ERIC BROUSSARD: But I do want to show you something before we head upstairs. This is pretty great. And I feel a testament to the museum's mission to preserve as much history of this building as we can.
LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: Eric Broussard is curator of the Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas.
BROUSSARD: During restoration, the contractor came to J.P. and he said there's all this stuff carved in the brick outside. Do you want me to fix that? And Mr. Bryan said absolutely not. He said these were made by the children who lived here.
J.P.—Mr. Bryan—is the museum’s founder. In 2013, he bought this run-down, Gothic-style building on the edge of the city’s historic district to house his collection of artifacts from Texas and the American West.
Before that, the building sat vacant for several years, after a short stint as a private residence.
But for 89 years before that, it was known as the Galveston Orphans Home. In early December, I met with Broussard to learn more about that chapter of the building’s history.
Half way through my tour, he led me outside, onto the back porch. It sits at the top of a long stone staircase leading to the back grounds. The children once took those stairs on their way to recess.
BROUSSARD: When they were waiting to go back in after playing, they would sit here and carve their initials or their names.
Broussard points to one name etched into the brick a few feet to the left of the door. Wimpy.
BROUSSARD: I still, I want to find Wimpy. Poor Wimpy. Every time I have a resident—former resident—here doing an interview I walk out here and I ask if if they did their initials anywhere. And some of them have. But I always ask them if they were here when he was here because I just want to know the story.
Wimpy was one of possibly thousands of children who once lived at the orphanage. It’s hard to know how many spent part—or all—of their childhood there because most of the records are gone.
That means Broussard may never know Wimpy’s full story. But what he does know tells the two most significant pieces of the plot. At one time in his life, Wimpy had parents unable to care for him. And amid that heartbreaking loss, someone stepped in to meet his needs.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of orphan care in America. But of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is Effective Compassion.
I’m Leigh Jones.
This season, we’re exploring how we care for orphans in this country and the ways God has called His people to provide help that is challenging, personal, and spiritual. Those are the hallmarks of help that really helps. Or, as we like to call it, effective compassion.
UNDERWRITING SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
About 300 years before Wimpy lived in the Galveston Orphans Home, a 7-year-old named Benjamin Eaton became America’s first documented foster child.
Like Wimpy, we don’t know much about the details of his story. According to the National Foster Parent Association, he lived in the Jamestown Colony about 30 years after its founding. And in 1636, something catastrophic happened that left him without parents to care for him.
So, he went to live with another family in the colony. That solution to caring for orphans wasn’t unique to the colonists. But it was informed by their faith.
HERBIE NEWELL: And so the early church, all the way from the very beginning of the church, was caring for orphans, was caring for widows, was caring for the most vulnerable.
This is Herbie Newell, president of Lifeline Children’s Services.
NEWELL: I think when you look at the United States, we have seen that, at the start of our country, the church was really doing a pretty good job, you know, we were much more into communities, communities of faith, were there in each of these communities. And we were looking after widows and orphans.
Back then, looking after orphans meant ensuring they had a new home, usually with relatives. If that wasn’t an option, someone else in the community would take them in. Sometimes that involved raising the children as their own. But, too often, it meant indentured servitude. That involved forcing children to provide labor in return for their room and board.
Although life then was more tenuous than it is now, large numbers of orphans weren’t a problem for the new country for quite a while. Certainly no one saw the need for an institution to house them … until 1729. That’s when Catholic nuns opened the nation’s first documented orphanage in Natchez, Mississippi—after settlers’ battles with Native Americans left a large group of children on the frontier without parents.
But it would be more than 100 years before orphanages became the primary places where America cared for children.
MARILYN HOLT: Well, it really began in the 1850s …
That’s historian Marilyn Holt.
HOLT: You know, the cities, the Eastern cities, New York, Boston, you have not only the immigrants coming in, but it's the time of the Industrial Revolution is really beginning to hit. And so you have people coming in from the countryside for new jobs in the different industries. And there's just such an influx of people. And, of course, a lot of these people are poor.
Poor people with limited resources and no social safety net. If anything went wrong, and it frequently did, they had nothing and no one to fall back on. Children who lost their parents often had no grandparents or aunts and uncles who could take them in. Enter, the orphanage.
