Orphan trains and the best interest of the child Prairie Doc 2-27-13

Posted February 26, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Orphan trains and the best interest of the child

My Grandmother Axie died at 99 having lived a blessed yet tragic life. As a young girl she lost her father to some illness, and her mother, struggling to raise four children, lost a second husband, and then a third. When the third husband died Axie’s mother, out of desperation, put some of her children into an orphanage, and Axie grew up separated from her family. Obviously Axie held no grudge since during a very successful professional life as a federal judge, Axie cared for her aging and then dying mother, an orphan made good.

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Richard P. Holm MD

The history of adoption is as old as humankind, with family members raising children orphaned by death, or war, or economic destruction. The middle ages introduced the concept of orphanage when babies were left at the door of monasteries, and were raised in the institution of the church.

But much of what the world knows of adoption and rules to protect orphans actually stems from the orphan trains of the United States late1800s. The American Civil War and an increase in immigration brought orphanage over-crowding and huge numbers of homeless children roaming the streets of east coast urban cities. A group of religious leaders spearheaded a solution by shipping them on trains to the rural west.

Over the next 70 years something like 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children were placed on trains and sent to western rural foster families working the land. The largest mass relocation of children to ever occur, this helped establish foster care in America and brought many lost youth into families where discipline and love gave them a chance for a reasonable life. At the same time, however, many of these children were indentured and exploited rather than adopted, and made to become farm laborers and household servants.

Because of this social experiment, the need to protect children from abuse developed and the best example was the Minnesota adoption law of 1917 requiring background checks of families with follow-up after placement. More foster homes were encouraged instead of institutional orphanages after this, and the American trend for adoption to ensure the best interest of the child spread globally.

Presently in the US, not every orphan is adopted with something like 130,000 children now awaiting adoption. Another little Axie out there needs a parent.

Dr. Rick Holm wrote this Prairie Doc Perspective for “On Call,” a weekly program where medical professionals discuss health concerns for the general public.  “On Call” is produced by the Healing Words Foundation in association with the South Dakota State University Journalism Department. “On Call” airs Thursdays on South Dakota Public Broadcasting-Television at 7 p.m. Central. Visit OnCallTelevision.com.