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Orphanages aren't the dungeons of lore



Published: Wed, August 17, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By MARTHA RANDOLPH CARR

LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY

Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Angelina Jolie. Just a few of the famous faces who have gotten involved in the world crisis of how to help raise the many children who find themselves without homes.

What is in the best interests of the child is once again a hot topic in the United States and, finally, with a twist. Orphanages are becoming part of the discussion again, but in a modern-day form.

Mention the word "orphanage" in a conversation and people draw back with the expected flinch. Odds are someone will add a line from "Annie" or "Oliver Twist." "Please sir, could I have some more?" is the famous line spoken by poor Oliver, standing in front of the beastly administrator. He's been left without parents, hungry and dressed in rags -- living in what passes for a poorly run prison. But here's the problem with any of those images: Very little of what they portrayed was ever real, and not nearly enough of us are bothering to look at the reality now.

The first big myth is that most orphans in the United States, in the past or now, were without parents. Most were social orphans with at least one living parent, who gave up the child -- sometimes only for a while -- in hopes of a better life for everyone. Orphanages were a necessary option. None of this was the ideal -- an intact family that can thrive independently -- but it also wasn't despair.

In between those visions lies the truth, and it could be a big part of the solution of how to raise America's 500,000 children who no longer have viable families and need the stability, love and guidance that most children take for granted.

Valuable resource

Very little has ever been done to clear up the confusion about orphanages for the general public. Because of that, a valuable resource that sometimes has shown a better success rate at graduating kids from high schools and getting them in college than the traditional family has been underutilized, and in some states banned.

Now known as residential education facilities, most modern-day orphanages operate with large endowments built over a long period. All of them have directors of development who actively seek donations from private sources to pay for services and extracurricular activities.

That means for each child who needs an alternative place to grow up, less public money is needed to give him or her the specialized care that may be called for after the average five foster-care placements or a failed adoption. And there's money left over to spend on oboe lessons, ice skating, movies or bowling.

Residential education facilities also have been moving away from the centralized dorms where children slept in large rooms and increasingly have adopted the use of cottages, with teaching parents, to try to more closely model the ideal family. They aren't the gray, rigid institutions that still get portrayed on TV shows.

Some people would like to change the moniker to boarding school so that a residential education facility would be viewed as a reasonable alternative for all children in abusive environments.

Poul Jensen, chief executive of Graham Windham, a New York City residential education facility founded in 1806, points out that a wealthy parent living in New York would look for a Choate or Andover for his or her child. "Why is that not good enough for poor kids?" he asks, comparing what Graham Windham does for a child to what a top-flight private school offers.

Proven success

Just so there's no confusion, this isn't a call to ban foster care, which is a needed option, but to better utilize a proven success. We must recognize that only by including every viable option can America have the best shot at raising all her children well. But it's going to happen only if we first allow the discussion to take place and recognize the possibilities.

X Randolph Carr is an author currently working on "The Good Samaritans," a book about America's modern-day orphanages. Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.




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