2007-12-14 / Columnists

The Progressive

Child Care
Commentary By John Paul Culotta

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with an elderly, but rather youthful, 82-year-old woman. She told me that she was raised in a mansion on Staten Island. She told me this with a sardonic, cheerful smile. She then told me she was a resident of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, an orphanage. Her mother was ill and her alcoholic father left her and her siblings in the care of the Roman Catholic Church. Her memories of her experiences at the orphanage were positive.

She reminded me that during the Great Depression of the '30s, many youngsters did not have the material sustenance the residents of the orphanage had. She graduated from high school in a time when only a small percentage of young people were able to accomplish this. I read recently that less than 40 percent of Americans were high school graduates in 1957. Her first trip to a Broadway show occurred when in the orphanage. Many of us know and remember that others do not have the same memories of orphanages.

Father John C. Drumgoole was instrumental in creating the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, because the mass migration of people from Europe caused major social upheaval. In around 1850, as many as 30,000 children roamed this city's streets without any means of support. These urchins lived miserable lives. Crime was rampant. One hundred boys were arrested each day and put in jail with hardened criminals. Fifty percent of these boys had venereal diseases.

In 1875, the ASPCA was established to protect animals. At the time, there was no legislation to protect abused children. The young street urchins who roamed our city's streets were often drunk, abused sexually (especially young girls), and involved in all types of brutal crimes. Prostitution of young virgins was a major industry.

These conditions cried out for a solution. The Protestant adoption agencies supported sending these unfortunate young children west on orphan trains, bound for adoption by midwestern and western families. Catholics also did this, but also built the largest orphanage in our country on Staten Island to care for children without families.

Today, many families still are not capable of raising their children and these children are placed in foster care. In 1995, the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, which was also in the foster care business, was closed. The Mission now helps autistic, emotionally and/or developmentally challenged children, and runs a senior center. There is a summer camp for economically disadvantaged children.

It is crucial for this nation to recognize that all children must have sufficient economic support. Our economic priorities should be to help families remain whole and secure. All family units, including the non-traditional, need recognition and support. Economic policies are needed that ensure families are provided steady and rewarding employment opportunities that guarantee a decent standard of living. Parents working two or three jobs, and excessive overtime without health insurance, are unacceptable. Family life suffers when parents endure such a stressful life just to make ends meet.

Adequate and affordable child care for working parents should be a priority. Educational opportunities, both vocational and at the university level, should be affordable or free for all children. Health care should be affordable and universal. Parenting support and guidance in times of family stress can also help families succeed.

We need to recognize that adoption is often the best solution to a dysfunctional family unit. It is also imperative to recognize the weakness of the present state- and city-run foster care system across this nation. Our society needs to demand that a convention be held among our individual states and the federal government, to create a uniform standard for foster care and adoption needs. Reform of the system is a moral imperative. It is also in our self-interest to do so. Children who are abused become a disruptive force when they reach adulthood, often becoming abusers, in turn. Our society cannot allow the foster care system to be a cash cow for agencies that do not adequately serve their charges. Children and their interests must be our paramount concern. Recently, the New York Times ran a series of articles regarding childcare agencies that do not meet the criteria a civilized society would find acceptable. Children in their care are among our most vulnerable. These children belong to all of us.

Postscript: Father Drumgoole has a major thoroughfare and public school named after him on Staten Island.

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