Do Orphanages Still Exist?

When many people think of adoption, they think of traditional orphanages — or the negative stereotype of traditional orphanages, involving underfed and mistreated orphans crammed into a crowded children’s home.

The truth is that this view is inaccurate, at least in the United States. Traditional orphanages are largely extinct, having been replaced by modern foster systems, adoption practices and child welfare programs. While orphanages still play a role in international adoptions, these institutions are no longer involved in U.S. domestic adoptions, which now usually take the form of private infant adoption, stepparent or relative adoption, or foster care adoption.

The Decline of Orphanages in the United States

Traditional orphanages began closing in the United States following World War II, as public social services were on the rise and child welfare reformers began advocating for a formal foster care system. These reformers argued that foster care was a better alternative because of the personalized care and individualized attention the children could potentially receive in a foster home. By the 1950s, more children lived in foster homes than in institutions, and by the 1960s, foster care had become a government-funded program.

Since then, U.S. orphanages have been replaced by modern boarding schools, residential treatment centers and group homes, though foster care remains the most common form of support for children who are waiting for adoption or reunification with their families.
These programs serve all types of families and children who need support, and children enter into the foster care system for a wide variety of reasons — not just because they are orphaned. In fact, most children in foster care have at least one living biological parent.

Adoptions Today

Today, domestic adoptions primarily occur in one of three ways: a child is adopted from the U.S. foster care system, as an infant in a private adoption, or as a relative or stepchild of the adoptive parents.

  • Adopting from the foster care system: When a child is placed in the foster care system and his or her parents’ rights have been legally terminated, that child is available for adoption. Not every child in foster care is currently legally adoptable — about 100,000 of the 400,000 children currently in the system are waiting to be adopted. Some children are adopted by their foster parents, while other children are placed into adoptive families who have not fostered before.
  • Infant adoption: In a domestic infant adoption, hopeful adoptive parents are matched with a birth mother during her pregnancy, and then adopt the baby when he or she is born. These adoptions are usually facilitated by adoption agencies or attorneys.
  • Relative or stepparent adoption: In a stepparent adoption, a stepparent becomes the legal parent for his or her spouse’s child. This is the most common form of adoption in the United States today.

While orphanages are no longer a part of any of the above forms of adoption, they do still play a role in international adoptions.

There are an estimated 18 million orphans around the world currently living in orphanages or on the streets. However, not all children in orphanages are adoptable, and not all will qualify as an orphan under U.S. immigration law, which can limit the child’s ability to immigrate to the United States.

In many countries, orphanages are sometimes used as temporary homes for children whose parents are experiencing financial hardship or are otherwise temporarily unable to care for them. Adoptive parents should do careful research and only adopt from reputable organizations handling international adoptions.

While traditional orphanages are a thing of the past in the United States, there are plenty of children in need of loving, stable homes — both in the U.S. foster care system and in international orphanages.