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Researchers and social policy makers have long been interested in the developmental impact of institutionalization. Are young children who have experienced extreme deprivation in the first year or two of their lives ever able to overcome such poor developmental beginnings? Children in orphanages have been studied in many parts of the world (e.g., Iran, Lebanon, United States, Greece, Romania, Russia, and Canada). The early work on institutionalization demonstrated that deprivation resulted in developmental insult but made no attempt to establish what it was about deprivation that caused such deficits. Intellectual assessments were often used as outcome measures and social emotional variables were used to explain these outcomes. In the late twentieth century, researchers examined larger samples of orphanage children using standardized developmental assessments and measures of all aspects of development (i.e., physical, intellectual, behavioral, and social-emotional). This entry presents a review of both the early literature and late-twentieth-century research on institutionalized children. In most studies children with orphanage experience are compared to children reared in foster care, adopted children, or children who were home-reared from birth. Typically orphanage children fare less well on most measures than children in these other groups.

Early Literature on Institutionalization

Research interest in the developmental consequences of extreme deprivation in infancy began in the early 1940s and 1950s with the work of researchers such as Rene Spitz (1945a; 1945b), William Goldfarb (1945; 1955), and John Bowlby (1953). Researchers became interested in this topic as a result of the high infant mortality rate in institutions from no known physical cause (Spitz 1945a; 1945b). Rene Spitz coined the term hospitalism to describe the physical and psychological characteristics of infants housed in institutions. He described conditions in the institution as dire. For example, children spent most of their days in cubicles with drab walls wherein sheets often hung over the sides of the infants' cribs, obstructing their view. Spitz suggested that this lack of stimulation explained the rapid deterioration in children's intellectual development. He found a drastic drop in infants' developmental quotients (DQ) over the first few months of life in institutions, and by the end of the second year Spitz reported that infants' DQs had dropped to a low of 45, where an average DQ is 100. Spitz concluded from his study that the damage inflicted on children during their first year of life was irreparable.

William Goldfarb (1955) studied fifteen children who had been reared in an institutions for the first three years of their lives and were subsequently placed in foster care. He compared these children to a group of children who had been in foster care since early infancy. Goldfarb found that the institution group, even in adolescence, were delayed intellectually relative to the foster care group, displayed significantly greater problem behaviors, were socially less mature and appeared emotionally removed in terms of their capacity to form relationships. Goldfarb claimed that early institutional rearing resulted in developmental deficits that were not overcome once children were placed in more stimulating and loving environments. He clearly stated that, given his findings, "babies should be kept out of institutions" (Goldfarb 1947, p. 457).

Clearly, this early work suggested that institutionalized children would be irreparably damaged as a result of such experience. This work has been criticized, however, largely because of methodological limitations (Longstreth 1981; Pinneau 1955). Critics reported that much of this early literature provided scant details regarding not only conditions in orphanages but also the assessments used to evaluate children. The number of children who were tested, the ages at which they were tested, and how often assessments were carried out was often unclear. These limitations made it difficult for later researchers to have strong confidence in the early data on institutionalized children.

Not all early studies, however, predicted such dire outcomes for institutionalized children. In many parts of the world researchers conducted intervention studies attempting to ascertain the kinds of interventions that might prevent poor developmental outcomes. Researchers began demonstrating that many of the cognitive and social deficits among these children were ameliorated after improvements in their environment (Broussard and DeCarie 1971; Dennis 1960; Hunt et al. 1976; see Rosenblith and Sims-Knight 1985 for a review; Skodak and Skeels 1945, 1949). Such interventions included placing infants as houseguests with older children (Skodak and Skeels 1945, 1949), improving child-to-caregiver ratios (Hunt et al. 1976), and early-adoption (Dennis 1973). All of these studies showed that simple changes, even within the orphanage environment (e.g., lowering child-caregiver ratios, providing perceptual stimulation), resulted in increases in children's intelligence quotient (IQ) scores. More importantly, this research showed that the effects of deprivation were not irreparable, although the length of institutionalization could make a difference in developmental outcomes.

Further support for the idea that institutionalized children were not destined for developmental compromise came from the work of Barbara Tizard and her colleagues with children who had spent the first two years of their lives in high-quality institutions in the United Kingdom (Tizard 1977). In these institutions child-to-caregivers ratios were 3:1 and the children experienced adequate social interaction, were taken on outings, and fed well. The caregivers, however, were discouraged from forming intimate relationships with the children. This was the major way in which orphanage children's lives differed from the lives of home-reared children. Tizard first assessed these children at two years of age and compared them to a sample of home-reared children from a working-class background. She found that at this time the institution children's IQs were slightly lower than the IQs of the working class children, and their language was slightly delayed, but their social development was normal. Tizard followed her sample of children up to sixteen years of age and found that the majority of parents claimed their children had developed a deep attachment toward them. These data were in contrast to Goldfarb's earlier work in which he claimed that previously institutionalized children would be unable to form subsequent attachment relationships. As noted previously, however, the children in Tizard's sample had not experienced the extreme deprivation that the children in Gold-farb's sample had. Therefore Tizard's more positive outcomes may be partially the result of less severe deprivation.