HOLT: The orphanage is really the primary care unit for children who are destitute, who are orphaned. And a lot of these children might not be true orphans, meaning both parents are dead, they may be what was called half orphans.
One parent might still be living—usually the mother—but didn’t have the resources to care for her children.
By the mid 1800s, private charitable organizations, often with ties to the church, had opened dozens of orphanages. But the need quickly grew.
HOLT: With the Industrial Revolution, and then especially after the Civil War, there's just an explosion in growth of orphanages.
At the same time, a new social reform movement emerged to challenge the nation’s bent toward institutionalization … in everything from prisons to poorhouses to orphan asylums.
One of the early child welfare advocates was a Congregationalist minister named Charles Loring Brace—who is widely considered the father of the modern foster care movement. In 1853, Brace founded the New York Children’s Aid Society.
HOLT: He believed that home was better than any institutional setting. He would prefer that children not be in an orphanage, that they have a home life.
The society helped support poor and orphaned children living in New York City … with the ultimate goal of finding them good homes. But the cities on the East Coast had far more orphans than families willing to take them in.
So Brace started looking West. America’s orphan problem wasn’t unique. England had a similar issue—and an inventive solution.
HOLT: And so what the English were doing was actually not just shipping the children out of the cities into the countryside, but they were sending them all the way to Canada, because that's a British Commonwealth.
Using the English concept, Brace developed an organizational and logistical framework to send children from overcrowded East Coast orphanages to the American Midwest … on what came to be known as orphan trains.
HOLT: Most of them went to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, then they come into the plains states, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma.
Brace didn’t just pack kids into carriages and offload them at the end of the line. They usually traveled in groups of 10 or 20, with agents from the Aid Society to supervise them. And the places where they planned to stop knew they were coming.
HOLT: So people in this town and other towns would know way ahead of time, at least a month or so because of newspaper stories. And so people came in from all around. I mean, hundreds of people. Sometimes there were 200-300 people that came to town just to see the kids. It didn't mean they all wanted one, they just wanted to see them.
Once they arrived, the children would go straight to the local theater, usually not far from the train station.
HOLT: And they would be put up on the stage so everybody could look at them.
If prospective parents saw a child they liked, they simply claimed him—or her.
HOLT: So the kids would be selected. And the family wanting them would have to go to the local committee, because there was always a local committee that knew, people in their area. And so they would approach the local committee and the agent and say, this is who I want. The agent would give them a card and information about how they were supposed to be treated. And that was it.
Those guidelines urged the families to treat the children as their own and discouraged indenture. Still, that remained a common reality for destitute children, whether they were adopted from trains or orphanages.
From the beginning, Brace’s system faced criticism, primarily over the lack of any follow-up once a child went to a new family.
HOLT: The agents really are in a bind, because they do try to follow up with the youngest children. But imagine, you take 10 kids to like a small town, and you place them all. And then a few months later, you bring 10 more kids, and you place them all, and you have to keep visiting. Well, some of these families have come in, you know, by wagon or buggy. They may not even be in the same county. So it might take you all day just to go and visit one family.
The aid society agents relied on the local committees to keep track of the children, to know if any of them suffered abuse or ran away. But that didn’t always happen.
HOLT: And so that's a criticism that you still hear today: the homes weren't adequately investigated. The follow up may or may not have happened. And sometimes when the kids ran away, the agencies placing them just lost track of them.
Holt, who wrote the book The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America, found evidence of at least 200,000 children who rode the rails out of New England. But she estimates the real total could be as much as double that. At first, frontier states welcomed the influx of children. But soon, they started having orphan problems of their own.
Galveston, Texas, was once known as the Wall Street of the West. The barrier island along the upper Texas coast boasted the state’s first deep-water port, making it a favorite, first of pirates and later, merchants importing and exporting everything from cotton to rum.
It was also a port of entry for immigrants. And like the port cities of the East Coast, it had more than its share of orphans.
By the early 1890s, the city already had two orphanages. Here’s Eric Broussard again.
BROUSSARD: But neither one of them would accept children who weren't Christian, who had not been baptized.
That was a problem for Henry Rosenberg, one of Galveston’s most prominent citizens.
BROUSSARD: Being a Jewish gentleman, he felt the need to become part of a children's home that would accept any child in need.
