Yesterday two of my sons, Rand (18) and Anthony "Tony" (11), and I visited the Minnesota Orphanage Museum in Owatonna. Officially chartered in 1885 as the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children, over 10,000 walked through its doors until the mid-1940's when it was closed. Less than 5% of those children were ever adopted. Many of the children spent their entire "youth" in this institution until "aging out" at the age of eighteen. Over the years, especially in the early years, some of the children were subjected to "indenture contracts" which made them little more servants in a family. The contract stipulated that at the end of their indenture the family was responsible for providing them something like $200 and 2 sets of clothing. During the time they lived with the family they were to work, attend school at least four months of twelve, and were provided with food and board. It shocks me to think that as recently as seventy years ago this is the way "wards of the state" subsisted.
The visit to the Orphanage Museum was, in part, to fulfill academic requirements for both of these boys who are in a charter school, but largely it was for us to think together about what life might have been like for them had they been born seventy years earlier in our state. Rand, in particular, who is bi-racial, would have not fared very well. Those who lived at the State School as recently as the 1930s recall the difficulties for children whose heritage was non-white or of mixed heritage. (Check the museum website above for a number of written recollections that confirm what I write here).
As we arrived I said to my sons, "You realize that if you had been born seventy years ago you might very well have lived here?" Fortunately, they didn't seem too concerned by that thought. I say fortunately, because they have adapted well to living in our family (Tony, after all was only 20 months when he came to live with us, and Rand, while 11 when he arrived, has done well with what we have offered him), and they feel such security that they don't need to wonder what "it might have been like."
I, however, having navigated the child protective services systems over the past decade or more, was not quite as unplussed. The museum is not large (three corridors in what was once the main building) and the campus has been converted into other uses (the City of Owatonna and others use many of the buildings formerly occupied by the State School), but there is yet an unsettled sense about the campus.
I am, admittedly, a strongly intuitive person, so my experience yesterday was a deeply unsettling one for me. The displays are factual and well balanced with detail. Both positive and negative are dutifully recorded in the historic documentation, but it's not the documentation that creates angst within my soul.
It is the sense of years and years of unsettled life and crushed emotional capacity that haunt me as I consider my hour on the campus. In the picture to the left is a memorial only recently dedicated in honor and memory of the thousands of children who passed through the doors of the campus over the years. Many of the children entered the Orphanage as part of a sibling group, and many were separated from their siblings, even while living on the same campus. The intention was not necessarily to institutionalize the children, but many of the children stayed there for their complete childhood.
Perhaps most troubling to me, however, is the orphan's cemetery, located in the southwest corner of the campus. Here lie nearly 200 children, average age of four, whose families were unable or unwilling to claim their lifeless bodies through the years. Early on the state erected a small marble stone to mark the site of each child's interment, but within a short period of time there were only concrete, numbered markers for the others. How horrifying that these children, who were unable to experience early love and nurture in their young lives, were not even accorded the dignity of a name upon their death. Blessedly, several have stepped forward in the past few years to provide a simple, dignified cross with name and birth and death dates for those who lie in this secluded corner of the campus. As we walked through the cemetery my 11-year-old son said, "Dad, if it looks like I'm crying, it's just because I have something in my eye." I looked at him through tears of my own and simply said, "I understand."
And so I reflect upon how different the picture in 2006 is than it would have been in 1936. In 2006 an adoptive parent with two sons walks through a campus, thinking of the more than 10,000 "wards of the state" who called this "home." In 1936 the grounds were filled with nearly 500 children, a very few who would have been adopted, a fair number of whom would have been "placed out" in one arrangement or another, and a large number who would know no other mother than the "matron" of his or her cottage, no other father than the administrators of the school, no other home than the institutional walls, bedding and clothing that comprised life in the State School. In 2006 my children and I can be visitors, walking back to our own car when we finish and drive home to a comfortable house with people who love one another, to a relatively "ordinary" life.
Like 1936, however, there are thousands of children who continue to linger in foster care, an institutional placement of yet another kind. While in seventy years we as a society have progressed in our thinking about children's issues, we have still not come far enough. When 120,000 a year call the impermanency of foster care "home," we have not done enough.