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Build Families, Not Orphanages

In recent years, communities in Minnesota and the nation have begun to revisit the idea of placing foster children in large orphanages, children's homes, and educational institutions. NACAC opposes the development and use of these large residential institutions. Children belong in stable, loving families. We believe youth lead physically, emotionally, and mentally healthier lives when surrounded by caring, nurturing adults in a family.

We support a range of options to meet the needs of children. Whenever possible, children should be with their birth families. When it is not possible, a kinship (relative), foster, or adoptive family is the best option. To the extent a child needs treatment out of the home, treatment options must be time limited and, whenever practical, individually tailored and focused on small family-centered settings.


The Dangers of Institutionalization

NACAC has developed a chart showing the major research findings on insitutional care of children (HTMLPDF). The bullets below highlight just some of the dangers of placing children in orphanages. Research shows that institutional care negatively affects child development and adult productivity:

  • Pediatricians, public health experts, and child psychiatrists from Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard University studied the orphanage issue and found that young children are uniquely vulnerable to the medical and psychosocial hazards of institutional care. In the short-term, young children risk contracting serious illnesses and developing language impairments. In the long-term, children who spent time in institutional care stand a greater chance of becoming psychologically impaired and economically unproductive adults (Frank et al., 1996).

  • Children denied the opportunity to form a consistent relationship with a caregiver in their childhood years, such as institutionalized children, are at serious risk for developmental problems and long-term personality disorders (Sroufe, 1991).

  • Close examination reveals that even good institutions harm young children, leave teens ill-prepared for the outside world, and cost over three times more than a permanent, loving, adoptive family (Ford & Kroll, 1995).

  • On average, institutionalized children were cared for by more than 10 different caregivers per year (Hodges & Tizard, 1978).

  • Research documents high staff turnover, poor staff training, and few opportunities for professional advancement among institutional child care staff (Cohen, 1986).

  • Children who were adopted and, to a somewhat lesser extent, former foster care children experienced more intimate, consistent, caring, and closer attachments to their caregivers compared to those who grew up in residential establishments. Children who grew up in residential facilities seemed to experience few opportunities for closeness, individual caring, and continuity in care. Only one in every eight residentially-reared children expressed any real enthusiasm for the quality of care and attachments they experienced with house parents (Triseliotis & Russell, 1984).


Federal and State Laws Require Children
to be in Permanent, Family Settings

Federal Law

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 provide the federal statutory framework under which states much operate their child welfare programs.

Federal Requirements to Assure Permanency for Children

  • A case plan for each child in out of home care must include plans for "assuring that the child receives safe and proper care and that services are provided to the parents, child, and foster parents in order to improve the conditions in the parents’ home, facilitate return of the child to his own safe home or the permanent placement of the child, and address the needs of the child while in foster care, including a discussion of the appropriateness of the services that have been provided to the child under the plan.(emphasis added) (Social Security Act 475 (1)B [42 U.S.C. 675])

  • There must be a procedure for "assuring that each child has a case plan designed to achieve placement in a safe setting that is the least restrictive (most family like) and most appropriate setting available and in close proximity to the parents’ home, consistent with the best interest and special needs of the child." (emphasis added) (Social Security Act 475 (5)A [42 U.S.C. 675])

Federal Guidance on Limiting the Use of Institutional Care for Children

  • Section 472(c) of the Social Security Act defines foster family homes and institutions as follows: "For the purposes of this part, (1) the term "foster family home" means a foster family home for children which is licensed by the State in which it is situated or has been approved, by the agency of such State having responsibility for licensing homes of this type, as meeting the standards established for such licensing; and (2) the term "child-care institution" means a private child-care institution, or a public child-care institution which accommodates no more than twenty-five children, which is licensed by the State in which it is situated or has been approved, by the agency of such State responsible for licensing or approval of institutions of this type, as meeting the standards established for such licensing, but the term shall not include detention facilities, forestry camps, training schools, or any other facility operated primarily for the detention of children who are determined to be delinquent.

  • One of the Department of Health and Human Services’ child welfare outcome goals is to "reduce placements of young children in group homes or institutions." They explain the reasoning behind the goal: "This outcome reflects the requirement at 475(5)A of the Social Security Act to place children in the least restrictive environments, e.g., family foster homes… The Department believes that such placements [group homes] should only be considered after other less restrictive and/or more family-like options have been seriously pursued. The Department believes, even more so, that children under 12 should not be placed in these setting because of the benefits of a stable and loving family, and the States should take steps to reduce the number of young children who are placed in group homes or institutions." (Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Outcomes 1998: Annual Report)
  • What is considered an institution? Even clusters of smaller group homes are considered institutions by the federal government: "Despite the fact the individual cottage is licensed for 25 or fewer children, it is considered to be part of a single larger institution. The cottages, as described, are located on a common plot of land and are operated and managed by a single administration. (Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Policy Manual)

  • A Department of Health and Human Services’ policy issuance (ACYF-CB-PIQ-88-04) makes it clear that an institution that takes the form of a collection of small cottages is still considered an institution. "Decentralization of living units from one large building to several smaller cottages does not qualify the institution…" for federal foster care funds. "…the costs of foster care maintenance for children living in a public institution of this type, with a total population of over 25, may not be claimed…".

  • A report clearly demonstrates Congressional intent behind the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 with regard to attempts by large public institutions that take the form of cottage campuses. The report states that foster care payments for children placed in large public institutions would be disallowed, "even though a wing on the institution, a dormitory, or a cottage on the grounds of the institution may have 25 or fewer residents." (House Conference Report No. 96-136 p.54)

State Law

State statute also provides guidance on child welfare philosophies and practice – below is statutory language from the state of Minnesota.

The guiding principle from Minnesota Statute is clear: Children belong in families and children need permanency. Children should not be placed in more restrictive settings (less family like) unless they have needs which require more restrictive settings.

  • "It is in the children’s best interest to be raised in a permanent family." (Minnesota Statute 260C.201, subdivision 11; and 260C.001, subdivision 3)

  • "Out-of-home placement is intended to be temporary care for the child." (Minnesota Statutes 260.012)

  • "When it is necessary to place a child out of their home, it is preferred that a child be placed in the home of a relative or close family friend. If placement with a relative or friend is not available, then a family foster home is the next appropriate level of care." (Minnesota Statute 260C.181)

  • "The level of care selected is the least restrictive level that can adequately meet the child’s needs." (Minnesota Statute 260C.181, subdivision 2)



There are numerous programs and strategies available to keep children in families. First and foremost are those that work to keep families together. Here in Minnesota, for example, the Jeremiah program, founded by the Basilica of Saint Mary, provides housing and supportive services to women and their children as the women leave homelessness or domestic abuse to raise their children in safe surroundings.

Across the country, adoption and foster care programs have succeeded in finding an increasing number of families for children who cannot return home. Nationally, adoptions of children from foster care have increased from 28,000 in 1996 to 46,000 during federal fiscal year 1999. In Minnesota, the number of licensed foster homes has increased from 4,200 in 1990 to more than 5,400 in 2000—providing more than enough licensed foster beds for the children in this state.

Model programs also show how supporting foster and adoptive families can help children find a loving family. In Illinois, a program called Generations of Hope converted an abandoned military base into housing for foster and adoptive families of large sibling groups. Generations of Hope offers rent subsidies for seniors who serve as mentors to the children living in the foster and adoptive families. In addition, the program provides therapists and weekly training and support for the families. The expectation is that the foster families will adopt children in their care if the children become available for adoption, providing children with the forever families that they deserve.


Additional Reading

If you would like a packet of information about orphanages, please send a request with your name and mailing address to


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