Israeli youth villages raise kids from troubled homes

What is the future for the world’s orphans?

D. Macarov, Ph.D.

Without the slightest bit of empirical data, I venture to say that many of us in this room – perhaps most of us – are orphans, and many of us are double orphans. But after the shock and the sadness and the mourning that we experienced, we went on with our lives. We accepted the death of parents as part of the progression of generations – indeed, as a universal rite of passage.

This is not true of children bereft of their parents at an early age, for whom not only the shock of unex- pected loss, but the subsequent absence of a parent – and often both parents — with all that this entails, has an impact not only on their immediate situations, but on their and our futures.

There is no general agreement as to how many child orphans there are in the world. (ppw-2). But, no matter how defined or counted, the world obviously contains an enormous number of child orphans. The largest number are in Asia and Africa, and the most frequent cause of parental death in those areas today is HIV-AIDS.

In many societies orphans are taken in by relatives, and Africa has a particularly strong tradition in this respect. However, the United Nations reports that the extended family there is “collapsing under the weight of the HIV-AIDS crisis” (ppw-3).

The tragedy of these millions of orphans has not been overlooked by governmental, religious and/or humanitarian organizations, or even by individuals. There are over a hundred thousand orphan relief agen- cies throughout the world, and although one tends to think only of the large, well-financed, government- or UN-financed agencies, the number and diversity of these agencies is impressive (ppw-4). The goals and activities of these groups should not be disrespected. The Talmud tells us that he who saves one life is as though he had saved the world. Nevertheless, the question arises as to why — despite all these organizations, efforts and activities — does the problem of orphans continue to exist and to grow? There are, among other reasons, insufficient motivation, lack of resources, structural difficulties, and little coordination.

However, the major deterrent to larger-scale rescue of orphans is an ideological one. This is the widely held and deeply-believed assumption that children can grow up properly – no matter how that is defined – only if their childhood takes place in a family – or a family-like – setting.

To even hint that live-in institutions can be healthy for children is often to create an emotional reaction that makes further discussion impossible. Family based childcare has become one of “Those terms that every- one supports, since no one can dare to be seen to contest it.” (ppw-5)

In fact, this blind belief in the virtue of families has taken on a quasi-religious aspect: It is almost blasphe- mous, and certainly heretical, to intimate that families may not be the best places for bringing up children. This has been expressed as: “Families have a sacred right to be together” (Kaufman, 2007). (ppw-6) Perhaps the most extreme expression of this belief in families is attributed to former Mayor LaGuardia, who said: “The worst mother is better than the best institution” (Goodwin, 1994). (ppw-6)

This article of faith – that only families, or small pseudo-families — can properly take care of children — pervades the efforts and guides the activities of almost every organization, institution, or agency devoted to the welfare of children. In many cases, it is stated explicitly in their literature (pp-w7). Even when it is not so explicitly stated, the superiority of family care over institutions is clearly and widely assumed. Therefore, all organizations that attempt to aid children — whether orphans, handicapped, destitute or lawbreakers – automatically rule-out large institutions in advance and opt for families, be these biological, extended, adoptive, foster or simulated. As McCall (1999a) says: “The bias against the orphanage care option dominates the child care profession.”

In accordance with this ideology, enormous efforts are expended to provide family-like settings for relatively small numbers of orphans. UNICEF, for example, limits orphans in its institutions to eight or ten to a house, and the number of houses in a village to ten. Thus, a hundred children is the maximum in such a setting. Similarly, SOS villages consist of about ten group homes, each with six to eight children. As a result of these ideologically-driven policies, SOS – for example — deals with a total of 60,000 children world-wide, and Boys Town with 45,000. This, in the face of the hundred millions of orphans noted above. The result is a cruel triage, in which care considered to be optimal is offered to the tiny minority, while the overwhelming majority of the world’s orphans are left with neither hope nor possibility.

