How Adoption Works

Orphanages in the United States have mostly been replaced by residential treatment centers, but they are still prevalent in other parts of the world, especially in countries afflicted by poverty, famine, war or disease.

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Orphanages and Foster Care


Many orphanages were set up in the United States by religious organizations during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, over time, concerns rose about poor­ conditions and discriminatory policies, particularly during the Civil Rights movement. Orphanages became associated with a low standard of care -- barracks-like accommodations, a lack of mental health and support services, poor food and insufficient funding.

Following World War II, most orphanages in the U.S. began closing. Take the Windy City as an example. In the early 1970s, almost every orphanage in Chicago was shut down by the Illinois Department of Children and Family. Half of the city’s orphanages had already closed between 1945 and 1960 [ref]. Over the past few decades, orphanages in the U.S. have been largely replaced with smaller institutions that try to provide a group home or boarding school environment. Most children who would have been in orphanages are in these residential treatment centers (RTC) or foster care.

Residential treatment centers, the modern descendent of orphanages, provide housing, mental health services, education and recreation. In testimony before the House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Human Resources for the Hearing on Promoting Adoption and Other Permanent Placements, Nan Dale, CEO of Children’s Village in New York, described her facility as “more like a boarding school than an orphanage -- more like a children’s psychiatric hospital than an orphanage.” ”It is a highly structured, heavily supervised boarding school with intense treatment services for children and their families” Dale said [ref].

Expressing deep opposition to bringing back orphanages, Dale spoke of the complex issues facing children such as those who come to Children’s Village, many of whom are victims of severe neglect or abuse and have behavioral and psychological problems. Bringing back orphanages would not solve many of the problems, Dale said, and instead there must be a ”full array of services” for children and families: preventive services to keep families together, foster families, adoption services, different types of group care facilities, after care and independent living services. Strong evidence indicates that residential group care works well for troubled children, and bringing back orphanages would, in Dale’s words, mean ”dropping down a rung on the evolutionary ladder” [ref].

Foster Care Adoption

As of 2005, 523,062 children were in foster care in the United States [ref]. Public agencies handle most foster care adoptions, also called special needs adoptions. Foster care children usually are in grade school or are teenagers and frequently have been the victims of abuse or neglect. Check with your local Department of Social Services to learn about foster children in your area who need adoption. If a potential match is made, the prospective parents will visit with the foster child, and if the visits are determined to be successful, the child will be placed with his or her new family. For more information on foster care, check out our article How Foster Care Works.