What ever happened to the word “orphanage?” It seems like a word that lives exclusively in the past, floating in-between songs in the musical Annie or sweeping chimneys in 18th Century England. With the media-sensationalized images of poor, dirty children crowded together in a dusty bunk room while wiping floors and singing songs, it can be easy to forget that orphanages are the ancestors of modern day foster care.
Today, through increased government oversight and involvement in the needs of displaced youth, the foster care system primarily focuses on placing children into families and away from generalized group housing. However, these communal living arrangements have not disappeared entirely and are now called “congregate care”. Group Homes, Residential Treatment Centers and other forms of community-based living have been embraced in place of the archaic orphanage in the hope that children will be better served. Despite the fact that these congregate care facilities are a vast improvement over the unregulated, impersonal and sometimes cruel orphanages of the past, they are not entirely problem-free. Why is it that group homes and treatment centers across the country are closing their doors? What services did these facilities provide and how will states care for the children who were making use of them? To examine these issues, it is critical to have a clear definition of congregate care in mind.
Imagine you’re a grandmother or grandfather and your daughter has lived on her own for a long time now. Maybe you have a good relationship with her, maybe you don’t, but she ends up in trouble – a drug addiction, a bad accident or some other tragedy – and can no longer care for your grandson. You haven’t been given time to plan or prepare, but suddenly there’s a caseworker on your doorstep with your grandson in tow asking you to take him in. He’s’ your grandchild, so of course you’re willing, but are you actually able? Do you have the legal relationship that would allow you to manage your grandson’s educational enrollment or immunizations or health care decisions? Did you settle down into a smaller home after your grandson’s parent moved away? Do you earn enough money to support the extra mouth to feed?
These are the questions facing the When thinking of foster care, it’s easy to boil the child welfare system down to two basic steps: First, a child, for whatever reason, cannot be cared for by his parents, and second, the government places that child with a new family. The truth is, however, that foster care is much more like an evolving organism than a simple series of processes. Every year, as data comes back and the various responsible agencies assess their abilities and achievements, the child welfare system is being modified and refined to help find the best possible outcomes for those children who enter it. As a result, child welfare professionals have been listening to kinship caregivers all over the country and are starting to help grandparents and kinship caregivers answer those frustrating yet supremely important questions.