The rebuilding of Boys' Town

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The Independent Online
Which politician would be so bold, especially at this time of year, as to suggest that America should solve its poor and battered children problem by bringing back orphanages? Newt Gingrich, of course. With Salvation Army bands striking up Christm as carols in front of the bedecked halls of Macy's and Lord & Taylor, there was the new leader of the victorious Republicans on television calling for orphanages.

Now if Gingrich, the "family values man", had talked about "congregate care facilities", as orphanages came to be called in America before they became "group homes" a decade ago, or if he had called them "community refugee centres", as they may yet be known if the Republicans prevail, then the explosive reaction might have been delayed, at least until after the holiday season. But orphanages is what Newt the Scrooge said - and orphanages is what he meant.

Being a Southerner (from Georgia), Gingrich should at least have heard of the problems of children orphaned by the Civil War, but he seems oblivious to the horrors oforphanages in the North, especially those in New York. There were 27 in New York state in 1850. A century later a handful remained but were run so badly by local authorities that there were constant reports of disease and fire hazards and scalding tap water. They were shut down, but the images remain.

Faced with the prospect of their return, the nation divided instantly according to which Hollywood portrayal of orphanages fitted their ideology. For a conservative like Gingrich it was the 1938 film Boys' Town, a fictional account of an actual orphanagein Nebraska. Spencer Tracy played the head, Father Flanagan, and Mickey Rooney, America's favourite adolescent, played the street kid who was turned into a wholesome youth dripping with God-fearing values. Tracy won an Oscar.

Liberals shot back with suggestions of their own. Go see David Copperfield, Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby and catch up with reality, they suggested.

But with almost all Americans - even the Clintons - agreeing that welfare reform is needed, many thought Gingrich might have a point and were ready to say so, even at the risk of seeming uncharitable. Patrick Murphy, New York's deputy police commissioner, was typical of those who did not immediately recoil at the thought of a return to things past. Murphy recalled how he and his three brothers had found security and love at the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin. "We were all respectful of the nuns,'' said Murphy. "Now, you have a 12-year-old shooting a 13-year-old. You have a kid killing a cop for a bike."

There is a huge increase in the number of children requiring care - up from 300,000 to at least 460,000 since 1987 - and the system cannot cope. Under Gingrich's proposals the situation would be even worse. Half the 9.7 million children supported by the federal aid would lose their financial support.

Gingrich and his pals want to solve the welfare crisis by cutting off benefits for women, especially young, single mothers who will then, it is assumed, hand over the children they can no longer look after to childcare institutions. They are anything butDickensian child warehouses. Properly run, these group homes have substitute house parents and medical and teaching staff. The cost of keeping a child is between $30,000 and $50,000. Compare that with $12,000 to £14,000 for each child in foster care, and the $8,000 given to a poverty-level mother for each child.

The idea that the charities can pick up the financial shortfall is fanciful. One third of the cost of residential care for youngsters is now borne by churches and charities, but that seems to be about the limit of America's private purse. Those homes arealready oversubscribed and short of funds. For example, the modern-day Boys' Town in Nebraska rejects nine children for every one admitted. And the costs are going up all the time because the children have more problems: 80 per cent of girls who arrive at Boys' Town have been sexually abused; 90 per cent of the children at the Mount St Joseph-St Elizabeth Home in San Francisco have alcohol and drug problems.

The foster-care system is also falling apart, mostly for lack of funds. The pay for foster parents is not enough to keep a child in food and clothing, and having a foster-child can be a full-time job, especially with a teenager. Between 1985 and 1990 thenumber of families participating in foster care dropped 27 per cent.

Orphanages are only part of what the Republicans have in mind with their plan to reverse a six-decade-old trend, dating from the New Deal, in which social programmes were directed from Washington. The plan calls for $60bn cuts in federal programmes that provide cash, food, job training, childcare, foster care and other services. More than 100 social programmes would be replaced with block grants to state governments, which would then have a virtual free hand in redesigning aid to the poor.

With anti-welfare conservative governors firmly in place across the South - and some new ones in the North, too - the chances of a return to Victorian child warehouses look high. Merry Christmas, Newt.