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  Adoption Month




The Misguided Call for Orphanages

from Spring 1994 Adoptalk

by Kimberly Hunter

In the last six months the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) took custody of more than 4,000 children, bringing to 37,000 the number of children in foster care, up from 8,000 in 1986. One of the most appalling "solutions" to this crisis has been an offer to use Chicago Housing Authority buildings — including high rises — as possible orphanage sites to house these children.

The Publicity

Just when child welfare advocates thought the idea of orphanages had long been put to rest, Governor Edgar and other prominent Illinois public servants revived the concept. Edgar backed orphanages in remarks to reporters after the "Keystone" case drew national attention. (In early February, nineteen children were taken from an apartment on Chicago's Keystone Avenue in response to conditions indicative of neglect). Following this incident, syndicated columnist Bob Greene, medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, and others voiced support for the concept of orphanages.

State Senator Judy Baar Topinka champions the return of orphanages to Illinois. Legislation she drafted created the 14 member Interagency Authority on Residential Facilities for Children. Topinka calls orphanages an idea "whose time has come," and says "the issue is not whether there will be orphanages in Illinois. The question is how and in what manner." Orphanages are called for, she says, because the state "will never have enough foster parents." In a telephone interview conducted March 18, she said the bill that she sponsored requires orphanages — the job of the Interagency Authority is to determine how to implement them.

Although Topkina said states cannot recruit enough foster parents to meet the demand for foster homes, in the next breath she discussed "group homes," where small numbers of children will be tended by a set of full time parents. Her original "vision" of 7-10 kids per home swelled to 12-20 children per housing unit during the March 18 interview. There is a startling inconsistency in the fact that she advocates "residential treatment facilities" because we simply "can't find foster homes" for the toughest kids, yet thinks we can somehow recruit and retain group home parents to raise 12-20 of these same children.

NACAC's Position and the Human Cost

Proponents of orphanages blatantly ignore the well known damaging effects of institutionalization on children. NACAC's research brief, Challenges to Child Welfare: Countering the Call for a Return to Orphanages, written in 1990, responded to a media outcry for orphanages as a solution for the growing number of drug-exposed babies entering foster care. Among the brief's conclusions: children raised in institutions develop "institutional coping skills" and don't know how to function outside an institution; and long-term institutionalization in early childhood leads to recurrent problems in interpersonal relationships, high rates of personality disorders, and severe parenting difficulties later in life.

The behavior of many Romanian children who have been adopted by Americans further shows the effect of institutionalization. In a March 1, 1994 USA Today article, occupational therapist Sharon Cermak said Romanian orphans are "touch-starved." The children are not used to human contact, and recoil when touched by their adoptive parents, or inappropriately latch on to strangers because they are so desperate for affection. Romanian orphans often have attachment disorders similar to the orphans reported on in the NACAC brief.

The NACAC brief also demonstrates that orphanages have the most devastating impact on young children. Yet Illinois proposes to move 60 children into the "SOS Children's Village" — a "modern orphanage" — during the next two years. The facility is seeking children age 10 and younger, and plans to accept children older than 10 only if that child is part of a sibling group. A Children's Village employee said the organization is targeting "unadoptable" children who cannot be reunified with their families, for whom long term foster care is the permanency plan. When asked what makes a child that age "unadoptable," he said that would include being part of a sibling group or racial minority.

Ken Watson, a NACAC board member and Assistant Director of the Chicago Child Care Institute, doesn't know anyone who would advocate long term foster care for an infant. Watson thinks one of the problems with the current outcry for institutions is that they are being offered as a substitute for foster homes, rather than one of a variety of options. Rather than making kids fit the system, we need to make the system work for kids. He thinks we need a variety of services for the variety of children in out-of-home care, and a stable institutional setting may be appropriate for some older children. The danger of offering institutions as a substitute is that institutions could displace foster parenting solutions, and be forced onto children of inappropriate ages, like infants. We know that when foster care works, it works well, Watson said. Therefore, our resources are more effective when spent on expanding family foster care rather than new institutions.

The Financial Issue

In addition to the human cost, the financial cost of orphanages is extremely high. According to Jerry Slomka, Deputy Director of DCFS and Chair of the Interagency Authority, foster care in Illinois costs $350 per month or $4,200 per year, compared with $4,200 per month or $50,400 annually for orphanages. Other group home costs range as high as $180,000 per year. Adoptive or foster families are better for children from a mental health perspective, and are far more cost effective than residential care.

What the Advocates Are Saying

The fact that there has been an upsurge of children in out-of-home care cannot be disputed. However, the media coverage focuses on the inadequate number of foster families rather than explaining ways the current system fails children. It also fails to explain the crucial role of families, and avenues for reform that don't involve a return to orphanages.

Failures of the Current System

There were over 3,000 foster care licenses pending in Cook County, which encompasses the greater Chicago area, at the end of December 1993. There are just over 10,000 licensed foster homes in the entire state of Illinois. In order to become a licensed foster parent, the applicant must go through a background check that includes fingerprinting. The fingerprinting process is so slow that applicants often drop out of the system in frustration. Delays of three to six months for fingerprinting are common, according to Denise Murray, Associate Director of the Illinois Child Care Association. DCFS has one employee who is responsible for scheduling fingerprinting for all the foster care applicants in Cook County. There are only two fingerprint scanning machines for the entire county. In addition to the scheduling problems and shortage of locations, the process is also plagued by inconvenient appointment times and a shortage of trained technicians — applicants who do make it to have their fingerprints taken often have to go back a second time because the first set of prints is not readable.