This has frightening future implications. What will be the morals, attitudes, knowledge and activities of millions of people growing up without any formal framework? Not only will they find their places in prosti- tution, drugs and virtual slavery, they will be ripe for exploitation by any number of ideologies and entities – youth gangs and organized crime, military groups, and pseudo-religious sects. What seems certain is that it will be almost impossible for these orphans to grow up into moral, polite, altruistic adults, unless their present lives are greatly changed.

Given this situation, the important question arises as to whether the belief in the exclusive efficacy of family-like settings in child-rearing has any empirical basis, or – conversely – are institutions inherently harmful? For starters, consider the fact that almost all the research on children’s institutions seems to emphasize bad settings. As one researcher remarks, “There are children’s homes and orphan asylums where tenderness and love prevail; where mirth and jollity are contagious; where weary heads find a pillow on gentle bosoms; where generous diet is prescribed by medical advice and served by liberal hands,” (ppw-7+) but this is not the model envisioned by most people.

On a more pragmatic basis, the operative question is whether the experience of growing up in an orphan- age produces adults who differ in substantial, important and measureable ways from those who grew up in families or from the general population?

This presentation is basically a report concerning the search for an empirical basis for the popular and sometimes official belief concerning orphans in institutions. I have spent the last several years trying to find large-scale, reliable, empirical studies comparing orphans who grew up in institutions with adults who grew up in other settings. I have reviewed the articles in twenty-four professional journals dealing with children, covering the last ten years. (ppw-8) I have asked colleagues and attendees at various confer- ences to direct me toward such studies. I have written to orphan-care organizations for the results of their studies. The reply by a member of the UNICEF staff is typical: “We have not been able to identify any empirical longitudinal, panel-type studies comparing outcomes later in life of children who grew up in institutions with those who grew up in family settings.” (ppw-9) In other words, UNICEF – like other such organizations – has no factual basis for its insistence on small, family-like groups, and doesn’t even seek such proof. As a result of my inquiries, the longest follow-up study of institutionalized children – outside Israel — that I have been able to find, with one exception, is for only four years after discharge from the institution, which hardly reflects adulthood.

The one exception mentioned above is a study of graduates of orphan homes, conducted at two nine-year intervals, in California, which found “As a group, the ‘orphans’ have outpaced their counterparts in the general population by significant measures on practically all social and economic measures covered, not the least of which are education, income and attitude toward life” (McKenzie, 1997, p. 87). (ppw-10) Consequently, I am led to the conclusion that the so-called permanent negative effect of institutional living is a myth, at least where it comes to orphans. A myth is defined as something that large numbers of people believe, but for which there is no proof. As Dennett (2006) says: “Sometimes falsehoods and myths that are ‘common wisdom’ can survive indefinitely simply because the prospect of exposing them is itself rendered daunting or awkward by a taboo. An indefensible mutual presumption can be kept aloft for years or even centuries because each person assumes that somebody else has some very good reason for maintaining it, and nobody dares to challenge it.” (ppw-11)

Let me emphasize again that despite long-continued and wide-spread searches for empirical proof that childcare institutions produce problematic adults, I have not been able to locate a single one. In the absence of a body of empirical research — or even one individual study — on the long-term effects of child institutionalization, it is instructive to turn to experiential evidence, best exemplified by the Israeli experience.

The kibbutz
From the beginning of the kibbutz (collective village) movement in Israel, there were separate facilities for infants, children and adolescents. This arose from the tradition that children should be raised by trained childcare experts, and was “unique in that the children lived in the children’s homes from birth on. There was contact with the parents only in after-work hours and on holidays” (Yaffe, 2000). Kibbutz members who grew up in children’s and youth houses have been found to be no less adjusted and effective within Israeli society than others, and – in fact – often became the leaders in many fields of education, medicine, government, etc. On a more empirical note, a nine-year-long study of the moral development of kibbutz children as compared to children coming from outside the kibbutz found that, “There were no significant differences in moral-issue choices between kibbutz and non-kibbutz subjects.”

