Group Resurrects Call for Modern Orphanages

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A Washington group that assists residential schools is working to advance a proposal for modern-day orphanages that would both house and educate at-risk youths.

The idea is winning support from many conservatives and being shunned by leading child-welfare organizations.

Regardless of philosophical differences, Heidi Goldsmith, the executive director of the International Center for Residential Education, says boarding schools, particularly for poor children and those in foster care, would give youths a more permanent home and keep them out of trouble.

"We want to add this option for many kids to prevent further emotional problems," said Ms. Goldsmith, who founded the Washington-based center in 1993 and serves as a consultant to existing schools around the country. "If you can catch them, and give them a 24-hour nurturing environment, they may not get to the point where they need the juvenile-justice system."

These homes, Ms. Goldsmith argues, would provide poor children with the same kind of elite educational experiences that many wealthy families choose and could cut down on multiple placements for those in foster care.

And while she supports the new Adoption and Safe Families Act, signed by President Clinton in November, she doesn't believe that the law will provide families for all children who need them. The law is meant to reduce the time children are in foster care and prevent them from being returned to homes where they have been abused or neglected.

"The kids that are not going to be adopted--what are they going to do?" said Ms. Goldsmith, who recently appeared on National Empowerment Television, a conservative cable network, to share her message.

Boys Town or Oliver Twist?

House Speaker Newt Gingrich sparked a fierce debate in late 1994 when he suggested placing poor children in orphanages. Supporters talked about "Boys Town," the Nebraska home for troubled youths as portrayed in the classic movie about the work of the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan; critics preferred to use images of the thieving and mistreated street urchins in Oliver Twist.

Since Ms. Goldsmith and her group resurrected the issue at a press conference in Washington last month, they have tried to minimize the furor that surrounded Mr. Gingrich's proposal.

The discussion has been "cantankerous for no reason at all," said Andrew Hahn, a human services research professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

"America's portfolio of interventions requires us to have a set of residential options for children," said Mr. Hahn, who serves on the residential education center's board of advisers and specializes in youth-development issues.

Traditional orphanages, run by churches and charitable organizations, served children whose parents were dead. But most of those closed by the 1940s. Some that remain--including what is now called Father Flanagan's Boys' Home--have changed their mission and now serve as treatment facilities for delinquent or emotionally disturbed teenagers.

What Ms. Goldsmith envisions are schools that would serve middle-school-age and older children, be educationally "relevant," with computers and other current technology, and incorporate a heavy emphasis on community service.

And examples of such schools do exist. The Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa., serves 1,100 boys and girls ages 4 to 18, providing both academic and vocational education. Most students come from low-income, single-parent homes.

Charter Potential

Ms. Goldsmith also believes charter school laws are a likely vehicle for creating new public residential schools.

One such school, the Boston University Residential Charter School, opened in November in Granby, Mass. Located in a former convent, the school has accepted only day students because it has yet to receive a license that would permit students to live on site.

Ed Gotgart, the head of the school, expects to begin accepting residential students this month.

The school, which serves at-risk 7th through 12th graders who are struggling in regular schools, will receive money from both the state education and social services departments--funds that would otherwise be used to house children in foster homes.

The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Labor, also operates residential schools for older teenagers and young adults through the Job Corps. The educational program emphasizes vocational skills, but students can also earn a General Educational Development diploma if they haven't graduated from high school.

"There is no one perfect model of a residential school," Ms. Goldsmith said, adding that one of her center's goals is to compose a directory of schools. "There are a bunch of separate programs. None of them really shares best practices."

Better Training

Joyce Johnson, the spokeswoman for the Washington-based Child Welfare League, said that residential placement is one option for children in foster care. But she said Ms. Goldsmith's call for more facilities was unnecessary.

"We would not blanketly say that there is a shortage of good foster parents," Ms. Johnson said. Instead, she recommends that the emphasis be on better training for foster families and on trying to keep children with their parents in the first place.

She added that she doesn't think orphanages can employ enough qualified staff members to meet the complex needs that abused or abandoned children face.

"Children today are a lot different," Ms. Johnson said. "They're in the system for different reasons than they were many years ago."

Rather than ask for more money from federal, state, and local lawmakers, Ms. Goldsmith would prefer that they give schools the freedom to "bundle together existing resources" spent on education, social services, and juvenile justice, as well as private funds. "We're not asking the government to spend a whole big fortune," she said.

But Ms. Goldsmith admits that it will be hard to win support because people misunderstand the concept and see these orphanages as cold and faceless institutions.

She is working to change that, in part by raising their visibility through media coverage and guided tours for congressional aides.

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