Later Deprivation Studies

It was not until late 1989 and early 1990 that researchers once again could address the impact of extreme deprivation on young children, when the Ceausescu regime in Romania was overthrown. At this time the outside world became aware of thousands of children who had been housed in Romanian state-run orphanages. The conditions in Romanian orphanages were similar to or worse than the conditions described by Goldfarb (Ames 1990; Groze and Ileana 1996). Children spent from twenty to twenty-four hours a day in their cribs, with little visual or auditory stimulation (Ames 1990, 1997), and child-to-caregiver ratios ranged from 10:1 for infants to as high as 20:1 for children over three years of age (Chisholm et al. 1995). Therefore researchers were once again permitted the opportunity to evaluate the developmental impact of extreme deprivation. Sandra Kaler and Betty Jo Freeman (1994) examined the cognitive and social-emotional developmental status of children within an orphanage in Romania and found that the majority of orphanage children were severely delayed.

Since the early 1990s three major studies have examined the developmental outcomes of children who had spent their first year or two of life in a Romanian orphanage and were subsequently adopted. Two studies in Canada (Ames 1997; Marcovitch et al. 1997) and one in the United Kingdom (Rutter et al. 1998) have followed these children postadoption. These studies represent an improvement on the earlier literature given they have used large samples of children, comparison groups, and standardized measures that evaluate several aspects of children's development. We now know more about the impact of institutionalization on children's physical, intellectual, behavioral, and social-emotional development.

Intellectual Development

Elinor Ames and her colleagues (Morison, Ames, and Chisholm 1995) examined children's development, eleven months postadoption, assessing delays in four areas: fine motor, gross motor, personal-social, and language. They found that when their parents first met them the vast majority of adoptees were delayed in all four areas of development. Eleven months postadoption, however, adoptees displayed clear developmental catch-up in that now only close to half the adoptees showed delays in each area of development. This is consistent with the work of Michael Rutter and his colleagues in the United Kingdom (Rutter et al. 1998).

In both of these studies of Romanian adoptees intellectual development was also examined (Morison and Ellwood 2000; Rutter et al. 1998). In Ames's sample, when the adopted children had been in their adoptive homes for approximately three years, orphanage children had significantly lower IQs than both Canadian-born and earlyadopted children (Morison and Ellwood 2000). This was particularly the case for children who were adopted after two years of age. Therefore, the longer that children had been institutionalized the more likely such institutionalization had an impact on intellectual development. It is important to note, however, that there was wide variability in IQ scores within each group of children, with some orphanage children scoring in the superior range for IQ (Ames 1997).

Rutter and his colleagues compared Romanian adoptees' intellectual development to a group of within-country adoptees (Rutter et al. 1998). Rutter and his colleagues (1998) found that by the age of four, the Romanian adoptees who had been adopted before six months of age did not differ in terms of IQ from the sample of within-country adoptees. For those children adopted after six months of age, their mean IQ scores were only slightly below 100 but they did score significantly lower than either the within-country adoptees or the early-adopted Romanian children.

These findings are consistent with findings from a study comparing orphanage and home-reared children in Russia. Vladimir Sloutsky (1997) assessed differences in IQ scores between six- and seven-year-old children reared in an orphanage with home-reared children and found that the orphanage children scored significantly lower in IQ than home-reared children.

Behavior Problems

Behavior problems have also been examined in recent studies of institutionalized children. These studies have found that orphanage children display rather unique behavior problems when compared with either home-reared nonadopted children or within country-adoptees.

Ames and her colleagues attribute most of the behavior problems of orphanage children to their orphanage experience given that early-adopted children who were adopted before two months of age did not appear different from Canadian-born children in any problem area (Ames 1997; Fisher et al. 1997). The most troublesome problems for adoptive parents were in the areas of eating, sleeping, stereotyped behavior, and sibling and peer relationships. Eleven months postadoption, one-third of orphanage children in their sample would not eat solid food or ate too much, both behaviors that were likely the result of orphanage experience. Although orphanage children did not differ from Canadian-born children in the number of sleeping problems they had, the kind of sleeping problems that adoptive parents experienced with their orphanage children differed. The sleeping problem of most concern to adoptive parents was the fact that children would not signal when they were awake, another behavior that was likely the result of institutionalization.

Stereotyped behavior concerned adoptive parents. The majority of orphanage children (84%) displayed stereotyped behavior, mostly in the form of rocking. Three years after adoption adoptive parents reported improvements in all behavior areas. At this time orphanage children did not look different from Canadian-born and early-adopted children in eating problems, sleeping problems, or sibling problems. However, they still displayed more stereotyped behavior than children in the other two groups, although this behavior had improved as well from Time 1 to Time 2. Clearly these recent results suggest that much of the difficulties linked to orphanage experience are over-come when children's environments improve.

Children's behavior problems were also examined using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), a standardized behavior problem questionnaire developed by Thomas Achenbach, Craig Edelbrook, and Catherine Howell (1987). Romanian orphanage children scored significantly higher on the CBCL than did Canadian-born or early-adopted children, and a large percentage of orphanage children scored above the clinical cut-off for the CBCL (Fisher et al. 1997). This finding is consistent with work in a Greek residential group care facility with nine-year-old children (Vorria et al. 1998). In comparing residential group care children to children reared in two-parent families Panyiota Vorria and colleagues (1998) found that the group care children were more inattentive, passive, and participated less in group activities at school than did their family-reared peers. In general, institution-reared children typically display more behavior problems than home-reared children.

Social-Emotional Development

For many reasons indiscriminate friendliness is a behavior that is particularly relevant to any study of institutionalized children. References to indiscriminately friendly behavior are evident in the early literature on the social development of institutionalized children who were later fostered or adopted (Goldfarb 1955; Provence and Lipton 1962). Tizard (1977) characterized indiscriminate friendliness as behavior that was affectionate and friendly toward all adults (including strangers) without the fear or caution characteristic of normal children. In these cases a child's behavior toward other adults could not be discriminated from his or her behavior toward caregivers.

Studies of institutionalized children have also examined indiscriminate friendliness. In Ames's study parents were asked five questions assessing (a) whether their child wandered without distress; (b) whether their child was willing to go home with a stranger; (c) how friendly their child was with new adults; (d) whether their child was ever shy; and (e) what their child typically did upon meeting new adults. These researchers found that orphanage children displayed significantly more indiscriminate friendliness than both early-adopted and Canadian-born children, and orphanage children were just as indiscriminate three years postadoption as they were initially (Chisholm 1998). Similarly, Thomas O'Connor, Michael Rutter, and their colleagues in the United Kingdom (2000) found that indiscriminate friendliness was associated with length of deprivation in their sample of Romanian adoptees.


Indiscriminate friendliness is particularly relevant to the study of attachment because some researchers have suggested that indiscriminately friendly behavior may be indicative of nonattachment, a term used to describe an attachment disorder that results from an infant not having had the opportunity to form an attachment relationship (Lieberman and Pawl 1988) or a reactive attachment disorder. (Zeanah 1996). A. F. Lieberman and J. H. Pawl (1988) have used the term nonattachment to describe an attachment disorder that results from an infant not having had the opportunity to form an attachment relationship. This is precisely the situation of children reared in institutions, so researchers have focused on linking this behavior to children's attachment. Kim Chisholm (1998) found that the more extreme indiscriminate behaviors (i.e., wandering without distress and being willing to go home with a stranger) were associated with insecure attachment in Ames's sample.

The question of whether orphanage children are able to form attachment relationships with their adoptive families has been of concern to both researchers and adoptive parents. Researchers have examined attachment using standard separation reunion procedures and validated coding systems.

Chisholm (1998), using Ames's sample of Romanian adoptees, found that one-third of orphanage children were securely attached to their adoptive parent, one-third were insecurely attached to their parent but in a way that is not uncommon in normative samples of children, and one-third of orphanage children displayed atypical insecure attachment patterns. Some researchers have suggested that such atypical patterns may be indicative of future psychopathology (Carlson and Sroufe 1995; Crittenden 1988a). Although all of the orphanage children formed attachments, significantly more of them displayed insecure attachment patterns than children in both the Canadian-born and early-adopted groups. This is consistent with other research on a sample of Romanian adoptees living in the Toronto area (Handley-Derry et al. 1995) and the UK sample of Romanian adoptees (Marvin and O'Connor 2000).

These findings taken together contradict claims in the early literature on institutionalized children (Goldfarb 1955; Spitz 1945), showing that orphanage children in all three of these studies were able to form attachment relationships with their adoptive parents. It is important to note, however, that these recent findings further suggest that when the attachment process does go wrong in previously institutionalized children, it may go very wrong. In Chisholm's study (1998) significantly more orphanage children than Canadian-born or earlyadopted children displayed atypical attachment patterns, which some researchers have suggested are risk factors in the development of psychopathology (Carlson and Sroufe 1995; Crittenden 1988).


