A documentary film now making the rounds brings back into focus an institution from American history that might have new relevance today. “Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America’s Orphanages” includes interviews with 15 people who attended these children’s homes before they went into decline in the 1970s.
The movie is touching and informative. The heart of the film is Nelson Farmer, 82, a funny man who — like the others interviewed — spoke fondly of his orphanage. “Everyone needs a place,” Farmer said.
He went to Barium Springs Home for Children in North Carolina, which still operates but now more as a home for troubled children. The film asks audiences to reconsider the orphanage as a social institution and challenges preconceived notions of their operation and contributions.
The film shows how the traditional children’s homes not only helped children whose parents had died, but also in many cases children whose parents were unable to care for them because of ill health, financial problems or imprisonment. Often the parents visited their children on weekends or, when circumstances improved, took the kids back home.
An executive producer of “Homecoming” is Richard B. McKenzie, a University of California-Irvine Graduate School of Management economics professor who was a child at Barium Springs from 1952-60. He has studied orphanages and in 1998 published the book, “Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century.”
He said the documentary was made to counter the image of “orphan life created by the movies, which stands in contrast to the way a lot of alumni experienced it,” to provide “an oral history of people who are literally dying” and to “elevate the discussion” of orphanages so “kids today can have the same advantages I had when confronted with misfortune.”
He said 95 percent of the children who graduated from Barium Springs between 1959 and 1961 went on to college, and half of those earned graduate degrees. From their heyday in the 1930s, when they took care of about 350,000 children, orphanages gradually declined to caring for 70,000 children in the 1970s, after which almost all orphanages were phased out.
McKenzie, who often writes on economic and management issues, said orphanages are making something of a comeback as an alternative to a system in which children often are shuffled among a dozen or more foster homes as they grow up. It’s not clear how many children are in orphanages today, partly because there’s not a clear distinction made between traditional orphanages and homes that take care of troubled children.
He said the best orphanages today don’t take public money. These include Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, founded in 1909 by the chocolate magnate, and Happy Hill Farm Academy/Home in Texas, which has been featured on the Dr. Phil TV show. Both are expanding to help more kids.
Starting an orphanage today, McKenzie said, is made difficult by government regulations that increase the expense of building them, for example by imposing building standards higher than those used even in luxury homes. The best thing government can do is to reduce such regulations to let the private sector further expand orphanages.
For information on future showings of the film in theaters or on TV, the eventual DVD release and McKenzie’s own Web site with research on orphanages, visit the film’s Web site: