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BOREL OPINION COLUMN: Orphanages vs. Foster Homes

Updated on June 24, 2008

Loving Parentless Children Costs No Money


by Helen Borel, PhD

Introduction A little less than 20 years ago I sent the below letter to The New York Times in response to an item the paper printed which advocated orphanages over foster care for children whose own parents were dead, ill, or otherwise unable to parent them. Basically, my letter points out a principle universally viable and forever true: It costs adults zero dollars to emotionally nurture and love children. Your opinions about my (following) letter are more than welcome.

Orphanages are Not Good Substitutes for Real Parents I disagree that orphanage care is a viable alternative to foster care - even though foster care has many inherent problems as well.

What infants and children miss that causes arrested intrapsychic development is emotional nurturance - either by abuse or by neglect or abandonment without "apparent" abuse. Simple human nurturance costs nothing and is administered by touching, kissing, hugging, holding, listening to, smiling at, approval of and consistent discipline of the child, and allowing a child to express his or her needs, talents and feelings.

These normal human actions are as much the food for healthy emotional growth as is the food the child is given for physical growth. Without these daily, emotional growth is stunted.

Motherless Institutionalized Infants Died from Lack of Human Touch Long enough ago, the psychoanalyst Rene Spitz demonstrated that infants raised in hospitals or other institutions developed a serious depressive condition, marasmus, similar to adult grief, in the absence of their mothers. Many of these infants failed to thrive and they died.

They didn't eat because they were emotionally wounded. It was found that infants need to be held to feel that life is worth living (as if a study were needed to confirm this for the average feeling and thinking adult).

These results can be extrapolated to the toddler and older child. Every child needs holding and kissing. Every child needs to be special to someone.

Society in General, and Social Service Agencies in Particular Seem Blind to Children's Simple but Basic Emotional Needs It is sad that such a simple, common-sense condition for happy, healthy living, which everyone realizes he or she needs as an adult and which every adult knows his or her own children need, is such a hard concept to grasp and apply to the care of infants and children unfortunate enough to not have their own parents to look after them.

These caring manifestations may be largely absent in the foster care systm, but they are also sadly absent in orphanages. I know! I grew up in two orphanages between the ages of 2 and 17. And I don't remember one instance of being hugged, kissed, sat on someone's lap for a story or any other normal parental behavior toward a developing child.

No one was cruel in the usual sense. But the abuse was massive in the effect it had on my emotional development, by virtue of what was absent, all the more insidious because a child who has known nothing else, or vaguely remembers warmer care, can't grasp what is wrong and can't articulate it. And even if she could, the compassionate human response wouldn't be there.

Orphanage Caretakers Seem Unable to Open their Own Parental Hearts to Show Similar Warmth to Parentless Children Some of the people who took care of us went home to their own families after their shifts. Did they hug or show appreciation to their own children for being alive? How come they couldn't give this natural, inexpensive gift to us orphans?

Needed are Loving Families to Welcome and Nurture Parentless Children Institutions are not the answer to anything. Social consciousness and individual concern and caring for one another as valuable human beings deserving of love is a start.

Translating this into loving parental homes for children bereft of their own mothers and fathers is the goal for the individual child. The benefit to society will be psychologically mature adults able to love their own children and happy to give back to the community out of their own talents.

(c) copyright 1988-2008 Dr. Helen Borel. All rights reserved.

For permissions and rights, email me and in the Subject line type "BOREL MEDICAL SYNDICATE"

Also, I invite you to read my many articles on emotional health issues and on psychotherapy at


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      8 years ago

      Hi Helen,

      It seems we have much in common. I, too, was raised in an orphanage! I lived there from the age of 6 until I graduated from highschool. I, like you, never experienced even the smallest gesture of affection and, somehow, was able to find role models in teachers, etc. that helped me to determine that I would be exactly the opposite of those who were in charge. Unfortunately, the houseparents and other caretakers (I use that term loosely) were extremely cruel - physically, emotionally, and sexually. After 20+ years of in depth therapy I have recovered sufficiently- so as to not blame myself for my parent's abandonment and now recognize that their problems were not mine and the cruelty was not of my creation. Most people have no understanding of the loneliness and loss a child feels when totally isolated from any semblance of love. Thank you for allowing me to voice my thoughts and thank you for your site.

      Joanne at

    • profile image

      Janet Stern 

      8 years ago

      Hi, My name is Janet and I am a young 54 year old mother who is looking for a way to help nurture motherless children. I know that many children who don't get this nurturing die. I am a student at San Jose City College and have taken a lot of different psychology classes among others. I have always had a soft spot for these poor infants who don't get the nurturing that they need, just to get a step into life and they need to be held, cuddled, smiled to and talked to in the way baby's can relate to advance their communication skills. Since I have had some education in the field of psychology I think I could be a good benefit for these children. I also have a strong calling to do this. Please let me know what I can do. Thanks, Janet jmsten2001@yahoo

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      10 years ago

      Thanx, moonlake. Yes, lucky indeed. I am glad you came to visit this hub. And keep up your fine writing work too. Best regards, Helen (a.k.a. Creativita)

    • moonlake profile image


      10 years ago from America

      Informative hub. Children that have homes and families just really do not realize how lucky they are.

    • sixtyorso profile image

      Clive Fagan 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Hi Helen funny how we as human beings sometimes miss out on the fundamentals of life. I remember reading an article years ago about how infants without nuture died. I think even abuse may be preferable to neglect. But I guess that is another subject entirely.

      Great Hub Thanks for sharing thta one with us.


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