How does one attempt to summarize the recent literature on institutionalized children? Most of the studies show, perhaps unsurprisingly, that children who have spent an extended period of time in orphanage display deficits in all areas of development when compared to any other group (i.e., early-adopted, within-country adopted, and/or home-reared children). Although this sounds like the same pessimistic picture that both Goldfarb and Spitz painted, when one examines the data beyond mere group differences, a different picture emerges. Ames (1997) extended the work with her sample by going beyond group differences and examining the data within her orphanage group. As reported earlier, orphanage children in Ames's sample displayed significantly more behavior problems, they had significantly lower IQs, more social problems, and they displayed significantly more insecure attachment patterns, particularly more atypical or extreme attachment patterns than children in the other groups. On each of these measures, however, there was substantial within-group variation. Not all of the orphanage children were experiencing all of these problems. This raises a risk and resiliency question. Why do some children recover from such extreme deprivation seemingly unscathed, whereas other children carry scars into their futures? Ames examined the correlates that were associated with particular problems, and whether it was the same orphanage children experiencing each of these problems. She defined four areas of serious problems: having an IQ of eight-five or lower, having an atypical insecure attachment pattern, having severe behavior problems, or continued presence of stereotyped behavior.

Ames then grouped her sample in terms of the number of serious problems and compared her groups in this way. She found only one earlyadopted child had as many as three serious problems, and none of her Canadian-born group had three serious problems, but 30 percent of the orphanage group had three or four of these serious problems. This third of the orphanage group accounted for 68 percent of all the individual serious problems that orphanage children had. Ames then reanalyzed all of the data excluding those orphanage children with three or four serious problems from the analyses. She found there were no longer group differences on behavior problems as assessed by the CBCL or insecure attachment patterns. Nevertheless, orphanage children still had significantly lower IQs than Canadian-born children.

This is a more positive picture than earlier work on institutionalization and speaks to the strength in young children of overcoming tremendous adversity. Fully two-thirds of orphanage children were doing well given their poor start. One-third of the children, even three years postadoption, were doing poorly.

Ames then examined factors that were associated with a child having three or more serious problems. She considered characteristics of the institution, child characteristics, and family characteristics. Although length of time in the orphanage was associated with more problems, no characteristics of the institution or the child were associated with a child having serious problems.

There were, however, family characteristics that were associated with children having more problems. One factor that seemed to predict whether a child would have serious problems was the number of Romanian children adopted. Families who adopted two children had more serious problems than families who only adopted one child. A number of other family characteristics were associated with children having serious problems and all of these appear to be tapping the resources available to a family. The higher the family income, the older the mother, and the higher the socioeconomic status (SES) of the family, the fewer problems they were experiencing with their child. A final—rather surprising—correlate of children who were experiencing many problems involved the parent who had traveled to Romania to adopt a child. Children who were selected by the father alone experienced more problems postadoption than children who had been selected by either the mother alone or both parents. Ames (1997) suggested that the parent who is going to be the parent providing most of the day-to-day caregiving should have been the parent to travel to Romania.

These correlates seem to suggest that resiliency is not something within a child. It develops as a result of the particular interactions a child experiences with his or her environment. Therefore, institutionalization represents a risk factor that initially sets a child on a less than optimal developmental pathway. Where a child ends up developmentally, however, will depend on what happens after the initial trauma.

Children's experience in orphanages clearly constitutes a risk factor for their optimal development. Given an optimal postorphanage environment with few stressors, however, orphanage children appear to do well and overcome early adversity. Institutionalization appears to contribute to less than optimal development only when coupled with other stressors (for example, low SES, high parenting stress). This is consistent with the suggestion that one risk factor in isolation does not lead to an increased probability for psychopathology. It is the combination of several risk factors working together that substantially increases the likelihood of future difficulty (Belsky, Rosenberger, and Crnic 1995; Rutter 1985).

Clearly, children who experience institutionalization and are subsequently adopted generally arrive in their adoptive homes in poor condition. Parents are dealing simultaneously with an array of problem areas, which requires an exceptionally high level of commitment from parents. The fact that many parents are successful in promoting optimal developmental outcomes in their children is truly a laudable achievement.

See also:Adoption; Children's Rights; Failure to Thrive; Foster Parenting


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In the middle of the fourteenth century, religious orders, confraternities, and municipalities established orphanages and foundling hospitals all over Europe as a response to the plague and to increasing poverty. A Parisian confraternity founded an orphanage, Hôpital du Saint-Esprit-en Grève, in 1366, and in Italy the Florentine Innocenti opened in 1444. Although most orphanages were established in western and southern Europe, a few were also established in eastern and northern Europe. The Church took care of abandoned and illegitimate infants, and from the fifteenth century on foundling hospitals could be found in many German, Italian, and French cities.

