In Loco Parentis

Longtime readers will remember that Dymphna spent much of her childhood in foster homes and an orphanage. This week’s edition of Dymphna’s Greatest Hits, written on Christmas Eve of 2009, is an extensive meditation on her experiences, and how they compare with an academic study on the subject.

In Loco Parentis

by Dymphna
Originally published December 24, 2009

Do you have an opinion on the value of orphanages versus that of foster homes as places to put a motherless child?

Which of the two do you think is better for children? Whatever your conclusion, how did you come to hold your opinion as the correct one?

These aren’t rhetorical questions, but they are (in a sense) loaded. Unless you’ve made a study of the subject, or been a resident of an orphanage or foster home, you’d have to base your answer on what you ‘feel’ rather than any hard information. No surprises there: we all do that on any number of issues. We work from our own experience, from observations, maybe from reading or from conversations with other people. In these ways we arrive at answers crafted to satisfy our intellect and our practical experience.

Of course, the question about which environment is best for children assumes you care one way or another. Those who don’t care should read something else.

In putting forth my own ideas there is the unspoken assumption that at least some of our readers have an opinion on this, if for no other reason than the inescapable fact we’ve all experienced being a child (some still are — e.g., our homeschoolers). Every child has wondered at one time or another, “Who will take care of me if something happens to my parents?” Kids know they’re dependent on adults to survive. For them the question is not yet academic.

Recently Scientific American published a study addressed to this very question: which is better for the motherless (okay, “parentless”) child, an orphanage or a foster home? Before looking at their findings, I’ll present my own experience with foster homes and orphanages, both as a child and later as an adult social worker. If the personal part isn’t of interest, just skip to the section about the study’s findings.

I’ve given lots of thought to foster homes and orphanages. They loomed large in my childhood from the age of two until I reached ten. I didn’t know that I was to encounter these places again in my adult work life.

From age two or so until age five, I was in any number of unsatisfactory daycare, foster care and foster group home arrangements. There was even a brief surreal interlude where a homeless mother with her own child lived in our house to take care of me while Mother was at work. In exchange for room and board and a spot of money, Mrs. X was to mind me during the day. In addition she was to cook supper for all of us. That set-up lasted only as long as it took the neighbor ladies — two widows with a parrot — to report to my mother the screams and beatings taking place while she was absent. Half-deaf, the both of them, but they could hear my travail loud and clear. Their frightened report to my mother brought that experiment to an abrupt end. On paper it had been a great idea. In reality, envy and rage at my mother’s good fortune to have a home and a job created an unbearable turmoil for Mrs. X and she was compelled to pass the mess on to me.

Stacked up in my memories there are other more mundane tales of neglect, of punitive harshness decked out in “you must learn to be obedient”, and a myriad of other sadisms all children know so well, even the lucky ones with parents.

By the time I was five and no stable arrangement had been found by my determined, fiercely devoted Mother, the damage was starting to show. Mostly it took the form of anxiety and a run-down immune system. At the family doctor’s behest, Mother placed me in Saint Mary’s Orphanage so that I could have a stable routine and some continuity. I got both, and much more than that during the years until I turned ten.

Yes, of course I’ve wondered why my mother didn’t apply for welfare back then. She’s gone now, so I can’t ask her, but I have some ideas about her hesitation. Recently her oldest passport, the one that got her from Liverpool into New York City, floated up to the top level of my chaotic papers. Looking at that worn dark green booklet made me recall having seen her immigrant card a few times. The light went on: my foreign mother was not a citizen, so she didn’t qualify for welfare.

My guess is she’d have applied if she weren’t so afraid of calling the attention of “the authorities” to her existence, thus starting a Kafka-esque process ending in her being sent back to Ireland. If you’re familiar with the fundamentally shame-based reality of the Irish middle class, you already know why she’d have died rather than face such a fate.

