With a construction budget of $250 million, the World Children's Center, whose site is yet to be finalized, is the most prominent example in Georgia of the quiet resurgence of the orphanage -- a word that's been freighted with negative connotations ever since Oliver Twist scavenged for breadcrumbs. In the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich, then-speaker of the U.S. House, floated the idea of building more orphanages as part of the Contract with America. He was promptly vilified.
His error, though, may merely have been one of semantics. In reality, the concept of the orphanage -- a full-time residence for children who lack a proper home -- never went away; it just changed labels. In Savannah, the Bethesda Home for Boys used to be called the Bethesda Orphanage. Founded in 1740, the orphanage is considered the nation's oldest. Throughout Georgia, there are 249 residential care facilities for children that have been licensed by the state. Some are small houses that help only a handful of children; others are bucolic campuses where 100 or more children live, together with "house parents," therapists and administrators. Still, these homes have shunned the label "orphanage," opting instead to call themselves "homes" or "academies" or "centers."
The new labels have masked a debate that has simmered since Gingrich's comments more than a decade ago. Last month, though, a report by a child advocacy group turned up the heat once again. Do orphanages do more harm than good? Or are they a necessary safety net for children who can't find a place in the traditional foster system, especially a system as flawed as Georgia's?
As of July 2003, about 14 percent of the 14,481 children who were in Georgia's foster care system lived in group homes or institutions, compared to about 18 percent nationwide. But the numbers are likely to climb, at least in Georgia. Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, helps organize a seminar each month for businesses and organizations interested in opening either a foster care agency or a group home to help children. Up until two years ago, the seminars averaged about 40 people a month. Today, attendance climbs past 100.
Part of that is due to economics. In the last several years, the state bumped up the amount it reimburses an orphanage for each child it helps, from 62 percent of cost to 70 percent, Adams says. But there is also an element of altruism at work, prompted in part by the high-profile deaths of children in foster care.
"There is a perception that the public foster care system is broken," Adams says. "I would concur with that."
There is already a shortage of foster families in Georgia, he says. Combine that with a significant number of foster families that shouldn't be in the business at all, and the need for orphanages becomes even more evident. Adams says one private foster care agency -- which trains and manages foster care families -- was given a list of 30 foster families by the state. The agency fired all but one family because they didn't meet agency standards.
In July, Children's Rights, a child advocacy group, published a 45-page report called "A Return to Orphanages?" Its very title hinted at the study's conclusion: Orphanages are coming back, and that's a bad thing.
The report examined several large-scale projects throughout the country, including the World Children's Center. "It's a cyclical trend," says Madelyn Freundlich, policy director at Children's Rights and a co-author of the report. "It's an idea that continues to be recycled.
"Moving in this direction and investing the huge amount of resources that are necessary raise a lot of questions as to whether this is the optimal solution to the needs of many children."
Woven into the study is the premise that institutional settings are damaging to children. "Research clearly has established the negative physical, developmental, psychological and social consequences of institutional care on children and youth," the report says.
But those on the other side of the debate automatically trot out their own studies, including a survey by Richard McKenzie, a University of California at Irvine business professor who grew up in an orphanage in North Carolina. McKenzie polled hundreds of orphanage alumni and found them to be happier, healthier and wealthier than the average American.
Don Keenan, an Atlanta child welfare attorney, says that Children's Rights' revival of the word "orphanage" is inflammatory.
"It's intended to poison any public debate on the placement of children," he says, pointing to places like the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, a community for more than 1,000 children. "When you look at the 50-plus track years of continual production of truly amazing individuals that have graduated out of the Hershey school, then no one can throw rocks at the concept of the institutional housing of children. The concern is the quality of the institution itself."
Says Adams: "It's a debate that we continually have between foster care and group homes, as if they're diametrically opposed to each other. That's a panacea thinking we get into that doesn't serve children well."
Part of Children's Rights' argument is that many of the orphanages it names aren't doing enough to either reunify children with their families, or, alternatively, find foster or adoptive families for them. But that ignores realities, says Dianne Kasetta, spokeswoman for the World Children's Center, which has been the lifelong dream of Atlanta businessman Donald Whitney.
"All of us truly believe the best place is a family," Kasetta says. "But that's not always possible for a child." Indeed, the World Children's Center is intended to be for children what they couldn't find -- a permanent home, and not just a way station.
"We're not an adoption agency," says Richard Pierce, a psychologist who was hired from the Hershey school to develop a model for how the center will work.
"I get asked very often if I'm trying to reinvent the orphanage," he says. "Yes, I am, in the very best sense of the word."
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