Orphanages in the United States

Few orphanages existed in the United States before the nineteenth century. Religious groups usually founded orphanages as a response to wars and epidemics. In 1734, the Ursuline Sisters, a French Catholic order, turned their school in New Orleans into an orphanage to care for children left by an Indian massacre at Natchez. In 1737, the followers of the German missionary August Hermann Francke established the Salzburger orphanage in Ebenezer, Georgia. A year later, the Anglican reverend George Whitefield established an orphanage in Bethesda, Georgia. By the early nineteenth century, about two dozen more had been built in big cities, and from the 1830s on orphanages opened rapidly in most cities in the country.

Industrialization, urbanization, and immigration contributed to the proliferation of child-care institutions. In pre-industrial America, orphans were indentured to foster families in exchange for their work. But during the nineteenth century, growing towns with struggling immigrants could not rely on indentured service to solve the problem of orphaned and homeless children. Wage laborers experienced periods of unemployment, and often succumbed to illness and accidents, creating large groups of children with no parents or with parents who were unable to care for them. Religion and ethnicity separated the immigrants from the towns' residents. Catholic immigrants feared the influence of Protestant families over their children. Within the Catholic Church, the Germans resented the Irish and preferred to establish German institutions. Later on, other Catholic immigrants (Italians, Poles, French Canadians) also established orphanages to preserve their culture and language. Nondenominational orphanages usually were built by groups of Protestant churches to serve established nonimmigrant communities.

By the mid-nineteenth century education was emphasized over work, and middle-class women, who dedicated their time to nurturing their children and doing charity work, were actively involved in social issues pertaining to children. They played an important part in the antebellum reform movement, from the 1830s to 1860s. The reformers, responding to growing urban poverty and influenced by the transcendentalists, sought to provide shelter and education in the midst of nature for orphaned, neglected, abused, abandoned, and delinquent children. They believed that separating children from adults in almshouses, placing them in institutions in rural areas, structuring their activities, and educating them would turn them into good citizens. For children who had already experienced a life of vice in the city, the reformers established industrial homes, houses of refuge, and reformatories with an emphasis on work and vocational education. The innocent poororphaned, abandoned, and neglected childrenwere educated in orphanages. Some institutions were defined by gender and others had age restrictions. By 1860 orphanages could be found in almost all states of the union. Only a few new states, and small states without urban centers, did not have any orphanages.

PostCivil War Orphanages

After the Civil War, states became involved in building orphanages for the war orphans, which later included orphans of the Spanish-American War. As industry expanded rapidly and immigration increased, more children lost one or both parents to accidents, illness, and despair. Jewish orphanages and fraternal orphanages were established, as well as county orphanages financed by local governments. African-American and Indian-American communities built orphanages for their children. Philanthropists outside these communities also established orphanages specifically for racial minorities (black, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian Americans). A few orphanages accommodated racially mixed populations.

States without public orphanages (New York, California, and Maryland) placed their wards in private institutions and paid for their board. But most private child-care institutions were supported by contributions from individuals, the children's surviving parent or relatives, and their communities, with little or no aid from the state. Boards of trustees, whose members were the respectable and wealthy citizens of the community, ran the orphanages. They usually volunteered their service, considering it a religious and communal obligation. They raised funds, made policies, admitted children, and hired and supervised the superintendent and staff. During the nineteenth century, the superintendents were educators or religious leaders who viewed their work as a vocation. Many stayed in their positions for decades, shaping their institutions' policies, maintaining contacts with their communities, and providing stability and continuity of care.

By the Progressive Era (18901920), the superintendents of orphanages were graduates of the evolving discipline of social work, specializing in the new field of child care. Orphanages at the end of the nineteenth century were considered the best method of care for dependent children; their popularity increased and single poor parents often regarded them as places they could leave their children temporarily until circumstances improved, or as places where their children could get a good education. Many orphanages became crowded, and some restricted admission to only full and half-orphan children. The majority of children in orphanages in the late nineteenth century had at least one parent living. Those who had both parents living had been placed by the court, by a welfare agency on account of abuse and neglect, or by parents who were unable or unwilling to take care of them. Parents often used the courts to secure admission to institutions by declaring their children delinquent or incorrigible.

Many orphanages did not admit young children. Few orphanages had nurseries. Big cities had foundling hospitals, but single working mothers often used baby farms for their newborns. In baby farms, foster mothers nursed the babies, waited for them to die, or sold them for adoption. The death rates in all infant institutions were staggering, either because the abandoned children arrived at the hospital already starved and sick from exposure to the elements or because contagious diseases such as scarlet fever, diphtheria, and whooping cough caused high mortality rates, especially among infants. Foundlings who survived early childhood and were not adopted were transferred to orphanages. Unlike infant institutions, the mortality rates in orphanages were low, despite epidemics and diseases. Children in orphanages generally enjoyed far better medical care, nutrition, hygiene, and fresh air than were available in the neighborhoods from which they had come.

