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
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…