After his death, Rosenberg donated $30,000 and the land to build a new orphanage. It opened in 1895. Five years later, Galveston suffered what is still the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history: the 1900 storm.
Winds from the category 4 hurricane tore across the orphanage’s prominent dome, collapsing it into the rest of the structure.
BROUSSARD: Now there were roughly 60 people, 30 kids, 30 adults who sought refuge here. They weren't all residents or workers. Some of the people in the neighborhood, their houses had fallen over, washed away. They came here. So there were 60 people who hunkered down in this building for the storm. And even with this significant damage and the ground floor completely flooded, nobody got hurt.
Those outside the orphanage fared much worse. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people died during the storm. Funds poured in from across the country to help with recovery efforts.
BROUSSARD: William Randolph Hearst, who lived in New York and to my knowledge never came to Galveston once in his life. You know, he was a newspaper magnate. So obviously he read some of the incoming stories from Galveston. And I don't know what attachment he had to this orphanage or maybe the Rosenberg family. But he held a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria. The guest of honor was Mark Twain. They raised $50,000 in one night from New York high society people and sent a check to the board of lady managers.
Orphanages were popular charitable causes, and America’s wealthy helped cover more than just hurricane recovery costs.
BROUSSARD: From what I understand they financed this place for the entire year from one charity ball. It was like the social event in Galveston. If you were anybody, you went to the charity ball and you gave money. They had auctions and raffles. I think the tickets were pretty pricey just to go.
It took two years to rebuild the orphanage. During that time, the children moved to Dallas, where they lived at another orphanage: Buckner Children’s Home.
The Galveston facility reopened in 1902 and operated uninterrupted for the next 82 years.
When J.P. Bryan and his team began to restore the building in preparation for its new life as a museum, they salvaged as much as they could of its past.
BROUSSARD: Over here we've got items that were found during restoration. A lot of toys stuffed in the cracks of walls. So many marbles. In fact, there's a newspaper article right next to the marbles. A former resident here was the marble champ.
Today, the building looks almost exactly like it did when it reopened in 1902, except that its dormitories and dining hall are now filled with museum exhibits instead of children.
BROUSSARD: So we just came up what would have been the girl stairs. The boy stairs is there. And their dorm would have been here in what is now the library.
With help from some of the last children to live here, Eric Broussard has pieced together what life in the orphanage was like.
BROUSSARD: From what I understand in all the dorms, it was exactly the same. They had a bed. They had a nightstand on one side. And then they had a chest at the foot of the bed and that's where they kept their clothes and any personal toys or belongings that they had.
Not that most of them had many personal belongings.
BROUSSARD: And so this is where they would store clothing. And when a kid came here at for the first time, or if they started out where their clothes, they would come in here with a matron. And she'd be like, Okay, try this on. And then they'd pick them out like three outfits, and from what I hear, none of their clothes ever matched. And that's how people in the neighborhood knew that they were residents of the children's home. Which was actually helpful, because there were several local businesses around here, who specifically kept an eye out for runaways, because that was a pretty common thing. Kids would decide they were just done being here. Most of them wouldn't get more than a block or two away.
The names and initials carved into the brick on the back porch aren’t the only mark the children left on the building.
BROUSSARD: This would have been the boys staircase, and if you walk up and down those stairs a few times and just look, it's so uneven, like you can just see the wear of, you know, a million feet up and down those staircases probably in a hurry, one way or the other. This was the dining room. From what we're told they had three long tables.
For the most part, the matrons kept the girls and boys apart.
BROUSSARD: This served as a common room. This was about the only place well, no, there was one other room upstairs where boys and girls were both allowed. During the holidays, they would put the tree, usually donated and decorated by the Shriners, right here in the center of the room, and then they had seating throughout.
Orphanages generally get a bad wrap. And Broussard says most of the former residents he’s talked to don’t have many fond memories.
BROUSSARD: But you know, pretty constant thing is yeah, it was kind of like being in prison. You had to eat at this time, you had to sleep at this time, you had to do this and do that. And if you got out of line you got smacked.
But none of them complained of abuse at the hands of orphanage staff. Most of the terrorizing came from fellow residents.
BROUSSARD: The staff here, at least for the most part, tried to give them as normal of, you know, a childhood as they could, given the circumstances.