Logical thinking? Hardly. More like basic animal fear. My mother’s Logical Thinking chip never did function very well. Her quite Victorian father seems to have removed that potential from all his daughters. So whatever thinking went on where her children and her own survival were concerned was paralyzed with fear but fueled with fierce mama-bear determination. In other words, an engine stuck in neutral but revved up all the time…

…oh, well. You go with what you got. What she had was an instinctual determination to keep us safe. That tenacity led to lots of attempts to keep us together. Many of the stories about her endeavors would be dark comedy if I had a better wit.

I don’t remember all of the places I was put, though there are vague recollections of the “housekeeper positions” she tried, only to run from the bedbugs or the lecherous old men. After one of those, we walked for a long time down a dark country road to get back to where the light was. Too young to appreciate the irony of sticking my hands into my mother’s fur coat. Too inexperienced to wonder why a woman in a black shearling lamb fur coat was hurrying down that dark road.

There are a whole slew of still images, though. When I was an adult, I would describe some of the neutral ones to Mother and she’d say, “Go on. You couldn’t remember that. Why, you were only three then.” Ever the editor, I’d shoot back, “No, actually; I was two and a half because it was when…” and I’d give her the context. At that juncture, Mother would wave me off and we’d resume a more surface conversation. The numerous DON’T GO THERE memories are still here. They survived her death. In some shadowed form they will survive my death in the generations to come. Both scarcity and plenty leave indelible marks.

Some foster homes she found were quite near our own house, which stood empty during the day while Mother worked (I got to go home on weekends when she wasn’t working). Against all stern warnings, I’d sneak down the sidewalks from wherever I was “living” to our house, 4415 Dale Street. Half out of breath, I’d stand behind a telephone pole across the street and look at our empty home. It was a daily reverie, lasting as long as it took for my breathing to return to normal before I ran back, afraid my keepers had noticed my absence. Many years later, neighbors (including the widows-with-parrots) told me they’d watch for me every day and worried if I didn’t show up. They knew I was “being bad” but they never told on me to anyone, including Mother.

The times of foster homes and lousy daycare wandered into the past tense when I was sent to the orphanage on the recommendation of our family doctor. I was anxious, he said, and it was obvious that I needed structure and continuity. A wise man, as it turned out.

I flourished in St. Mary’s. Gained weight, grew out of various illnesses brought on by a poorly functioning immune system. I got the chance to make friends and to have an unvarying routine. For my characterological make-up that was an excellent combination.

My stay at Saint Mary’s began when I was five years old and ended the summer after I turned ten. Mother had promised me that as soon as I was able to manage on my own between school and her return from work, I could come home for good. I can remember saying, at six years old, “only four more years”. No, of course, I didn’t know what that meant. It was simply a way to define the end of my exile.

There are many happy memories associated with Saint Mary’s, especially around the holidays. But as any displaced child can tell you, underneath those moments was a deep yearning for my mother and my home. The ache would recede but it never went away. Sometimes I’d be engrossed in a game in the play yard when suddenly, out of nowhere an inner voice would say quite clearly, “This is just a bad dream. In a minute I’ll wake up and I’ll be at home in my own bed.” The minute would pass, but the bad dream wouldn’t. Someone would impatiently tug me back into the reality of our hopscotch marathon.

True to her word my mother took me home for good the summer I turned ten. But describing the “happily ever-after” would lead us astray from the question at hand, so let’s end the recollection there, in the kitchen, washing dishes and filled with contentment.

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After I grew up one of the many jobs I held was a social services position which required the supervision of foster care homes and the approval of such new homes as I could manage to recruit. I was also responsible for the placement of children who’d been put into foster care by the courts. This job allowed me to see a lot of group homes (“orphanage” was not in the lexicon anymore) and many more individual foster care homes, all of varying quality.

The experience left me frustrated. Not enough resources for “my” children, not enough good care to be had anywhere… or at least anywhere that the county could afford to place their charges. Here’s the usual equation for that job, whoever has it: too many needs + too few resources = burnout. The head of foster care for the state told me that the average foster care worker lasted about two years. I made it a bit longer than that, but not much.

