Growing up in Xenia, I remember being fascinated by the Ohio Soldier and Sailors Orphan Home. The “ Home” as it was commonly referred to sat on several beautiful, and beautifully maintained, acres on US 68 South near the outskirts of Xenia. It was a seemingly placid and pastoral place. The orphans did not attend Xenia Schools for some reason, they had their own schools including Woodrow Wilson High. Woodrow Wilson would play the black high school—East in basketball, but I do not think they were big enough to play Central, the white high school. The children seemed almost preternaturally polite, orderly and reserved. Since I was not really particularly any of those things I put it down to them being grateful to have somewhere to live since they were orphans.
One of my sister’s boyfriends, Paul B., and his brothers were all residents of the Home. They were quiet fellows who came, often in a pack, to sit on our front porch on East Market Street on warm summer evenings and “court” my sister. I do not know if they all wanted her for a girlfriend, or just all wanted to get out of an evening. They did not have much, if any money, of course, so they did not take her anywhere—no movies or restaurants, but sat quietly and chatted occasionally, very occasionally, they were not the talkative types. They did show up with a few tributes from time to time, flowers or candy, but that seemed to be about the extent of the relationship.
We used to go out to the Home on Memorial Day, which they made a big deal of, having a parade of their own and marching to the cemetery on the grounds. At first I presumed that their parents were all buried there, ergo, that is why they were orphans. I was about 12 when I found out, via a classmate, that a lot of the “orphans” were not without parents. It seems that if you fell on hard times you could kind of check your kids into the Home until you felt you could care for them again. The reasons a lot of the children there were there were quite varied. Some of them were there because there was some mental breakdown, usually of the maternal stripe, some were there because the family was destitute and could not feed them, some of them were actually there because their parents, or one of their parents, had died. But, it appears that some of them were there because their parents simply did not want them.
As a child the idea that my parents might die and I might end up in the Home was terrifying. It was even more terrifying to find out that they did not necessarily have to die for me to end up there! I do not know if you truly did have to be the son or daughter of a veteran to live at the Home, I imagine you did, at least at one time. It seemed to me later that they would take virtually anyone.
At the Home they lived in “cottages”, the name they used for their different dormitories which were arranged according to age. My favorite was the Peter Pan Cottage where the small children lived. It allowed me to romanticize being an orphan to some extent. They might not have parents but they had a communal living arrangement based on a fairy tale. I used to imagine Tinkerbell watching over them and Peter Pan dropping by to take them on excursions to Never-Never-Land periodically. It still did not make me want to be an orphan.
I began to think about the OS&SO recently during a conversation with my oldest son who works in Social Services for Montgomery County. He was describing some horror stories from the Social Workers whose offices share a building with his department. Since I do quite a bit of work with the Social Work School at my university, and since I teach classes on diversity for the Wake County Guardian Ad Litem Program and do workshops for the Victim’s Advocate Workers in NC, his stories were all to familiar.
I greatly admire people who are sociologists and social workers. It is not in my make-up to do that kind of hands-on interactive work with such oppressed populations. I do my service at a distance, trying to help those who actually interact with the poor, the abused, the neglected, the abandoned, so that they can do their jobs, and maintain their own self-care.
During my work with these populations I have become an advocate for the idea of reinstituting government run orphanages. I know all of the arguments against them, but I know that we have populations of children who need respite from parents who cannot or will not parent. Foster homes can be great or can be dicey and they are hard to monitor and regulate. A well run orphanage would be a much better place for abused children than letting them get lost in a system that has too many cases with too many problems and not enough workers and not enough answers.
If a social worker is called to a home where the parents are dysfunctional, that is filthy and lacks basic utilities, where food is missing or inadequate, if they had a place to send the children I am confident that many, if not most, Americans would say, “ Let the parents figure out their own problems.” In our society people who are not even attempting to do the right thing can get support if they have children. Americans, rightly, do not want children raised in deprived or depraved circumstances. We do not however, have resources, or at least do not know how to allocate and manage our resources, to ameliorate the problems of a lot of these homes which are complex and varied.
If there is drug abuse in the home, for example, any money given to the parent is likely to go to a drug dealer rather than to feed, house and clothe their children. If there is spousal abuse, the money is likely to go to temporary solutions like motel rooms or other attempts to flee and be safe rather than to feed, clothe and house the children in more traditional, stable ways. If there is simply immaturity and lack of understanding of how the world works, the money is likely to go to buy $100 sneakers as a status symbol instead of paying the light bill or buying nutritious food.
We cannot make people be good parents. I have tried to explain this to my friends in public education and academe who insist parents have to participate effectively in their children’s education. No they don’t, and many of them cannot or will not.
So, if we have to save the children and we cannot save the parents, then orphanages—we may need a new name, seem to me to be the solution. I am not a social worker, could not be one, do not intend to be one, so perhaps I am simply offering a solution that seems reasonable because I do not know any better.
All I know is, if I saw a child who was being abused and/or neglected I would want to have a safe, clean, functional place to take that child. That does not mean we would have to abandon the parents, if they wanted help. It does, however, mean that we might be able to save some kids whose parents are lost and who have no idea how to get back on the path, and in some cases at least, no desire to do so.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a German pastor and Nazi opponent who died in a concentration camp) said “ The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”
I am afraid Americans are going to find ourselves wanting on the scales that determine morality if we are judged by what we do for our children.