Richard Mckenzie orphanages orphans Shin Fujiyama podcast

Dr. Richard Mckenzie, author of several books on orphanages

There are many ways to help orphans and children who have no home to go to, and there is a heated debate to figure out what programs are best or in some cases harmful.

Traditionally, orphanages helped these children. As the years have gone by, foster care, family reunification services, and adoption have become the dominant options. Today, some people are skeptical or even against the idea of orphanages, believing that it’s an outdated and sometimes harmful way of helping these children. Recently, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, tweeted a series of criticisms against orphanages and young people who volunteer in such institutions. In one tweet, she says, “Orphanages cause irreparable damage, even those that are well run.”

Dr. Richard Mckenzie is a professor emeritus of economics and management in the Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. He has taken on a life-long mission to support and advocate for high quality orphanages in the US. As a child, Richard grew up in the Barium Springs Children’s Home in North Carolina. He has conducted research studies and surveys of orphanage alumni, collecting data on their life outcomes.

He is the author of a number of books, including: The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an OrphanageMiracle Mountain: A Hidden Sanctuary for Children, Horses, and Birds Off a Road Less TraveledHome Away From Home: The Forgotten History of Orphanages and Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.

In today’s episode, Dr. Mckenzie defends the role of orphanages in today’s day and age. You can get a quick understanding of both sides of the argument by reading some of these articles:

Against orphanages

Pro-orphanage or neutral

Show Links


Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America’s Orphanages

An award-winning documentary about homecoming events at several orphanages in the US