Licensing delays also cost the state money, particularly in relative care homes. Relative care homes do not require a license, but applicants must still go through the background check. Because of the shortage of available homes, DCFS often places children with relatives who have not completed the background check. However, the state cannot collect federal matching funds for foster care until the family has passed the background check.

DCFS' inadequacies don't end with the licensing process. A recent DCFS review revealed the case plan which explains how to care for a child was missing from the files of 26% of downstate wards and 38% of Cook County wards. Cook County is also notorious for failing to keep track of openings in foster homes. The county just switched to a computer system for recording openings from its old card file records last year.

DCFS is currently working to solve some of its problems under a federal court decree. The decree requires DCFS to hold an initial determination of a child's status, called an administrative case review (ACR), within 45 days from the date a child enters custody. DCFS has been operating under this decree for over 20 months, yet only 28% of Cook County cases are meeting this deadline, while the statewide rate is 66%. Seventy-five percent of Illinois' wards live in Cook County.

Timely case review and planning is a key to eliminating foster care drift. Because of DCFS' failure to do that, children are moved an average of five times during their first year in care.

The Role of Families

Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Inc., a Chicago-based social service agency, provides foster care services as part of its mission. McKinley, along with other agencies, contracts with DCFS to provide these services. According to Carol Winn, McKinley's Division Director of Foster Care, "we need to work harder in the area of family preservation. As long as there's been foster care, we've made it work, and we can do the same thing to save families." McKinley's licensing department provides ongoing assistance to its foster families to make sure the homes change along with the needs of children. Winn believes similar services can be provided to families to avoid the need for foster care. One area lacking services is aftercare for families that have children returned to them from out-of-home care. Providing services to these families would reduce the recidivism rate back to foster care.

Faye Edwards, Manager of Family and Children's Services at McKinley, saw the Keystone case as a potential candidate for family preservation efforts. "I was struck by how the kids looked," she said, "they did not look underfed; they all had coats and shoes. Here are three families that obviously want to be together — why not use a Chicago Housing Authority site as a place to keep them together, and provide on-site services to them?" She was quick to add that the Chicago Housing Authority is obviously no place for groups of children alone.

Another issue that remains unaddressed by society, according to Edwards and Winn, is the basic reason most kids come into the system in the first place — poverty. Edwards believes "The only reason we should be taking kids out of homes is abuse and neglect, not because of poverty or drug use by a parent alone. The system is creating a whole new class of orphans by taking kids out of homes which could benefit from family preservation services. The effect orphanages have on children is no secret. If we end up putting kids back in orphanages we shouldn't be surprised by the results." Winn thinks the whole orphanage idea would not have snowballed like it has if we were not talking about a primarily poor, African-American population of kids. By dealing with families that have no means for advocacy, we "take advantage of the disadvantaged." Rooting out the causes of poverty cannot easily be compared to the political quick fix of orphanages.

Reforming the Current System

Examples of successful foster care reform are plentiful. Through its customer-oriented and culturally sensitive approach, the Institute for Black Parenting in Los Angeles gained the trust of the Black community and places children in foster and adoptive homes at rates that far exceed its original expectations. In Chicago, Hull House's Neighbors to Neighbors program uses full-time, salaried parents to run foster homes. The L.I.F.E. (Living in Family Environments) program in Royal Oak, Michigan trains and takes eligible families off public assistance to care for special needs foster children (see NACAC's research brief, Challenges to Child Welfare: Countering the Call for a Return to Orphanages). The program counters the assumption that creating a dependent relationship between two disenfranchised groups (welfare recipients and disabled children) does a disservice to both.

Another frequently mentioned model of reform is Alabama's system, as it reorganizes under a 1991 federal court order. In the two years since the Alabama decree was entered, the number of children in state care has dropped by 18 percent, largely due to increased family preservation efforts. Alabama also has a different training program for its workers than DCFS — while DCFS' training focuses almost entirely on record keeping and filling out forms, Alabama's training teaches workers how to handle real life situations. Although the Alabama system handles just a fraction of the children in DCFS' care, Alabama provides a leading example of state child welfare reform efforts.

The fastest growing category of out-of-home care in Illinois is the "new," yet old concept of kinship or relative care. Watson noted Illinois did not come to kinship care as the result of any forward planning, but as a makeshift solution to a shortage of non-relative foster homes. Kinship care should definitely be available as one of the options for children, but it needs to be developed in its own right, not as an add on to existing foster family care programs, Watson said. Other states, including New York, California and Maryland are also increasingly turning to kinship care.


Watson pointed out some similiarities between the call for orphanages and the demand for more prisons. In both cases society is seeking a quick fix for a growing population for whom it has assumed resposnsibility. Rather than focus on the causes of the problems, it has taken the easier course and is building more institutions. The Illinois orphanage "solution" is a wake up call that should force society to examine the problems with child welfare in a rational way, without resorting to institutions.

North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848