April 30, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Orphanages - Warehouses for Children

When we think of orphanages today, images often come to mind of a starving Oliver Twist begging for more porridge or, perhaps, the drunken headmistress in the movie Annie played by Carol Burnett.  And, as with most stereotypes, there is often a kernel of truth associated with these images.  Although most of the founders of orphanages were well-meaning, the very nature of these institutions made then little more than warehouses for children.

Take The State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children that operated in Owatonna, Minnesota, from 1886 to 1945.  Children, from babies all the way up to the age of eighteen, lived there. It was the third largest orphanage in the nation in the 1920’s.  Although adoption was the goal, adoption rates were low and most of the children, if they were placed out at all, were sent out to be indentured servants. Many children spent their entire childhoods in the State School.

The State School is now a museum.  Harvey Ronglien, who lived at the school for eleven years, is often there chatting with visitors about his experiences growing up in Cottage 11.  When his mother died and his father was sent to jail, Harvey and his brothers and sisters were lined up outside the courthouse in Benson, Minnesota.  The townspeople came and took all but two of the children:  Harvey and his brother.  They were both sent to live at the State School.

Looking back, Harvey, writing in the State School News (Vol. 1, No. 1, July 3, 1993) said this:  “As an adult, I came to realize the institutional environment did not provide certain needs a child craves.  Although the environment made us physically strong, it left many of us emotionally deficient.  Emotional starvation is inseparable from institutional life.  Due to its size, individual attention was minimal; consequently children suffered from lack of attention, appreciation, recognition, and love needed for a healthy childhood.  For many it left scars that would last a lifetime.”

Next Topic:  Teen Life Way Back When:  No Cars, No Planes, No Motorcycles - No Kidding!

For additional reading and references, see Extras .

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