Show Notes & Summary

  • Why Richard uses the term “orphanage”
  • The different words for orphanage all mean the same thing
  • “Treatment centers” are different–they take kids who have been severely traumatized
  • Richard grew up in an orphanage in North Carolina (Barium Springs Children’s Home) in the 1950s from age ten and got their support to attend university
  • He has bad memories from his childhood living with problematic parents
  • His father was too much of an alcoholic to take care of him and eventually his mother committed suicide
  • Richard became a bad kid, stealing and shoplifting
  • His relatives didn’t want to take care of Richard and in fact wanted him out of sight and out of mind
  • Family preservation or foster care were the norms
  • Kids with behavioral issues often cycle through various foster families
  • His experience in the orphanage was positive
  • His surveys from the 1990s (with 2,500 respondents from 15 different orphanages) revealed that 85% of orphanage alumni had favorable or very favorable experiences growing up in orphanages even though most of these centers were not financially endowed… They had a significantly higher high school graduation rate, college graduation rate (39% higher), and rate of having doctoral degrees than white Americans their age. They also had a higher median income (10-60% higher) than white Americans their age. They had a lower criminal record. 29% reported being very happy compared to the general population where 5% reported being very happy. They suffered less psychological problems. The did report a slightly higher divorce rate than their peers
  • He enjoyed his time living and constantly playing with other boys in their cottage
  • The kids at the orphanage worked at the orphanage farm, developing work ethic and valuable experiences
  • They learned skills like plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, thing that other kids were not exposed to
  • The orphanage had their own school, which was better than the city school
  • They had their own basketball team which was very scrappy, small-bodied, but with a winning record
  • Richard remembers the houseparents, some of them were good, others weren’t
  • Young Richard remembers being told: “It’s not your circumstance that determines how far you’ll go in life. It’s going to be you.”
  • “Their good work [of the people running orphanages] is being unduly trashed.”
  • He gathered 4,000 pages of testimonials from orphanage alumni and most of them wrote raving reviews of their experience growing up
  • Charles Dickens gave orphanages a bad image even though he actually favored orphanages. He did it to give the story some dramatic tension
  • In the 1900s people began to think that orphanages were poorly run
  • In the 1930s and 1940s, studies of institutionalized kids started coming out, with questionable and sometimes appalling and biased study methods where the orphanage kids always had the worst outcomes. Six studies had just 6-15 kids from the samples without knowing if they were randomly selected or not–many of these kids had serious psychological issues. The outcomes often favored foster care, but Richard suspects biased research methods
  • There are many interest groups that want to protect jobs in the foster care industry
  • Many people in the child welfare industry have never visited or investigated an orphanage
  • Why ABC was overwhelmed with what they saw in two modern-day orphanages in the US
  • Richard is looking forward to his orphanage’s homecoming event later in the year, although many alumni have passed away already
  • The orphanage that he grew up in has gone through major changes
  • “If you don’t have dramatic tension in a documentary, you won’t be able to sell it.”
  • The Hebrew Orphans Asylum (a large residential facility for 1,100 kids) still has massive reunion events even though they’ve been closed for decades
  • There are nearly half a million children in foster care in the US
  • Richard spent a week living in the Crossnore School for Children in Need recently to see what life was like for the children there and was impressed
  • The Crossnore School guarantees high school graduation and promises financial support for post-high school education
  • One boy from the school said in response: “We are larger than our biographies. Our pain and hurt are only a small fraction of who we are. We read numerous articles of abuse, neglect, and drug addiction. But few ever tell the real story. That the important part is what comes after the storm. It is who we are now.”
  • Of a pair of twins, one boy ended up at Crossnore and the twin sister stayed at home in a problematic household. The boy graduated with honors from NYU whereas the sister dropped out of high school.
  • Child welfare workers in the foster care industry were reluctant to share information with Richard
  • Many kids in foster care get moved around constantly from one family to another
  • Some judges call kids in foster care as the “plastic bag brigade” because they go from one family to another carrying their belongings in plastic bag
  • There is an organization that dedicates itself to giving suitcases to foster care kids
  • The chief family court judge in San Diego got tired of the foster care system and built a children’s home outside San Diego for 125 kids–each kid had gone through 7-8 foster care placements
  • Everyone in the community supported this orphanage because they wanted an alternative to foster care because they found that 56% of kids who aged out of foster care at 18 were homeless within 3 months, and a disproportionate number of these kids who ended up in the penal system
  • One girl had to go through 8 different foster families during her first two months of her freshman year of high school
  • Family reunification services haven’t met their promises and sometimes does harm to kids
  • Many parents are not loving or responsible. Some are mean, physically abusive, sexually abusive. It’s easy for these parents to hide these things from family reunification services, forcing kids to be with abusive and/or neglectful parents
  • Kinship care sounds like a great solution but sometimes relatives can molest or sexually abuse the child, leading to more toxicity and the child getting sent to yet another home
  • The orphanage critics always say “Children will always do better with loving and responsible parents.” Policy makers buy into that ideology.
  • According to Richard, not having loving and responsible parents is the problem.
  • Kids need permanence and stability and alternatives to orphanages do not always offer that
  • Foster families sometimes give preferential treatment to their biological children over foster children
  • The Bucharest Early Intervention Project studied the outcomes of children who grew up in Romanian orphanages with terrible conditions
  • Communist Romania had some bad orphanages and if you study the outcomes of such orphanages you’re going to find problems
  • “Nobody is recommending duplicating orphanages like the ones in Romania.”
  • Father Marc’s organization in Haiti, Free the Kids, houses 600 kids
  • Dr. Kate Whetten from Duke University followed 3,000 orphaned kids in 5 low-income countries in Africa and southeast Asia in a study. The kids in the orphanage care do as well or better than the kids who were reared in biological families and better than in foster care. The orphanage kids are far less subject to sexual violations.
  • “You can have children’s home that do good.”
  • J.K. Rowling’s (author of Harry Potter) recent criticism and condemnation of orphanages on Twitter and her anti-orphanage and anti-volunteering campaign. She has no data to back up her claims
  • Richard responds to her criticism, stating that even though most orphans have at least one living parent, in many cases those parents and relatives should not or are incapable of taking care of these kids
  • There is a dark side to foster care payments and stipends for the parents of kids who go through family reunification
  • It’s much easier to monitor the progress of the children in an orphanage compared to scattering the kids between dozens of locations
  • Dr. Mckenzie agrees that the high cost-per-child to support children in orphanages is a legitimate concern
  • Orphanage care is oftentimes more expensive because the kids tend to have more serious problems (e.g., they have to first be turned down by 10 foster families before entering Crossnore)
  • It costs about $60,000 per child per year at Crossnore ($30,000 for basic care and $30,000 for academic services)
  • The key is to get the kids into the orphanages sooner, before they are “damaged goods”
  • The Children in Families First Act of 2013 would prevent government funding to support orphanages that are not treatment centers. If this law comes to fruition, kids will see more problems
  • “What we need in this country is a change in attitude towards orphanages.”
  • The US needs someone like Sam Walton who could figure out a way to provide care at a good price to show the world that children’s homes can work
  • “We need a menu of options for kids.”
  • There is a growth in failed adoptions where kids end up with families who should have never adopted, kids have serious problems that the families were not aware of or prepared for, or the parents get a divorce
  • Some kids in Crossnore were involved with failed adoptions
  • Foster families may not take in large groups of siblings and these siblings get separated into different families. With orphanages, sibling groups can stay together
  • There are camps where siblings living in different foster families can reunite for a few weeks to be together
  • Private organizations and churches are stepping away from child welfare services as the government is taking over. Richard thinks that we need to reverse this.
  • For Richard and Phyllis, children need hugs
  • Reports say that 60% of Americans have lost faith in the American Dream, but Richard’s upcoming survey of orphanage alumni have shown that 91% of orphanage alumni said they have lived the American Dream
  • Richard will be coming out with several new studies on life outcomes of orphanage alumni
  • Richard publicly thanks the staff members who brought him up at the orphanage