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Do Orphanages Still Exist in America?

The Truth About “Adopting an Orphan”

When some people first consider adopting a child, they wonder, “Do orphanages still exist? Can you adopt orphans in America? If so, how?”

Orphanages are common in pop-culture adoption stories — but the truth about modern orphanages in the U.S. is a lot different.

While there are still many children in need of permanent adoptive homes, today’s domestic adoptions no longer involve traditional orphanages.

Instead, U.S. orphanages have been replaced with an improved foster care system and private adoption agencies like American Adoptions.

Interested? Learn more about modern “orphanages” below.

The History of Orphanages in America

Prior to the establishment of organized orphanages in the 1800s, children whose families could not care for them often were placed with relatives or neighbors informally and without the involvement of the court. But with an explosion of immigrants arriving in the United States, there was also an explosion in children who needed a place to stay. Many children lost their parents to epidemics, while others were surrendered by families living in poverty or struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Orphanage homes and other similar institutions began springing up to fulfill this need.

While orphanages were often the best option available to children with nowhere else to go, they sometimes lacked the necessary staff, structure and resources to adequately care for all of the children in need. As a result, some orphanages were overcrowded, and children lived in poor conditions.

In the mid-1800s, a reformer named Charles Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society to address the issue of these overcrowded institutions. The Society was founded on the belief that children would do better placed in families than living on the streets or in crowded American orphanages.

Brace’s solution was to create an “Orphan Train,” a program which placed homeless children on the railways and sent them out west, where they could be chosen by families who had been pre-approved by local committees, making adopting directly from an orphanage in a rural setting easier. This system literally “put orphans up for adoption” on the train platforms, where adoptive families could choose their desired orphan child from a lineup. This early form of “placing out” is now considered the beginning of the modern foster care system.

At the turn of the century, reformers influenced by the Progressive Movement began questioning the orphanage system and laying the groundwork for a more modern child welfare system. The orphan trains stopped in 1930 due to a decreased need for farm labor in the Midwest and the reformed thinking that the government should help preserve struggling families. Traditional orphanages in the United States began closing following World War II, as public social services were on the rise.

Did You Know?

By the 1950s, more children lived in foster homes than in orphanages in the United States, and by the 1960s, foster care had become a government-funded program.

U.S. adoption policy and procedures, as well as child protection laws, began to take shape, leading to the demise of traditional orphanages in America, which were replaced with individual and small group foster homes. The reformers pushing for this change argued that children would do better placed in homes, where they could receive personalized care and individual attention, than in institutions. By the 1950s, more children lived in foster homes than in orphanages in the United States, and by the 1960s, foster care had become a government-funded program.

Since then, U.S. orphanages have gone extinct entirely. In their place are some modern boarding schools, residential treatment centers and group homes, though foster care remains the most common form of support for children who are waiting for adoption or reunification with their families. Foster care agencies — the modern form of “orphan adoption agencies” — work to preserve families where possible and find the best homes when not.

In addition, domestic adoption agencies like American Adoptions can help pregnant mothers find homes for their newborn babies and infants without them ever entering the foster care system.

These modern foster care and adoption options serve all types of families and children who need support — not just “orphans,” or children who have lost their parents. In fact, children who lose both their parents often are placed directly into relative care following their parents’ deaths — not in foster care or placed for adoption.

Most children in foster care have at least one living biological parent and are in placement for completely unrelated reasons than having just one parent. Similarly, those adopted as infants are not “orphans”; their birth parents made the difficult choice to place them with a new family but often remain a part of their child’s life through open adoption.

So, Are There Orphanages in the U.S.?

Essentially, no. The adoption process in the United States no longer involves traditional orphanages. Today, there are three primary forms of domestic adoption: a child may be adopted from the foster care system, as an infant in a private adoption or as a relative or stepchild of the adoptive parents. Relative or stepparent adoptions are the most common form of domestic adoption today. In these arrangements, a stepparent or relative becomes the legal parent for his or her spouse’s or relative’s child.

Adopting from the foster care system is the closest modern domestic adoptions come to adopting from an orphanage in the U.S. When a child is placed in foster care and his or her parent’s rights have been legally terminated, that child may be adopted. However, these children are typically not “orphans,” and not every child in foster care is legally adoptable. Many are waiting to be reunified with their parents, whose parental rights have not been terminated. About 100,000 of the 400,000 children currently in the system are waiting to be adopted, either by their foster parents or by adoptive families who have not fostered before.

The third type of adoption in the United States is domestic infant adoption. American Adoptions is a fully licensed, not-for-profit national domestic adoption agency that performs domestic infant adoptions across the nation. In this type of adoption, hopeful adoptive parents are matched with an expectant mother during her pregnancy and then adopt the baby when he or she is born.

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Are There Still Orphanages in Other Countries?

In addition to the three forms of domestic adoption, there is international adoption. While orphanage adoption is a thing of the past in the United States, hopeful parents who wonder how to adopt a child from an orphanage should look into international adoption.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 18 million orphans currently living in orphanages or on the streets. Families adopting from countries like China and Haiti commonly adopt from these orphanages. However, it is important to keep in mind that not all children in orphanages are adoptable, and not all will qualify as an orphan under U.S. immigration law. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the definition of an orphan is a child who has experienced “the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents.” If a child does not fit the definition of orphan, this can limit his or her ability to immigrate to the United States.

In many countries without a foster care system, orphanages are sometimes used as temporary homes for children whose parents are working toward reunification. For example, parents who are experiencing financial hardship may place their children in an orphanage until they are able to care for them. International adoptive parents should do careful research and work with reputable organizations with extensive experience in handling international adoptions to ensure the child they are adopting truly is an orphan in need of an adoptive home. 

While you can’t “adopt an orphan baby” in the United States today, there are plenty of ways to provide a child with a loving, stable home. By adopting from the U.S. foster care system, an international orphanage or an agency like American Adoptions, adoptive parents can still make a difference in a child’s life. 

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