The orphanage is a residential institution claiming devotion to the care of abandoned children. Yet for June Elwin, now 72, the institution she grew up in marked her childhood with pain and despair. “It was not a home. It was not an orphanage. It was hell,” she said in a November 2012 interview with CNN correspondent Anna Maria. The horrific asylums of the past should have died years ago; yet they didn’t, leaving people like June forever haunted by their memory.
The orphanage has its roots in ancient documents such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Codex Justinian. Markedly different from the modern period, ancient adoption practices put emphasis on the political and economic interests of the adopter, rather than on the child. Aristocracy took advantage of adoption as a legal tool to strengthen ties between wealthy families and create male heirs to the throne. In fact, many of Rome’s emperors were adopted sons.
Child abandonment levels rose with the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Church found itself responsible for many of the foundlings. In order to protect these orphans, the clergy found it necessary to limit the selling and rearing of the abandoned children. The Church developed a system of oblation, in which children became dedicated and reared within monasteries. This marked an important shift toward institutionalization and the establishment of the orphanage.
When welfare workers dumped June Elwin in the Home for Colored Children in 1942 when she was barely two years old, they had no idea what sort of hell she would have to endure over the next eleven years. The orphans at the institution were in charge of managing the family farm and were often held down and severely beaten when they failed to complete their tasks. Even the youngest were often forced into hard labor. They often went without food, sometimes even eating the pigs’ slop to fill their hungry stomachs. June was first raped by a staff member when she was ten. By the time she had left the orphanage, she had suffered countless sexual abuse by the institution workers, male and female alike.
The concept of institutional care slowly gained acceptance, leading to the development of formal rules regarding how to place children into families. Under the direction of social welfare activists, orphanages began to promote adoptions based on sentiment rather than work; children were placed out under agreements to provide care for them as family members instead of under contracts of apprenticeship The growth of this model is believed to have contributed to the enactment of the first modern adoption law in 1851 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The Progressive movement of the early 1900s swept across the nation in an effort to do away with the orphanage system that was becoming more overcrowded every year. Anti-institutional forces gathered momentum and adoption became more family-focused and the media began projecting a more positive view of orphanages. From 1945 to 1974, the “baby scoop era” saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family. In this environment, adoption became an acceptable solution for both unwed mothers and infertile couples.
Yet for children such as June Elwin, the horrific system of asylums and institutions had all but vanished, it was merely pushed out of sight. Though the first complaint was made against the Home for Colored Children in 1998, only recently were the 38 complaints looked into and a case built against the institution, which is still in operation today, though claiming that conditions have changed since half a century ago. Describing the relief that she felt after hearing their case was progressing, June said in the CNN interview that she “couldn’t believe that at last they were looking at us.” But for orphans and children living in institutions across the U.S. and the world alike, it may be years before justice sets them free.