The Galveston Orphans Home operated until 1984, an unusually long run. Most orphanages began closing decades earlier, not long after the orphan train whistles stopped blowing. Both fell out of favor as a new method of caring for orphans gained traction. Here’s historian Marilyn Holt again.
HOLT: And then it really begins to get momentum in the early 1900s, with the Progressive Movement. And that's when a lot of the more progressive states begin to pass laws that are at least trying to prohibit children being brought in. And then, 1920s, you see more of that and more of that. So there's an attempt to legislate this out of existence.
The spark that provided fuel for this branch of the Progressive Movement ignited in 1909. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children.
After several days of seminars and speeches, the event’s 200 delegates unanimously approved a resolution stating that children should not be taken out of their homes due to poverty. Instead, the delegates wanted poor families to get financial aid to help them support their children. States soon began passing laws to do just that.
HOLT: Sometimes they're called mother's laws, which allow widowed women to receive aid that allows them to keep their children with them.
Those laws became the precursor to the modern welfare state that really settled in during the Great Depression … bringing with it a new class of child welfare advocate: the professional social worker.
Marilyn Holt says these new child advocates were different from their predecessors, who were just doing what they thought best to remedy a bad situation.
HOLT: These are private people. They are not trained, they are acting out of a religious sense of, you know, helping your fellow man. And then, when you begin to have the development of social workers as a profession, the social welfare system being developed, it's secular. They may go into it and have the same feelings of wanting to help your fellow man, having a religious sense that they are doing something bigger than themselves. But at the same time, the training is method. And it's also tied into that whole Progressive Era, things based on science. If you only use a scientific approach to things, you can fix anything.
That devotion to the scientific method—and the removal of any emotional or spiritual considerations—put the new reformers at odds with the old ones.
HOLT: And so that's one reason that Brace and other people on his side, really became embroiled in a lot of debate and sometimes acrimonious debates, because they saw themselves being pushed aside by a system that they didn't agree with they, they believed you had to have that emotional, religious feeling behind what you were doing.
Brace and his side lost the debate. And by the mid-20th century, the secular progressive takeover of the child welfare system was complete. Here’s Herbie Newell with Lifeline Children’s Services.
NEWELL: And what we saw in the 50s, and 60s was the child protective service kind of come forward to say, we've got all these children that are vulnerable, we've got these children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, we've got kids that need help, and we need to do something, and the government took that on, and really, I believe took that role from the church, because the church had abdicated that role.
Once the government took the lead role in caring for children in crisis, Christian orphan care ministries began to expand into other areas.
Remember Buckner Children’s Home, where the Galveston orphans stayed for two years after the 1900 storm? In the decades that followed that tragedy, Buckner grew to become one of the state’s largest orphan care ministries. By the end of the 1940s, it housed about 700 children on its 2,000-acre campus on the outskirts of Dallas.
Scott Collins is the senior vice president for communications at what is now known as Buckner International.
SCOTT COLLINS: They had their own farm. They raised dairy cattle and sold produce that they didn't need. They had a bakery. They even had their own church. It was called Buckner Home Baptist Church. And probably as amazing as anything, they had their own radio station, believe it or not. So it was almost a self-contained little city.
Starting in the 1950s, Buckner began expanding in two different ways.
COLLINS: So one area of expansion geographically was more children's homes, and the other it was in the area of maternity services and adoption.
The plight of unwed mothers started gaining national attention in the 1960s, but the real watershed happened in 1973 when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion nationwide. Herbie Newell says Christians realized they had a new mission.
NEWELL: Okay, we need to help women understand what abortion is, what their options are. But we also need to walk these women through their pregnancy, and not just through their pregnancy, but who's going to be there for them on the other side of the postpartum ward. And so Lifeline came along…
Lifeline Children’s Services opened in 1981 as part of that movement to help women with crisis pregnancies. Adoption quickly became the most popular solution. Here’s Scott Collins again.
COLLINS: There was this moment that began to take place in the early 90s, where we said, You know what, God created the family. And the biblical place for a child to grow up and be raised is not in an institution. It's in a family. So it was like one of these moments where you go, you know, we need to move from warehousing children, to finding homes for children. And you began to see that movement for vulnerable children take shape, really, in the late 80s and 90s.
