Updated: Nov 24
Foster Families or Residential Care: Which Placement do Former Fosters Choose?
Prior to President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent
Children, institutional placement was considered the “best practice” of caring for dependent
youth. Boards of trustees comprised of community leaders volunteered to oversee the operation
of these institutions. They raised funds, hired and supervised staff, admitted children and dictated policy with little or no government funding or supervision.
This philosophy changed when the Progressive Movement ordained the government-run foster
care system the new “best practice.”
In both cases, alumni had little or no say in the matter – nor do we today. For the past 150 years, non-alumni have decided what is in our “best interests.”
But which placement do former fosters who experienced living in both foster and residential care say they preferred?
Take for example Dr. Richard McKenzie who detailed the positive influence of growing up in a
North Carolina orphanage in his book The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an
Orphanage, including the results of surveying the over 1,000 living alumni of The Home –
averaging age 66.
When asked whether they would rather have grown up in foster care, over 90% said no and less than 1% said yes. Furthermore, the orphans described themselves as “very happy” at a rate twice that of the general population. They surpassed the national norms in education, income and employment, and compared to the general population the orphans reported relatively low rates of emotional difficulty, incarceration and need for public assistance.
Alumni Dr. Phil Craft and Dr. Stan Friedland, co-authors of the book An Orphan has Many
Parents, reinforce Dr. McKenzie’s findings. Their informal survey of over 200 boys and girls
who aged out of a Jewish orphanage in Brooklyn found that none of the residents were ever in
trouble with the law, all graduated high school, most finished college and many went on to
graduate and professional schools.
In a personal communication, Dr. Friedland added: “Many of those surveyed also had foster care experience in their childhood and, to a person, felt that their orphanage residency was far superior in every respect.”
Alumni who have lived in both orphanage and foster placement seem to favor orphanages over the alternatives. Dr. Rosalind Folman sums up the alumni perspective of their placement
experience on pages 156-157 of our book, Growing Up in the Care of Strangers: The
“Finally, one major theme came to the fore, both in my life and in the lives of the hundreds of children whom I have interviewed: It is how children live that matters, not where children live. The best example of this is an overlooked and underestimated group of foster children who thrive because of their placement experience, children who grew up in institutions, such as children’s homes and orphanages. Because of the misguided emphasis on ‘where’ children live, as opposed to ‘how’ they live, policymakers and politicians largely eliminated these institutions in favor of foster care. They mistakenly believed that foster care would provide children the next best thing to the nuclear family…this approach failed decades ago.”
On page 143 of our book, Emancipating from the Care of Strangers: The Experiences, Insights and Recommendations of Ten Former Foster Kids, John Tuohy states his positive feelings about residential care:
Residential care would have provided us a more stable and familiar long-term placement. Mount Saint John was my best placement experience by far. I wish that I had stayed there and graduated. I wish my siblings had been there with me. I wish we’d all been put there right from the start. We would have grown up together, not bounced around on our own. That would have been a far better choice for all four of us than making us homeless in foster care. We would have retained a sense of family and our mental health would have suffered less – much less.”
Based on the research and testimonials cited here, we suspect that institutions may trump foster
families in terms of both quality of care and quality of outcomes. Maybe each type of placement has its good and bad points? Rather than guessing, however, we need to know with absolute certainty.
Where, when and why to place dependent kids are three of the most important issues a national survey of alumni should address.
What we do know with absolute certainty, however, is that “how” foster kids live is the crux of
A child will flower in poverty if only she is loved, yet wither in the wealth of a heartless