Have you ever played the “what if I won the lottery” game? It’s fun, even if you never buy a lottery ticket. Our fantasies tell us a lot about who we are, who we want to be. Invariably, after buying a house with a library in it, my dream always turns to creating group homes for children. Actually, two group homes: one for boys, one for girls. They’d go to school together, but they’d live separately.

The “Homes” were my fantasy because in my experience foster parents (except in the rarest of cases) can’t adequately care for a child who is dealing with the sorrow and stress of a broken attachment to her parents. In the cases where foster parenting does work, it usually turns out that the arrangement is much closer to a group home than to a foster family arrangement. The ones that work are run by high energy, focused adults who have the gifts of patience, intuition, and hope. Lots of room and lots of fostered kids and lots of reasonable expectations those kids will strive to meet.

It’s obvious to any armchair Freud that the “Homes” fantasies were a way of repairing my small self — you know, the four-year-old lurking behind the curtain for all of us. Probably most of our fantasies are like that, i.e., they address what was missing in our early experience. Believe me, everyone has a missing piece (or two) of the childhood puzzle. Fortunate are the people who get to realize their (healthy) fantasies and bring them to fruition.

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So that’s my experience as a foster child and, later, an “orphan” and even later as the grown-up in charge of a gaggle of newly homeless children.

You can imagine my interest to learn that someone had actually studied how real, live orphans are faring right now. First, The Scientific American presents the myth:

Orphanages linger in the popular imagination as unnatural relics, places from which neglected children need to be quickly rescued. And many international organizations and policymakers have made it a priority to reduce the role of these institutions, trying to place kids into family settings as quickly as possible.

Ah, yes, let’s “reduce the role of these institutions”, shall we? Yet how many of these policymakers have also made it a priority to send their own children to a good boarding school? And do we look askance at these decisions of upper-class parents to shuffle their six year-olds off to St. Elsworthy, or Havenshaw, or wherever it is the little ones must go to meet and mingle among their elite peers?

Is there an essential difference between Saint Mary’s Home and Havenshaw? I mean, besides the money their parents have? Is the headmaster at Havenshaw any kinder than, say, Sister Boniface? How would a six year-old be able to tell?

Here’s the article again:

…children in orphanages in less wealthy countries appear to be doing just as well as their orphaned or abandoned counterparts who live in private homes — even those living with family members — according to a new study that examined the well-being of some 3,000 children in five countries. “Health, emotional and cognitive function, and physical growth were no worse for institution-living [children],” the study authors report in a new paper published online Thursday in the journal PLoS ONE. They found, in fact, that “the institution-based children scored higher on intellectual functioning and memory and had fewer social and emotional difficulties.” [my emphasis — D]

Neither the magazine article nor the study said why they chose “less wealthy countries” as the focus of the study. One that looked exclusively at first-world countries would probably not be much different.

It also doesn’t go into enough detail about a cultural phenomenon widespread in some countries: people do not take in strangers’ children. They have enough trouble caring for their own without adding to their burdens. In our own cultural history, orphaned children without extended family in, say, colonial America weren’t fostered out. Instead, they were indentured to someone in order to learn a trade or function as a house slavey until they were old enough to set out on their own.

When blacks won their freedom after the Civil War, they often had to sell the services of their older children in order for the younger to survive. Ten-year-old boys were ‘sold’ to white farmers in the next county and the pittance their hard labor earned was given to their parents. Sometimes they didn’t get to see their families until they were grown and able to get away from the miserable conditions imposed by their ‘bosses’.

Such stories are still common wherever poverty is the rule. We have been so sheltered that we forget it was ever any other way, but the essay reminds us of the current numbers of orphans world-wide. Actually, their figure — 143,000,000 — seems low. Surely there are more children without parents on our globe than that? And how can they possibly perform an accurate count? The report doesn’t say, though it does mention that more motherless children will be identified in Africa as parents continue to die off from AIDS.