Late nineteenth-century reformers viewed children as a key for reforming and redeeming the republic. These "child savers" fought against child labor and for compulsory education, playgrounds, and libraries in poor urban neighborhoods. Orphanages played an important role in that reform. By the early twentieth century, many orphanages had playgrounds, libraries, athletic facilities, musical training, recreation, and vocational education. Children were either schooled inside the orphanage or attended neighborhood public schools. Talented students attended high schools and were encouraged to obtain a college education.

Orphanages differed in the kind of population they housed, based on the children's ethnicity, religion, class, and gender, and sometimes on academic ability. But although there was no single model of the Progressive orphanage, they all strove to give their children an edge in life through education.

The Attack on Orphanages

By the late nineteenth century, some reformers began to attack orphanages for being overly regimented and sheltering their children too long. Influenced by social Darwinism, Amos Warner, the prominent social welfare researcher, argued in American Charities (1875) that clustering children with similar backgrounds bred pauperism, and that institutionalized children were not prepared adequately for life struggles. He advocated dispersing the children into families. Beginning in 1854, American reformer Charles Loring Brace had been sending dependent children from New York to live with and work in families in the Midwest. These placing-out operations, carried out by the New York Children's Aid Society and copied in other cities, were later known as the orphans' trains. Children's Aid Societies continued the tradition of indenture and were the precursor to foster care. Some children were adopted and some were exploited. Many lost contact with their natural families and were barely supervised by the agency after they were placed. By contrast, orphanages rarely sought to break up families; most encouraged connections with families and kept siblings together. The majority of children returned to their families once circumstances changed. Parents, and especially immigrant parents, preferred orphanages to giving their children to Children's Aid societies.

Progressive-era reformers intensified their criticism of orphanages, blaming them for obliterating individuality. In 1909, at a White House conference called by President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss children's welfare, two hundred social workers declared that the best method of caring for dependent children was at home or in an alternative family. Institutions, they said, should be considered the last resort. For children who needed an alternative home, they suggested placements in screened, unpaid foster homes under the supervision of social workers. The children were expected to attend school and work for their board.

Orphanages responded to the criticisms by striving to create homelike institutions. They broke the large congregate bedrooms into small units, built cottages in which small groups of children lived with a home mother, relaxed the discipline, added more recreation and enrichment programs, and cultivated children's individual talents. Orphanages that could not modernize were closed or consolidated. The remaining institutions attempted to be boarding schools for dependent children.

PostWorld War I Orphanages

From the 1920s on, charities started to close their institutions, creating foster care agencies adhering to the social work preference for foster care over institutionalization. Catholic Charities resisted the trend and was slow to change. The 1910s pension laws for widows and their children allowed many single mothers to keep their children at home, and the restrictions on immigration in the early 1920s reduced the number of dependent children. But during the 1930s, orphanages became crowded again. The Depression years depleted the institutions' resources and forced them to place out children in foster families. The 1935 Aid for Dependent Children legislation made it possible for more families to care for children whom they might otherwise have had to place in orphanages. By then, many orphanages had shifted their mission to caring for children with mental, emotional, and physical problems. Social workers preferred to put healthy children in foster families and pay for their board. Disabled children were left in institutions. By the 1950s, most states had taken responsibility for the care of their dependent children, foster care had developed special care for disabled children, and orphanages had become residential treatment centers and temporary shelters until foster families were located.

The anti-institution movement of the 1960s closed most of the remaining orphanages. Federal Aid for Families with Dependent Children legislation (AFDC), which began in the 1960s, aimed at preserving biological families and preventing children from being placed out.

But the number of children in foster care did not diminish, and by the 1980s foster care was in crisis. The system faced a shortage of foster parents, inadequate supervision, high staff turnover, and children who were moved from one placement to another. In some cases there was also abuse, neglect, and death of children in foster homes. In 1994, Congressman Newt Gingrich, suggested a return to orphanages. His remarks reopened a century-old debate. Opponents looked at research done on residential treatments from the 1950s on and pointed to problems that arose when troubled children were concentrated in one place. Supporters emphasized the permanency, family preservation, and educational benefits that the Progressive Era's orphanages had provided. During the 1980s, historians and graduates of orphanages discovered that orphanages were discarded with little research and that the century-old debate was largely based on fiction and movies. The combination of their research and personal accounts cast institutions in a much more positive light than that in which they had previously been depicted. Some states and private philanthropists started building residential academies for preteens and teenagers who were not likely to be adopted or find placements. Others responded to the renewed debate and the continuing crisis in foster care by terminating parental rights in order to release children for adoption, by establishing permanent foster care units, and by enhancing services for families in crisis.

See also: Abandonment; Baby Farming; Child Saving; Dependent Children; Orphans; White House Conferences on Children.


Ashby, Leroy. 1984. Saving the Waifs: Reformers and Dependent Children, 18901917. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bogen, Hyman. 1992. The Luckiest Orphans: A History of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Boswell, John. 1990. Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon.

