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Residential Care - Good, Bad, or Complicated? Part One (#ServeOrphansWell)
by Mike Douris
Posted on Tuesday, November 01, 2016
In 1836, George Mueller and his wife, Mary, opened up a home for orphan girls at 6 Wilson Street in Bristol, England. Soon, they had rented other homes and expanded to 140 children, both boys and girls. The neighbors complained, and George bought land in 1849 in Ashley Downs, Bristol, to build a larger orphanage.


By 1870, they were providing care for 1,722 children in a large complex of dormitories. The towering figure of the Prussian George Mueller is not only known for his orphan work. He also established Christian schools and was an indefatigable evangelist, organizing many crusades and distributing over one million bibles. It is said that he not only served over 10,000 orphans in his orphanages, but also 250,000 children in his Christian schools. Many of the students were vulnerable children.


I have talked to many people who have yearned to begin a residential program. They are motivated by the stories of men and women, like George Mueller, who had a heart for children, took action to meet the needs of their day, and blessed thousands of children who had little hope. It is interesting though to note that The George Mueller Charitable Trust, which still exists to this day, no longer operates residential care facilities and prefers to support non-residential programs. In fact, in my 43 years of work in orphan care, many of the residential programs that operated early in my ministry have reduced their residential programs significantly or eliminated them altogether.

So, what is the verdict in the ongoing debate about residential care? Is it damaging to children or just as good as other forms of care for children, who for many reasons must be removed from their biological parents? Should churches support residential care programs if they are not considered best practice? What is so bad about residential care when you look at the disturbing statistics of foster care outcomes?

Before we consider these questions, it would be good to know how we got here, and examine how this issue evolved at the turn of the century.

Brief History of Residential Care Debate

There was a very interesting article written in the John Hopkins Magazine in 1996 just after Newt Gingrich (then Speaker of the House), in his attempt to reform welfare, said that children in poor inner city families would be better off in orphanages than in crime infested neighborhoods with dysfunctional families who were receiving welfare. The article is based on the research of Matthew Crenson who authored a book on the subject called, “The Invisible Orphanage: A Pre-history of the American Welfare system.” His basic thesis is that the progressive movement took this issue of orphanages and the abuses therein to champion the concept of welfare for families.


The opposition to residential programs began in the mid-1800’s - first in Europe and then in the United States - after many reports of Dickensian conditions and abuse surfaced through investigative reports. Many of the children in these programs had parents who were too poor to care for them or lived in very difficult circumstances. In fact, the orphanages were known as asylums and the children were referred to as inmates. The thinking was that all these immigrant children on the street were involved in crime and, left to their own devices, were going to be a burden to society; therefore, it was necessary to train them for a more productive life. The scourge of tuberculosis also created the need to get children out of the home so they would not get infected. I worked for Buckner International for many years, and in the early history of Buckner, a separate tent area was set up for children with T.B. Many of those children died and were buried in a cemetery that was lost and later found in the 1990’s when Buckner was about to sell some of their property. We found little toys in the cemetery where brothers and sisters would visit their siblings’ grave and leave a gift.

The progressive movement, which was led by Theodore Roosevelt, wanted to change the paradigm and move the emphasis to preventing the need for orphanages. In 1909, a man by the name of James E. West, who later became the first Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts of America became the point of the spear to make changes. He had grown up in an orphanage in which he had a horrific experience. James met Theodore Roosevelt and they developed a friendship, having the shared experience of sickly childhoods. Both West and Theodore Dreiser (a child advocate) convinced the President to have a meeting at the White House. The meeting occurred on January 25, 1909 and was called The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. The first question at the conference was, “Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune…be kept with their parents—aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?”

Not only was this one of the factors that created the Mother’s Pension - a precursor to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (modern day welfare system) - but it turned most of the public against orphanages and other types of institutional care, which have had a slow death in the United States for the last 90 years. Residential programs still exist, though they are now typically specialized to care for specific types of problems and are limited in how long a child stays in care.

boys town

Getting back to Speaker Newt Gingrich – his comments on bringing back the orphanage were spurred on because of his efforts to reform welfare and its unintended consequences of abuse and dependency. The question raised by opponents was, “What happens to the children of these families if you reduce or cut off funding?” His response was to bring back the orphanages, referring to the movie Boys Town with images of a wonderful place for boys to grow up. The movie did win an Academy Award, but did not sway those who thought the Speaker’s comments were not based in reality, including strong comments from then First Lady Hillary Clinton.

At the time of this controversy, I was the administrator of Buckner Children and Family Services, the historic campus where Dr. Robert Buckner began the largest home for residential care in the Buckner system. Speaker Gingrich gave me my 15 minutes of fame as several local television stations wanted to interview me to comment on his remarks. We were in the process of significantly reducing our residential program by developing therapeutic foster care, family preservation and other non-residential programs, which resulted in us not needing many of the buildings on campus. We actually were in the process of tearing down several buildings when CBS News with Dan Rather asked if they could do a story on our program. They were very fair in their reporting on Buckner, focusing on the reality that orphanages were not the solution and that there was a need for more community care and prevention programs.

Now why discuss all of this history? First of all, the debate on residential care has been going on for over 150 years. Some of the dynamics that created institutions in England and the United States continue to exist in the developing world and have resulted in an over-dependence on residential care. What has exasperated the issue, particularly in Eastern Europe, is an ideology that the government should care for children who are considered less than ideal. Institutions were developed like the asylums of early America to care for these children. These institutions were under-staffed, under-funded, and highly regimented like the early orphanages. This was exacerbated by the fall of the Soviet Union, which created economic chaos and resulted in many children in need of care, and it overwhelmed an already poorly designed and funded system.


All the horror stories of Romanian orphans in cribs rocking from sensory deprivation, and much the same in many other institutions in Eastern Europe, were the result of all these dynamics. Many of the statistics quoted to this day - showing the potential horrors of institutional care - are the result of the research of these institutions. Tragically, one of the positive unintended consequences of these orphanages is that it has furthered our understanding on how important sensory stimulation is and some of the dynamics of children who are physiologically and emotionally damaged because of lack of early nurturing and stimulation.


The dependence on residential care continues in many developing countries, though there is considerable education on best practices resulting in the development of foster care, domestic adoption and prevention programs. That being said - what of the argument for residential care? Is it clear-cut, and do we need to move all children out of residential care? Many countries are using that as a barometer of success of their efforts to reform their child care systems. In fact, the European Union made it a prerequisite for Romania to reduce their dependence on residential care in order to be approved for admittance.

In part two of this series, I will address these questions and more as we, the church, seek to serve orphans with excellence.

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