State Orphanage Remembered

Providence – How best to take care of society's dependent children has been debated for decades. Some of the history of that debate is being reviewed as part of a project reconstructing the history of Rhode Island's first public orphanage.

The Rhode Island General Assembly established the state home and school for children in 1884 on an 80 acre farm in Providence. It is now the east campus of Rhode Island College. At that time, dependent children were often sent to so called poor houses with adults or were left on the streets . Rhode Island became one of the first states in the nation with a public orphanage.

Last year the state Department of Children Youth and Families began looking for orphage records. One supervisor found three meticulously-kept leather bound books.

The records illustrate not only what life was like for many families at the turn of the century, but also how society dealt with troubled families. Rhode Island College sociology professor Sandra Enos has begun to profile the home's early residents. Most were not orphans, according to Enos. Many were taken to the state home, because their parents were deemed unfit because of poverty. About half were returned to their parents. Others were adopted.

At the head of every cottage was a husband and wife. They used to have every Friday off. I remember they used to always bring me back a chocolate, remembers Fred Morancy of Swansea, who lived at the home in the 1920's.

The center became the Patrick O'Rourke Children's Center. By the 1970's, it had become a stopover for children on their way to foster homes.

I was abused, says one time O'Rourke Center resident Deb Deshulo, I think there should have been professional counseling for these kids, who are in an environment like that. You want them to grow up to be healthy happy people, not just be giving them shelter.

WRNI'S Deborah Becker detailed the history of the home and looked at current policies in this report on Morning Edition.