Prairie Doc Perspective: Orphan trains and the best interest of the child

Richard P. Holm
MD Special to the Farm Forum

My grandmother, Axie Jackson Powell, died at 99 having lived a blessed yet tragic life. As a young girl she lost her father and two step-fathers to illness. Her mother, struggling to raise four children alone and out of desperation, put Axie and two of her siblings into an orphanage. Axie grew up separated from her mother.

The history of adoption is as old as humankind, with family members commonly raising children orphaned by death, war, or economic destruction. The middle ages introduced the concept of the orphanage when babies were left at the door of monasteries and were then raised within the institution of the church. But much of what the world knows about adoption, and how to protect orphans, actually stems from the orphan trains of the U.S. in the late 1800s. The American Civil War and increased immigration brought about orphanage over-crowding and resulted in huge numbers of homeless children roaming the streets of urban cities on the east coast. A group of religious leaders spearheaded a solution by shipping orphaned children on trains to the rural west.

Over the next 70 years, as many as 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children were placed on trains and sent to the farms of rural foster families in the west. It was the largest mass relocation of children to ever occur and helped establish the foster care system in America. While many lost children were introduced into families where discipline and love gave them a chance for a reasonable life, some of these children were indentured and exploited, rather than adopted, and were made to become farm laborers and household servants.

Because of the orphan train social experiment, laws to protect children from abuse were developed. The best example was the Minnesota adoption law of 1917 which required background checks for families who wished to adopt and careful follow-up after placement. This effort, to ensure the best interest of the child by encouraging and monitoring foster homes and adoption, spread throughout the country and parentless children went to orphanages only when other options failed.

Although this societal responsibility to children spread globally, families in the U.S. presently adopt more children than the rest of the world combined. That said, right now there are 110,000 foster children in the U.S. eligible and waiting to be adopted, and every year 23,000 children age out of foster care without having found a permanent family.

There are plenty of Axies out there. The gift of family by fostering or adopting is a win-win proposition.

Richard Holm