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When Home Meant More Than a System
by A.M. Siriano
29 November 2003A Place To Call Home

The many psychologists and Hollywood writers who have demonized orphanages have led us to a worse form of institutionalization, called foster care. A review of Bill and Jean Venricks' A Place to Call Home.

The phrase “labor of love” is a cliché we hear all too often, but once in a great while, it is an accurate one.   A new book titled A Place to Call Home, by Bill and Jean Venrick, whom I am privileged to call my friends, is an example of just such a labor.   When I first met the Venricks in their Lancaster, Ohio, home, they were eager to show me their “work in progress,” a compilation of personal accounts, news clippings, and historical data on the now defunct Fairfield County Children’s Home -- yes, an orphanage, one whose story was in dire need of a couple of good storytellers.  Now their book is printed, but the work has only just begun.

The Venricks’ book has local scope, of course, which is why I bought one copy for myself and another copy to donate to one of our Ohio historical societies. But the book also comes at a time when America should be reconsidering the need for benevolent institutions like the Children’s Home, which, by most accounts, offered stability and hope to hundreds of “unwanted” children.   For this reason alone, I urge everyone to buy a copy of the book, read it, and send it on to a library, historical society, or perhaps to one of the many psychologists and Hollywood writers whose demonization of orphanages have led us to a worse form of institutionalization, called foster care.

With almost daily reports of starved, brutalized, lost, or murdered children -- victims who are currently shuffled through the foster care system -- isn’t it time to undo the damage we have done?   The traditional institution of the orphanage, though fraught with troubles of its own, was, by and large, a success that was undone by modern-day liberal ideology.  The Venricks offer wonderful stories of many of those who enjoyed and benefited from life at the orphanage -- the norm, not the exception.   Read the heartwarming stories of Orville and Clarence Farmer, Iva Lou and Bill Rowland, Carolyn Nettles, and many more.   Most are firsthand accounts that extol the virtues of the home.

The “children's rights” advocates have been so adamant about the benefits of foster care, they have snowed the public into believing a fallacy, that it is preferable to place children in a family setting than in an institution.  This logic ignores, firstly, the family-like atmosphere that can be achieved in a well run orphanage, as borne out by the Venricks’ book, and the stability that A Place to Call Home can bring to a child.   It also assumes that just because no central, tangible institution is involved, there is no institution at all.   The truth is, there are few institutions larger than the foster care system.   It is a virtual orphanage, far too nebulous to be handled by any heartless (I use the term literally) government agency, and one that offers little stability to a needy child.

If you begin to research the ongoing battle between group care (orphanages) and foster care advocates, you will find that lines are largely drawn ideologically, with conservatives supportive of the former and liberals of the latter.  You will also find countless studies that “prove” one side over the other.  The problem with empirical studies in this case is, we have few statistics on the advantages or disadvantages of group care, nor can we account for the differences in social and religious mores of our society between then and now.   True comparisons, in this case, by way of data that are scanty at best are hardly scientific.

When evidence is lacking, to whom or what do we turn?   Common sense is a good place to start, as told by those who have been there.  You will find plenty of bad stories of life in an orphanage, but I’m guessing there are more bad stories of life in the foster care system.  Over 500,000 children are dragged through foster care every year, with over 15 percent whose experience includes five homes or more, and these figures are growing.   Common sense should tell us that it is far more difficult to ensure the safety and well-being of a child whose life “in the system” is in many homes instead of only one.  Case workers, no matter how sincere, cannot be expected to monitor successfully the overload of cases they must handle; nor should we expect that every case worker will have the moral and emotional capacity to look out for his charges.   Furthermore, a system that entices caregivers with the almighty dollar is asking for trouble.

When people like Jennifer Toth and Neil Postman argue against the foster care system and point out its many evils, they are immediately accused of criticizing the numerous good-hearted people who belie the negative cases we hear in the news.   But neither these writers, nor the Venricks, nor I, say there are not good people doing good things in foster care.   But the presence of good people, even successful ones, doesn’t make for a good system.   It is the system that encourages corruption, not necessarily every one of its participants.   The fact that child welfare agencies are now controlled less by the counties and more by the state and federal governments should be enough to make us question their efficacy.   When it comes to welfare, bigger is manifestly not better.

I would also make this case:   I know a man who is a foster caregiver, taking in many children at a time.   I have no doubt he is a good man, meaning, he is not likely to abuse the children who come through his door.   But one look at his home, which sits in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, and the fact that his wife is in prison for murdering his real daughter, and that much of his time is spent working a variable-shift job, must give us pause.   He means it when he says, “I love those kids,” but can his good-heartedness assure us that the children in his care have a good home?

Liberals -- notably liberal psychologists -- have done their darnedest to undermine parental rights and discipline, religion and morality, and have refuted man’s accountability based on behavioristic philosophies.   They have thus created generations of lost children, children whose real parents are children themselves.   Many of these human baby-factories are abusive, evil people, or they are poor and desperate, with no sound infrastructure to be able to kick their own bad habits, let alone to support their children.   Is it not amazing that liberals, who have systematically destroyed the family by way of insidious philosophies, demand that every child be placed in an environment that claims to mimic “family?"

I would be a progressive if the term implied change for the sake of betterment, not change for the sake of change.   The progressives threw out the baby with the bath water when they decided to shut down manageable institutions like the Fairfield County Childrens’ Home in favor of an out-of-control system that depends heavily on a cross-your-fingers hope that the caregivers will provide stability to a lost child.

As a matter of record, the Venricks are the proud parents of two adopted children, one who spent a short time in the Childrens' Home of their book.  In their humble way, they do not tout this too loudly, but it does give us some insight into their reason for undertaking this endeavor, beyond mere fascination with local history or with an old building that the authors happened to find compelling.

The Venricks’ book is not for those who can only be titillated by a stock romance or a quick-read thriller.  It is for those who love to rummage through old libraries and bookstores, read signposts and epitaphs in out-of-the-way towns, or love to peruse little museums and historical landmarks.  It is also for those who care about the fate of the children in this country.  The Venricks' labor of love is a wonderful new edition to Ohio and American history, a simple but profound testament to what can be achieved when we put human beings -- especially our children -- first.

A. M. Siriano is a DBA/web developer by day and writes for his own website, amsiriano.com, by night

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