Youth Aliyah
Another experience bearing on children raised in large-scale settings relates to early attempts to rescue the children in Nazi Germany by sending them to Palestine. The first group of forty-three children arrived in 1934. The movement was named Youth Aliyah (“Ascent of Youth”) . At the end of the war in Europe the first group of children who had been imprisoned in death camps and had survived death marches were brought to Palestine. The most natural institutions to absorb these children were the kibbutzim mentioned above, since they already had infants’ houses, children’s houses and youth houses. Consequently, the absorption of small numbers of refugee children was not difficult for them. However, most kibbutzim were themselves small, and the number of children they could deal with was limited. As waves of immigrants continued to arrive, the device of youth villages was necessarily adopted. The six hundred thousand Jews living in Israel at the emergence of the State received and absorbed over two million new immigrants during the first few years. Thus, new, large institutions were needed. The tradition of children and youth living in their own community, with responsibilities, democratic decision-making, and individual choice – as exemplified in the kibbutz children’s and youth houses – was extended to the many non-kibbutz children’s villages subsequently established.

The largest of the non-kibbutz youth villages had a population of 1200 children. There seems to have been no educational or physical limits to the expansion of this village, in which the population ebbed and flowed according to need. Housing in youth villages was mostly dormitory style, with fifteen to forty chil- dren in each building. There was a central dining room, and various activity rooms. In addition to full- fledged educational programs, activities were centered around agriculture, with a heavy addition of cultural activities. Regardless of age at time of entry, the villages were structured to take care of the children until they could enter into normal Israeli society.

Within the villages there were groupings according to age, and each group had the leadership of educa- tional, recreational, and social teachers and counselors. There was a heavy use of volunteers – often from Israeli youth movements, and sometimes as a national service provided by the army.

The structure of the children’s village allowed for as much autonomy as possible on the part of groups, with children’s committees, councils and task-forces a prominent feature. Many villages published their own newspapers. Punishment for anti-social behavior usually took the form of exclusion from certain activi- ties, such as a hike, a visit to a city, etc.

At present, there are 300 residential education programs in Israel, and over 300,000 Israelis are graduates of Youth Aliyah villages. There does not seem to be any discrimination or prejudice concerning adults who grew up in youth villages and those who grew up in families. On the contrary, “The residential villages of Youth Aliyah are very prestigious in Israeli society…some of the leading elites were formed in the residen- tial villages of Youth Aliyah” Recent studies indicate that 90% of Youth Aliyah students are mainstreamed into regular high schools, with 85% accepted into the Israel Defense Forces, which administers psychological, emotional and other tests to recruits.

This is not to infer that there are no problems in childcare institutions. However, given the massive number of children in need throughout the world, the lesson to be learned is that efforts should be made to improve institutions so that they can deal properly with more children, rather than to remove the small number for whom other arrangements can be found. There is a tentative gleam of light beginning to appear for millions of orphans, and that is a movement to shift focus away from getting children out of institutions, to establishing, enlarging and improving the settings — like children’s villages – that can give optimal care to much larger numbers. One example is the Israeli children’s village of Yemin Orde, with five hundred children in residence. Follow-up research among adult graduates of this village indicates successful integration into the larger society, with no significant detrimental effects. Indeed, so successful have large children’s villages been in Israel that the model is being exported to Rwanda, where the first village for five hundred children is under construction. There is also an international organization called CORE (Coalition for Residential Education) dedicated to the improvement of residential institutions. If such efforts and institutions can be continued and expanded, the number of orphans who receive care may be greatly increased.

The relentless rise in the number of orphans — and particularly AIDS-related orphans — throughout the world demands new methods of developmental help. The use of large-scale children’s villages, instead of the presently preferred small family-like settings, is urgently necessary. There is no scientific evidence that such villages are inherently less effective than smaller settings, and good reason to believe that they are better than the present method. There is certainly no evidence at all that as adults the children will be different in any essential way from the rest of the population. The number of orphans who could be helped by using large-scale methods is far greater than those currently being cared for. Failure to deal with the problem of the world’s orphans on a massive basis may create more than a generation of rootless, amoral, illiterate persons, with implications of great social upheavals. Children’s villages can alleviate the situation for many of them, and it is simply immoral not to use them.