Broder, Sherri. 2002. Tramps, Unfit Mothers, and Neglected Children: Negotiating the Family in Late Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Phildelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cmiel, Kenneth. 1995. A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Crenson, Matthew A. 1998. The Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dulberger, Judith A. 1996. "Mother Donit Fare the Best," Correspondence of a Nineteenth-Century Orphan Asylum. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Friedman, Reena Sigman. 1994. These Are Our Children: Jewish Orphanages in the United States 18801925. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, for Brandeis University Press.

Fuchs, Rachel. 1986. Abandoned Children, Foundlings, and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hacsi, Timothy A. 1997. Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holt, Marilyn Irvin. 2001. Indian Orphanages. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

McKenzie, Richard B. 1996. The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage. New York: Basic Books.

McKenzie, Richard B. 1998. Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publication

Molat, Michel. 1986. The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Polster, Gary Edward. 1990. Inside Looking Out: The Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum, 18681924. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

Rothman, David J. 1971. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown.

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Zmora, Nurith. 1994. Orphanages Reconsidered: Child Care Institutions in Progressive Era Baltimore. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Nurith Zmora

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In the past, numerous children were orphaned. In societies where people married early and had many children, and a high death rate was common in the adult population, many children lost one of their parents, and some both, before coming of age.

Orphans suffered from a higher death rate than other children did. They often had to live outside of standard households, either because they were placed in a foster family or, as was more often the case, because they were placed as servants or apprentices at an earlier age than was common. Charitable societies first, then towns or nations, organized to improve these children's living conditions and to make it easier for them to become integrated into society.

How Many Orphans Were There?

The number of orphaned children in a society is connected to the political and economic environment (war, famine, epidemic) and to the demographic situation. As the death rate declined from the seventeenth century onwards, as people began to marry later in many Western countries, and as people died at an older age on average, children lost their parents later and the number of underage orphans decreased.

Starting in early modern times, orphans can be precisely numbered. Estimates concerning some French, English, or Spanish villages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries indicate that at least one-third of the children lost one of their parents during childhood. In nineteenth-century Milan, one child out of two had lost at least one parent by age twenty. In nineteenth-century China, almost one-third of boys had lost one parent or both by age fifteen. In early modern times, the younger children were, the greater chance they stood of losing their mothers rather than their fathers, because many women died in childbirth. In western Europe, a woman's risks of dying within the sixty days following childbirth declined from 1 percent in the seventeenth century to 0.5 percent in 1900. After age twelve, children's risk of losing their fathers increased due to the higher death rate among the male population. In nineteenth century Venice, at age five, 5.4 percent of children had lost their fathers, 6 percent their mothers, and 1 percent both. At age fifteen, 22 percent had lost their father, 15 percent their mother, and 6 percent both parents.

Weakened Children

All studies indicate a higher death rate among orphans than among other children. In addition to emotional and psychological trauma, the impact on their living conditions was serious. Among the working class, the father's death generally resulted in the household's fall into destitution.

Most of the time, children were worse off if they lost their mothers; this phenomenon was recognized in nineteenth-century Europe, China, and Japan. For example, in Linko-ping, Sweden, in the nineteenth century, 60 percent of the children who had lost their mothers before their first birthdays died before age fifteen, as opposed to 30 percent of those who had lost their fathers, and 25 percent of those who still had both parents. The consequences of the mother's death could sometimes be mitigated by the father's prompt remarriage.

The child's age at the time of the parent's death was also a factor: the younger the child was when the father or mother died, the higher the mortality risk. In 1915 Baltimore, the death rate among children who had lost their mothers before their second month of life was 526 out of 1000. In addition, orphans' survival seems to have been linked to their sex because the child's sex influenced the intervention of family or outside help. Girls were more prepared than boys to take over cleaning and cooking and they could take better care of themselves even at a young age. Therefore, more help was usually offered to boys, but the survival of boys and girls depended on familial arrangements. A few surveys also mention the role played by religion. For example, in nineteenth century Venice the death rate among children in general and orphans in particular was twice as low among Jews. This seems to have been connected to various factors, including personal hygiene, attitudes towards illness and medicine, and the efficiency of the community's institutions in the event of a parent's death.

Orphans and the Household

When a child's father or mother dies, the household's survival is endangered and several possibilities can be considered: (1) the household may survive, deprived of the deceased parent; (2) the household may be altered by the departure of some of the children or the arrival of a newcomer (aunt, mother-in-law, etc) who is willing to help the surviving parent; (3) the household may be recomposed by the arrival of a stepfather or stepmother, sometimes accompanied by his or her children, if the surviving parent remarries; or (4) the household may be scattered, with the orphans being separated from their surviving parent. From the sixteenth century onward in European societies widowers generally remarried more often and more quickly than widows. Therefore, the recomposed household in which orphans were brought up included a stepmother more often than a stepfather. A few surveys hint that orphans, more often than other children, may have been the victims of sexual abuse especially from their stepfathers or stepmothers, but the sources offer little of substance.

