The other day, somebody mentioned the classic 1938 movie "Boys Town," in which Spencer Tracy plays Father Edward Flanagan, the kindly, real-life Catholic priest who founded a home for delinquent orphans. And a question came up: Are there still orphanages in the United States? Nobody knew for sure.
Turns out Boys Town remains in business as "Girls and Boys Town" in the Great Plains state of Nebraska. It epitomizes the warmhearted orphanage that takes in abandoned, indigent and troubled kids and shepherds them toward a productive life. A more sinister image also survives, however, from author Charles Dickens's portrayal of the scruffy orphan Oliver Twist in 19th century England.
For 80 or 90 years overlapping the turn of the 20th century, regimented, often harsh orphanages were part of the European and American landscape. Usually supported by generous Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant parishioners, they oversaw true orphans who had lost both parents, as well as children of single parents who simply could not afford to keep a child at home.
Newspapers exposed hideous conditions and abuses in some orphanages. And the Great Depression of the 1930s wiped out the wealth of millions of Americans -- and thus, the financial underpinning of the orphanages they supported.
In their place came a system of government welfare payments to single mothers, placement of orphans with foster families, and modest-sized group homes for orphaned, abused, and physically or emotionally challenged children. University of Massachusetts historian Tim Hacsi estimates that, at most, 200 traditional orphanages survive in America. You still run across some of their decayed, Victorian-era buildings. And even, in towns like Danville, Virginia, an occasional, haunting pathway called "Orphanage Road."