The report doesn’t wander, as my mind did, to the frequent fates of these excess children: soldiering for the boys, prostitution for the girls. Or rather, soldiering and prostitution for many of the boys. UN peacekeepers serving in Africa can put those boys to good use, in more ways than one.

An intriguing aspect of the study was the admitted bias of those who participated. They fully expected to find that institutionalized children would not score well on their tests. An academic economist and observer of this study, Richard McKenzie, says:

What makes the results even more poignant… is that by design “the study is biased against institutional care.” Children with just one dead parent are technically considered orphans (those who have lost both parents are considered “double-orphans”). So, a child whose father has died but still lives with his or her mother and extended family is still classified as an orphan and should, theoretically, have a better outcome. “You would think kids in the care of strangers to be worse off than those in the care of kin,” he says. But McKenzie, who has studied the alumni of orphanages in the U.S. — and was an orphan himself, growing up in the Barium Springs Home for Children, an orphanage in North Carolina — says that the conclusion of the paper “doesn’t surprise me as much as it might others.”

Me either, Dr. McKenzie. I guess you have to live through it to know that the Victorian Dickensian myths are simply that: myths.

The report continues:

Before embarking on the study (which was conducted in Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Tanzania), the researchers themselves expected children in institutional settings to measure up poorly to their adopted counterparts. But even before all the data were in, the researchers began to suspect that their assumptions were wrong, says lead study author Kathryn Whetten, director of the Center for Public Health Policy at the Duke Global Health Institute in Durham, N.C.

Ah. The eureka moment when you realize that everything you thought you knew is wrong. That experience can make you either wise or defensive.

But you can’t stop there; it’s crucial to figure out why these places work. The lead study author, Kathryn Whitten, from Duke University has some idea:

“The stereotype that many of us in the U.S. and Europe have of an institution is not what is being set up in less wealthy nations,” Whetten says. “It’s not like what we’ve seen in Romania or Annie or anything like that.” Many of the orphanages the researchers visited were grassroots projects, “being set up by local pastors or local couples that really loved kids,” Whetten explains. “What people do not realize is that this [institution] is our community response,” a medical student from Uganda who had been orphaned told the researchers.

On average, these facilities had 25 to 30 children and were largely staffed by people who stayed on the premises and received little outside pay — people who treated their caregiver roles as more than a workaday job.

These more organic orphanages were largely outside the purview of government record-keeping. Simply finding the 83 institutions that the researchers eventually studied took half a year in each community. An initial inquiry to the government in Moshi, Tanzania, for example, turned up only three orphanages, but researchers later found 23.

We had sixty or so girls in our orphanage. But we were divided by age: the Little Girls were those from five to ten; the Big Girls were eleven to eighteen. We lived separate lives with the Big Girls having their own rooms and the Little Girls all together in one large dormitory of beds lined up in three rows (fine by us! Safety in numbers when the wind rattled the casements on stormy nights).

St. Mary’s met the other criteria, too: it was community-based, funded by the town’s Catholic Charities. All of us came from this town except for one, a little girl from Cuba whose father arrived at the door one evening and took her away (thus rending asunder my deep friendship with Sylvia. Sometimes on warm summer afternoons I still miss her and wonder idly, with a bit of a shiver, if she and her father went back to Cuba).

St. Mary’s was “staffed” by the Sisters of Saint Joseph. We loved most of them and tolerated the cranky ones… except for Sister Helen. She could be heard before she hove into sight; all our little trinkets she’d taken away during the course of the day rattled in her pockets as she supervised our sleep. But now I know that every group of any kind has its own Sister Helens to endure.

It’s a long winding road from here back to St. Mary’s Home on Ocean Street. In fact, the building doesn’t exist anymore except in the minds of those who lived there. The times changed and brought with them new ideas. St. Mary’s followed the new, better idea and built group cottages out in the country. I have no idea if it worked out or not, but the nuns are gone, too, so I doubt it.

One of those new ideas is the current mission of American foster care programs: the “re-unification of the family”. Even if the parents are homicidal and never should’ve had children anyway. Even if the children will leave a place where they’re taken care of and be returned to a horror “home” where they’ll have to begin fending for themselves again.

