Modern Orphanages for Troubled Kids - Not a Bad Idea

In 1994, Newt Gingrich suggested placing children of teen mothers in orphanages. If they could not support their children, the Republican Congressman said, "America should tell them, 'We'll help you with foster care. We'll help with orphanages. We'll help you with adoption.'"

His suggestion was ridiculed. Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman called orphanages "Dickensian institutions." Hillary Rodham Clinton said that "the idea of putting children into orphanages because their mothers couldn't find jobs" was "unbelievable and absurd."

Remarkably, four years later, Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson put forth a similar proposal - to a very positive reaction. In his recent State of the State address, Mr. Carlson, a Republican, proposed to create three residential academies for at-risk kids. Each school would house from 50 to 75 students. He suggested a total budget of $12 million. The Minnesota state legislature, controlled by Democrats, appropriated Carlson's entire request.

The schools will be open year-round, 24 hours a day. They're intended for 12- to 18-year-olds not yet in serious trouble, but whose parents either can't or won't take care of them. Possibilities include the chronic truant, the child diagnosed with behavioral and emotional difficulties, kids labeled incorrigible, children passed from one foster home to another.

There is a clear case for residential academies. In the United States, there are currently 500,000 foster children bouncing from one home to another. The system is a massive failure.

Also, residential academies might lessen the juvenile crime rate, which is skyrocketing. According to the US Department of Justice, juvenile murders tripled between 1984 and 1994, and youthful murders involving guns increased fourfold over the same period. The nationwide juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes increased 58 percent between 1988 and 1994.

Residential academies offer kids a structured environment, in which expectations are high and education is valued. Residential academies can provide the sort of stability so lacking in many families and communities. Well-run boarding schools can become stable, supportive, enduring homes for some kids whose families have failed.

Modern orphanages are no longer institutional warehouses. More likely, they are small, warm, and caring. Operating for decades, Boys' Town in Omaha and the Milton Hershey School near Harrisburg, Pa., each spend about $45,000 a year on each child. Carlson himself says a scholarship to Choate boarding school in Willingford, Conn. changed his life.

THE Boys' Home in southwest Virginia demonstrates the virtues of boarding schools. The boys, ages 10 to 19, live in eight brick cottages, under the supervision of house parents. The 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. schedule of classes, duties, and meals is highly regimented. There is a strict dress code and a system that rewards good behavior and penalizes unacceptable behavior.

Boarding schools face strong opposition. The North American Council of Adoptable Children contends that a large-scale return to orphanages would be a disaster, because it would close off the possibility of children living with a family.

However, recent experience has proven that adoptions aren't keeping pace with the need, that foster homes are socially disruptive, and that orphanages can provide a sense of security and structure.

There is scholarly support for residential academies. Richard McKenzie, a professor of business at the University of California, Irvine, grew up at the Barium Springs Home for Children in North Carolina. Mr. McKenzie's alcoholic mother killed herself when he was 10.

In a survey of 525 members of the alumni association, McKenzie found that Barium Springs graduates have a lower divorce rate, a significantly higher level of education, a much higher mean income, and a far lower unemployment rate than the general population. Sixty-seven percent of Barium Springs students consider themselves "very happy," compared with 29 percent in the general population.

Before the Minnesota state legislature, Carlson said it was his "personal dream" that someday a "young person in trouble ... helped with the hand on the shoulder, will be standing here as your governor."

* Ted Rueter is the author of "The Politics of Race: African Americans and the Political System" (M.E. Sharpe, 1995). He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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