Christians’ emphasis on adoption eventually led them overseas, where Americans opened their homes to nearly 225-thousand children between 1999 and 2010.
NEWELL: I think for so long, I'll be honest, even I would read God's Word and look at passages like James 1:27—Pure and undefiled religion is this, in the sight of God our Father, to look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep themselves unstained from the world. And confessionally, when I would read that adoption would ring out. Oh, that's adoption. But when you really start to even look at what that means, even in God's Word, it means something, honestly, I believe, even bigger than adoption.
Eventually, influential Christians began to rethink that approach and returned to looking closer to home … where other needs had emerged.
DAVID PLATT: I chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world…
In 2010, pastor David Platt released the book Radical. In it, he told the story of how families from his Alabama congregation, The Church at Brook Hills, volunteered to meet all the foster family needs in Shelby County.
PLATT: Not just before you were born, before the world was created. God planned your adoption. Which makes sense when you think about adoption. I mean, adoption begins with a parent’s initiative, not a child’s idea…
Lifeline is based in the same area of metro Birmingham, and Herbie Newell had a front row seat to that remarkable story.
NEWELL: I can tell you it really worked, it's still really going well, and the county that they eradicated, the need for foster care still really has very little need, even today, over a decade ago, they still are doing really well.
Within the first two years of its release, Radical sold more than 1 million copies. Suddenly, churches across the country wanted to dive into foster care ministry. But as you’ll hear throughout this season, that’s really hard work. They didn’t all have the same kind of impact that Platt’s church had.
NEWELL: I think, initially you had a lot of churches like, Well, how do we do that for our county? How do we do that in our city? Instead of looking more simple at, how do we do that for one? And if every church would say, how do we do this for one child? How do we do this for one mom? How do we do this for one vulnerable family? And how do we bring the army of God around that one family, that one life?, then truly, the numbers tell you that the church could eradicate the need for foster care in our country.
Engaging with the foster care system remains a vital part of community outreach for many churches and Christian organizations. But some are branching into new areas of ministry, including support for families at risk of having their children put into the foster care system.
NEWELL: Part of the way that Lifeline got engaged with with family reunification, was through our partnership with Brook Hills in that county, because that county, all of a sudden, they had enough foster families. And so they're like, Well, now let's go address the next issue.
Herbie Newell says that doesn’t represent a change in thinking so much as a progression of need.
NEWELL: So I don't think it's that we need to take attention off of the need for foster care, it's as we put our attention on the need for foster care, and as we meet that need, then we're going to start to be able to identify other needs, that we are even I would say uniquely gifted and uniquely ready to be able to address. And so I think, again, as the church has gotten engaged in adoption and foster care, the reason you see the movement changing is because as those needs are addressed, it gives you the opportunity then to really get to the systemic problem.
Spending time in foster care is too often a generational problem. Newell says 70 percent of kids who end up in the system have parents who spent time in the system. Lifeline, and other Christian ministries, are now focused on breaking that cycle.
NEWELL: And so my hope, and and what I see the Lord doing even now is awakening his church to think back on a local level, like how do we, how do we care for the kids in our midst? So In a lot of ways, I would say, we're going back to where the roots of this movement really are, which was what the Lord gave to the local church, to local believers in Hey, as you go along, as you, as you live your life, as you do your work, make sure that you're looking out for those that are most vulnerable.
Over the next nine weeks, we will meet some of the people doing just that. From adoption to fostering to supporting families in crisis, we will talk to Christians who are living out that James 1:27 call.
FEATHERSTON: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that women are choosing adoption because they don't want their children. Nothing could be further from the truth.
LIKA: My life was completely changed from the discovering and understanding Jesus’ heart for orphans, for widows, and girls
HANNAH BOYD: I had been through a few foster homes beforehand. So I was just very, very angry. And I felt like I wanted somebody else to feel how I felt. So I kind of, took it out on others.
WEBER: If there's anybody on the planet that should believe in the ability for somebody to redeem their life, to get things back on track, to have the broken things in their life restored, it ought to be us in the church.
Next week, we’ll hear more about what adoption looks like today—its challenges and very great rewards.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Leigh Jones. I wrote this episode and am the producer. Paul Butler is our executive producer. Technical assistance provided by Rich Rozel and Creative Genius Productions.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in impoverished communities around the world. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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