Individual moral agency is less and less in evidence in parents, even good ones. I’ve seen concerned dedicated parents permit their beloved children to be exposed to erotic filth disguised as entertainment. They never question the effect this experience might have on their children’s neurohormonal systems. Somehow it’s all about family togetherness if they sit and watch these films with their children.

And those are the functional families. Let’s not even visit the single-parent with too many children that our welfare state insisted on creating. Anything, even soul murder, for the sake of a few votes.

Hillary Clinton famously claimed that it takes a village to raise a child. No, it doesn’t. That’s just more ideological dogma from the Left. It has no bearing on reality.

So what does it take to raise a child? Obviously, the current template was two functional adults committed to one another and to their project into the future — i.e., their child. Thus far the newer, more experimental arrangements (e.g., a series of step-families) don’t seem to produce a new generation ready and eager to establish their own families.

Raising a child also takes knowledge of developmental levels (including the moral stages), and an understanding of the exquisitely damaging and universal experience of shame. It takes energy, laughter, optimism, total commitment to the unknown. Gobs of courage. Great lashings of humility. Money helps, but it’s not essential beyond the basics. An extended family is wonderful if one is handy. In fact, that extended family group close by can serve to buffer the inevitable storms facing the couple and their child(ren).

Another thing. Obviously you can raise a child successfully without any reference to a higher reality. However, those for whom religion is a blessing rather than a burden or a delusion seem to find it easier to answer the Big Questions if they’ve resolved some of those queries themselves. My experience is limited to simply my experience. Generally I’ve found believers more entertaining and fun to be around.

Not that there aren’t plenty of dour and prune-faced people practicing a rule-bound religiosity that makes us all want to run in the other direction. And not that there aren’t happy people who live just fine sans any religious or spiritual belief. I know lots of people in both those categories and I’ll take the latter any time.

But let’s make a distinction between happiness and joy. The former is a fleeting thing which comes and goes as it will. As far as I’ve been able to tell it’s partly based on good genes and partly on good fortune. The Baron, for instance, has it abundantly. A basically happy man.

Joy is something else. The kind I’m trying to explain usually has its foundation in some transcendent realization that is beyond words, a point which makes it difficult to discuss in any meaningful sense unless you’ve seen it yourself.

I don’t possess joy nor has it grabbed me by the lapels either. Anything I have to say about it is second-hand, limited to seeing it in others and being drawn to them as a result. Some of the women who raised me in Saint Mary’s had this quality. They couldn’t pass it on to us, but they certainly could demonstrate that it existed. The presence of joy in another is both exciting and soothing. “Ah, here it is,” says the self to itself…

I’ve wandered far from my original question. But it’s almost Christmas, and that’s what most of us do at some point during the holidays. We look back at our own Christmas Past; eventually we wander into the thickets of our childhood, at least some of us do. Each year Christmas Past becomes a bit heavier; it’s an accumulative process, isn’t it?

As you can tell, orphanages have my vote as the best place for superfluous children. It’s gratifying that the five-country study validates my intuition and experience. In some of those orphanages exist one or two Joyfuls. Simply their presence can heal a bit of the pain of loss all those children are holding in both hands all the time. Sometimes it suffices for those fortunate enough just to meet up with Joy along the way.

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If I win the lottery…

10 thoughts on “In Loco Parentis

  1. I was brought up by my grandparents until I was 5 years old. Because in the place where my father served, there were poor conditions and I was often sick. I was surrounded by love and care and spoiled by my father’s younger sisters. I didn’t feel that I was missing something.

    Then my parents took me. It was a nightmare for me. These young idiots are not used to living in the same living space with a child. I watched them and I didn’t like them. I was lonely. Perhaps that is why they have never been authority for me.

      • Grandparents are much more balanced than young parents. Some of my youth friends have already become grandparents. They insist that their grandchildren spend a lot of time with them, because their parents have “wind in their heads.”