When the father died, the widow could become head of the household, but this role could also be transferred to an orphan, generally a boy in his late teens. In preindustrial Japan, orphan boys could succeed their fathers as head of the household as early as age sixteen, but these orphans had to take on an adult's responsibilities precociously. In countries where this was possible, the orphans sometimes benefited from an early emancipation.

In the event of the father's death, it was sometimes difficult for a widow who did not remarry to keep many of her children with her. Consequently orphans left home precociously more often than other children. Grandparents seem to have played a very limited part in the accommodation of young orphans, probably because they were so seldom still alive. Orphans were often placed as servants or apprentices. However, family solidarity seems to have resulted in orphans being placed whenever possible as servants or apprentices with relatives.

From Family to Collective Support

During the Middle Ages and well into the seventeenth century, because little material support was available from charitable societies, orphans from modest backgrounds were sometimes doomed to live in destitution. Novelists have dwelt on the portrait of the homeless boy reduced to begging or delinquency, or the homeless girl forced into prostitution. But institutions were gradually organized to look after them. In many European countries, boards of guardians were set up; these were generally composed of the orphan's relatives and they were responsible for the orphan's education and for the safekeeping of his or her property.

One of the first people appealed to for care of the orphaned child was the godfather or godmother. However, the godparent's role as guardian seemed to decline after the end of the Middle Ages in western Europe, although it probably remained strong in eastern and southern Europe. In France, the revolution instituted the civil baptism, in which the godfather and godmother publicly and solemnly pledged to provide for the child's needs until he or she came of age should the parents die or become unable to look after him or her.

Orphans could also be adopted, a practice already documented in ancient Greece. In early modern times, the godfather and godmother were the first to be appealed to, which is why they had to be chosen from among relatively young people from a good background. In France, famous people such as Montaigne, Corneille, and Voltaire are known to have adopted their orphaned godchildren.

The orphan could also be adopted by a hospital or a charitable society. In Europe, this mainly occurred from the sixteenth century onwards. In western Europe, there is evidence of some orphans who had been entrusted to hospitals being adopted by middle-class people unrelated to them. This seems to have remained in practice until the eighteenth century, notably in Germany. In Venice, the first orphanage was created in 1811 as part of a campaign meant to reduce begging. Before that, vagrant orphans would be locked up with tramps and people with disabilities in the main hospitals, which were more like detention centers than treatment centers. To be accepted in Venice's orphanage, an orphan had to be seven to twelve years old, legitimate, born and living in Venice, in good health, and fit for work. Because the orphanage had limited accommodation, other orphans, particularly those who were very young, ill, illegitimate, or immigrants, were rejected. Though they could get some help from other charitable societies, which occasionally provided clothes, food, or shelter, they had to rely mainly on their relatives and connections.

In modern Europe illegitimate children had a high risk of being abandoned. For illegitimate orphans the only hope for survival was to be taken in by a hospital or charitable institution. Most orphaned illegitimate children, like thousands of abandoned children, were placed in a caretaker's home and lost contact with their families. Others were confined to workhouses where they had to work to pay for the help they received.

In the nineteenth century, states became more and more active in providing for orphans, particularly by financing and controlling the running of orphanages. The particular case of war orphans must be mentionedthose whose fathers were killed in action or were crippled for life. For example, after World War I France created a special status for war orphans, who were called Pupilles de la Nation. Adopted by the state, these orphans benefited from material and moral support that could extend beyond their legal majority.

Fortunately, the living conditions of orphans improved during the twentieth century, at least in developed countries. Because adult mortality among parents of minor children is low, orphans are less numerous and most orphanages have shut down. Surviving parents often receive support from insurance and public funds; the welfare state will attempt to provide education and care if both parents have died and relatives are unable to care for the child; and adoption of orphans by childless couples (which was not allowed by law in the nineteenth century in many countries) has become frequent since the last half of the twentieth century.

See also: Abandonment; Adoption in the United States; Foundlings; Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States; Stepparents in the United States.


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Bideau, Alain, Guy Brunet, and Fabrice Foroni. 2002. "Orphans and Their Family Histories: A Study of the Valserine Valley (France) during the 19th and the 20th Centuries." The History of the Family: An International Quarterly 5: 315325.

Campbell, Cameron, and James Lee. 2002. "When Husbands and Parents Die: Widowhood and Orphanhood in Late Imperial Liaoning, 17891909." In When Dad Died: Individuals and Families Coping with Distress in Past Societies, ed. Renzo Derosas and Michel Oris. New York: Peter Lang.

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Guy Brunet

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