field help.

Urged on by such reformers as Novelist Theodore Dreiser, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 called the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. That meeting established the seemingly simple principle that a child was better off with a family, even if it was not his own, than he was in the cold and impersonal atmosphere of an institution. As Roosevelt said, "Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons."

The principle was one thing, but practical action was another. A federal Children's Bureau was formed, and within a few years the better voluntary and public agencies had begun to correct the notorious conditions in the nation's orphanages. But not until the mid-'30s did the idea of foster care gain universal acceptance. Major factor was the recognition that, with the best good will in the world, few families could afford to take in a homeless waif unless they were paid at least enough to cover its food and lodging. Assured of this subsidy from the foster agencies, more and more families opened their doors to the homeless. Today some agencies even advertise for foster parents, offer to pay not only a fixed monthly fee for the child's board (as high as $200, for difficult emotional cases, in Seattle) but also medical and clothing allowances.

Generally, placement agencies have no trouble finding homes for orphans and other children who may be legally adoptable. The new problem is finding foster parents for the child who cannot be adopted because one or both parents are still living and refuse to surrender their legal rights. Among these is the illegitimate child whose mother cannot care for him but who clings to the hope that some day she may get married and be able to reclaim him. Others are children with a parent who is a narcotics addict, alcoholic, convict, mental patient or a divorcee who neglects the child. But the vast majority are victims of less dramatic situations: parents who may not have gone off the deep end but who are so embroiled in personal and marital problems that they feel incapable of bringing up a child.

Love And Marriage

Ideal foster parents are mature people who are not necessarily well off but who have a good marriage and who love and understand children. Placement investigators check prospective foster homes for an atmosphere of warmth and emotional stability try to choose families with average faults and virtues, and a little extra fortitude thrown in. The foster parents have to accept the fact that the child is in their care for only a brief time (an average of 4.1 years) until he becomes self-supporting or until his natural parents can take him back. The real parents of some children sometimes forsake them altogether, although they do not relinquish their legal rights to the children. In such cases, the foster parents become in effect the only parents. In other cases, social workers try to prepare the real parents for the time when they may again take back their child by encouraging them to visit the child in its foster home. Through all this, the foster parents have to stifle the temptation to divide the child's loyalty, especially when the natural parent is obviously unfit. One Long Island woman recently went through weeks of torment because her foster child's real mother: bombarded the home every midnight with hysterically threatening telephone calls.

150 A Year

Notwithstanding the attempt of the Child Welfare League of America to set up a system of agreed standards of child care throughout the nation, many states go their own way — and often an inadequate way it is. Per capita expenditures for children range from $8 a year in New York to 150 in Idaho. There are thousands of children all over the country who, if obsolescent statutes did not forbid, could be adopted and be given good homes.

The U. S. has come a long way since the days when unnumbered thousands of tattered ragamuffins spilled their small lives away in orphanages and gutters. But there are still some like the little girl in Chicago, who when asked by a welfare official, "And whose little girl are you?" replied: "I'm nobody's nothin'."