  2. “Sometimes it suffices for those fortunate enough just to meet up with Joy along the way.”
    This sounds wonderfully like an Easter message. Thank You!

  3. This is a classic way to remember Dymphna. I’m as sure as I can be that even had she lived her whole life with her mom uninterrupted she would have been the kind sweet
    person readers here had grown to know.

    Just one case from among a few I can recall from working in “Foster Care” in NYC quite a few years ago. I had one case, a boy Andre, about 12 living with a foster mother and her son John in a single family home in Staten Island, N.Y. Once in a blue moon Andre acted out in school, an “almost fight” with some kid, laughing out loud after pulling some girls hair if I recall an incident correctly. His birth mother really did love him but she knew she was incapable of caring for him. She was a mixed up woman, a bit of a wanderer who couldn’t help but be a loner. But she loved Andre and he loved her though he was ashamed of her. He never verbalized that but sometimes I could see it. She dressed poorly (though cleanly) and had a poor intellect. Andre was markedly smarter than her and the father was long missing.

    The best thing in Andre’s life was John who was about 1/2 year older than Andre and was a mentally and physically strong kid. He took no guff from outsiders and was protective of Andre. He was an exceptionally nice boy, an older brother one would be blessed to have.

    I can’t remember John’s mother too well. A nice enough and fairly steady woman who seemed to accept Andre’s mother without bad mouthing her as I recall, and was glad to get the money that came along with taking care of Andre. Turns out Andre could do all sorts of cartoon art, the type of work one sees in Superman/Batman and X man comics, so my guess is he used that skill which clearly set him apart from lots of kids and later adults. And he had John.

    The fact is that Andre knew his mother didn’t desert him but simply didn’t have it in her to care for him though she loved him I remember fondly about her.

    Wherever they are I believe both John and Andre are doing well. John and his mother and even in her own way Andre’s mother, thankfully I believe brought some happiness into Andre’s live.

    This was one of the cases I had which I always thought was working itself out well before I decided to move on.

    I don’t mean to end this sounding negative. There were some good families taking care of kids. And some went on to adopt them too. I don’t know, it’s tough when you don’t have your natural parents. On the other hand I imagine crummy, crude, selfish, not to mention physically abusive parents are no joy either.

    Mike from Brooklyn

  4. I was raised in conditions where I envied the children I saw in the sound(?) bites from Father Flannegins which might not be a good representation of orphanages – knowing what we think we now know.

    That is not my point.

    I have seen first hand the great experiment the social scientists(?) have put on by placing (I love her phrase) superfluous children into homes. I am sure, at least I hope their are great and good and honest people taking these waifes. What I see is a market place. Want your mortgage and utilities paid? Take in a couple of directs; put them in the corner, tell the to shut the up and eat your government cheese on white bread with your pasta. The sad part is many claim to be Christian.
    I am Christian but have been labeled an heretic for speaking against the hypocrisy I witness.

  5. The Lord works in mysterious ways. This morning I had been brooding about the emotional issues my parents instilled (created?) in me.

    I grew up in a stable two parent home. Both my parents were raised in strict religious homes–no dancing, card playing etc. Then just as they reached adulthood they got hit with the depression in 1929. They were both demanding, perfectionistic and controlling to their children. Love was there but on the surface at least it seemed conditional. I have dealt with anxiety and depression my whole adult life. Without the Christian faith expressed in my family, I wouldn’t be here now.

    In short I was feeling sorry for myself and then I came across this article and realized that, comparatively, my childhood was idyllic compared to hers. I think the bottom line is that nobody has it easy, but some have it much better than others.

  6. I was shocked to hear of Dymphna’s passing; it was so sudden.
    Dymphna was like a part of GOV; whenever we visited, there was Dymphna.
    God bless her and rest her soul.
    May God comfort Baron and family for the loss.

    I wanted to comment at the time but I was in shock and didn’t know what to say.

  7. Good bye Dymphna. You have my deepest sympathy Baron and family. So sad to have your time together cut short.

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